After engaging in discussions with academic librarians from Scotland, New Zealand, and Florida, we are now returning to the United Kingdom – this time to England – for this week’s instalment of our interview series “Academic Libraries on Intellectual Freedom and Change”.
As in previous weeks, we have invited another esteemed information professional to talk about the ever-evolving landscape of librarianship in an age where the free exchange of ideas seems increasingly challenged. Fiona Greig, University Librarian and Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the University of Winchester, graciously shared her experiences and insights with Linda Bennett of Gold Leaf.
Linda Bennett: Fiona, thank you very much indeed for sparing the time for this interview. I know how busy you are!
Fiona Greig: Always happy to help.
LB: Please describe your role as a librarian and tell us a bit about the University of Winchester.
FG: I began my career as a librarian but see myself as an information professional. I stand at the junction where the university, the library, I.T., and media combine. If people are expected to “read” it – whatever it is – it is my responsibility.
The University of Winchester is primarily a teaching university, strong in the social sciences. It has a long history – it started out as a teacher training college. It now aspires to being the anchor university for our region. By this I mean we work closely with the disadvantaged – people from a Roma background, students who as children were cared-for, those whose education has been disrupted.
LB: Disinformation and misinformation are a real battleground in the pursuit of knowledge. Have you implemented specific educational programmes or initiatives to help library users critically evaluate information sources and distinguish between reliable and unreliable content?
FG: Yes – we work in partnership with our Academic Skills department on this. Personally, I have a big concern about what people perceive as the “golden age” of academia – a mythical period of perceived reliable resources, which I would date from the 1960s to about the year 2000. This feeling that there was a core corpus of trusted content at that time is false – for example, the media have always been biased. Whether what was published was “right” was never challenged previously. Agreed, there’s a lot more stuff out there – it’s good and bad. I often get so-called freedom of information requests from journalists trying to embroider articles – yet in information literacy journalism is considered a credible source.
“I would fundamentally disagree with the premises made in 80% of the content in my library, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to weed it out.”
As a university, we address this by helping our students to think critically – to read a variety of views and then consider “what do I think about this myself?” We are at the centre-point of that Western language – English – that went out across the world over several centuries. The whole concept of “disinformation” brings me back to the question “what is truth in the first place?” Social media has always been around – it’s just that it’s technologically-driven now, so there’s more of it. Therefore, we don’t put warnings on content, we help people to explore it in a safe context. We want to be the conduit to help our students understand the world, not wrap them in cotton wool. I would fundamentally disagree with the premises made in 80% of the content in my library, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to weed it out.
LB: Does your institution have a formal policy concerning the use of Artificial Intelligence? Do you yourself have views on how AI should or should not be used?
FG: Our policy for AI is just emerging. We want to help people realise it’s just another tool. Used wrongly, it’s no better or worse than getting your Mum to write your essay – in other words, cheating. Tools should be used to gather information, not to cheat or behave badly. Do I ban MS Word and its spellchecker? No, although they’re often wrong from an English grammar perspective or actually help improve writing skills (something that is a learning outcome in our courses). AI is useful if it is used appropriately.
LB: Most universities now encourage the recruitment of students from diverse backgrounds, and you have said Winchester specialises in this. How has it affected collection development and the kinds of resources you recommend?
FG: As I’ve mentioned, we have a higher-than-average proportion of students from a Roma or cared-for background. We understand this and we assure them that we collect materials about their heritage. Our students have specific short-term and long-term concerns. They are studying for a degree because they want a job that requires one – and society needs them to do those jobs. They don’t want to leave with a debt they can’t pay back, so they are struggling to get a good degree. Our role is to reassure them, but also to show them the art of the possible. We need to engage with them, listen when they describe their learning styles. We must accept that they’re studying for a degree, not necessarily for a profound love of the subject, but as a means to an end. It is a different – and equally valid – way of approaching academia.
Often in the library, we’re asked if we have “books to read”. What people mean is, do we have books to read for pleasure. We tag these books separately in the catalogue so that readers can enjoy reading outside their discipline. These aren’t just novels – they can be self-help books, books on how to prepare your food, manage your money. This collection includes Manga and other illustrated novels. At certain points in the year we will give it a boost. It helps people to find themselves.
LB: Can you share any specific instances in 2023 where the deployment of unusual or unorthodox learning resources and/or the freedom to read was celebrated in your library?
FG: The library does not celebrate this sort of thing. We did carry out a major review of the books for reading for pleasure and offered a prize for saying “which book made the most difference to me”. We also ask for recommendations for the next reading for pleasure collection boost.
LB: Building on Barack Obama’s message about the power of books, can you share examples of how literature has influenced leadership or personal development within your academic community?
“The concept of great literature doesn’t work for everyone. The literature that works for you is what you should explore.”
FG: It’s hard to say, because literature is a very private thing. I’ve never sat down and asked a student or colleague “which book most inspired you?” Every book, every person you meet leaves you with something. Our Vice Chancellor is an English graduate – I think many VCs are. I read a lot, but I’ve never read the “great” works unless forced to at school. The idea doesn’t work for me. For exams, I would tend to read texts back-to-back in a very short time. The concept of great literature doesn’t work for everyone. The literature that works for you is what you should explore. Once you start accepting other people’s views, society’s moral judgements come into play – and you have to think about what they’re based on – centuries of a certain way of looking at things.
LB: The modern teaching and research landscape is both complex and dynamic. Do you see your role at the library as an agent for change?
FG: I think that the librarian as an information professional has become invisible. The concept of what a librarian is used to be different in different sectors. I started as a Civil Service librarian, where the question asked was “what is the value of a library?” When I moved to academia, it became, “of course we need a library,” closely followed by “what have you done for me recently?” Now I think library patrons in all sectors are reverting to the Civil Service question. And I’m sorry to say this, but the big commercial publishers have been partly responsible for creating this situation, because they overcharge for content that is underused – in the UK, only 6% of library content. And library space is underused, but high quality study spaces are valued. Students find information that is easy to get to. This diminishes the value of any information professional. We need to rebalance – and to come back as information professionals with a different mindset. I am lucky that I have a strong voice at my institution, but it is because I am the CIO, not because I am the University Librarian.
LB: Fiona, huge thanks for all these insights.
[Title image by onurdongel/iStock/Getty Images Plus]