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Information Scotland

The Journal of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

ISSN 1743-5471

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February 2004 Volume 2 (1)

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

Profile: Sheila Cannell

Role definition

Sheila Cannell, Director of Library Services at Edinburgh University, on responding to changing user needs and redefining what is meant by 'collecting'.

A lot has changed at Edinburgh University Library since Sheila Cannell was appointed Acting Librarian in September 2002, on the sudden death of Ian Mowat. Sheila, now Director of Library Services, had worked closely with Ian for a long time – at Glasgow University Library in the eighties and at Edinburgh where he appointed her Deputy in 1999. She remembers with sadness the time following his death in a mountaineering accident: “I was influenced in a major way by Ian. We worked very well together. It was a very difficult time – dealing with grief and knowing that he would want the library service to go on. The senior team worked exceptionally well to consolidate what he had been doing.”

Since then, a university-wide restructuring has had a big impact on library services, a major factor in this being the development of a Knowledge Management strategy. This included the creation of the post of Vice Principal for Knowledge Management, filled by Helen Hayes, who also has the title of Librarian to the University. “The restructuring therefore is forcing us to address these issues at Edinburgh,” says Sheila. “For example, the meaning of Knowledge Management: it can mean ‘information strategies’ but we aim to take it further – to cover computing and e-learning. It also impacts on the wider business and academic processes of the university.”

Within the new structure, Sheila Cannell is still very much “running the library”. Sheila has been in the Higher Education sector for all of her career, including 10 years at Glasgow University and then the move to Edinburgh where she was appointed Medical Librarian. She has a continuing interest in partnership between the NHS and HE sectors, and indeed in partnership working of all sorts. She worked in a variety of posts until being made Deputy Librarian in 1999 and Director of Library Services in August 2003.

Her long-term aim at Edinburgh is ensuring that information provision is considered central to the University and the Library delivers what is needed. The current challenge is to re-engineer the library into becoming a digital library. “Half of library use is now electronic, yet still users have not given up what they have always wanted – so we have to re-engineer delivery to include digital as well as print.”

More prosaic day-to-day aims include working out how to rise above the detail that comes across her desk to give time to deal with the wider issues – having 300 staff this takes up a lot of time. And really getting down to the nitty gritty – coping with email. “Email is becoming a big issue – something will have to be done about it soon – perhaps speaking to people instead!” says Sheila.

For the wider HE sector, Sheila believes that a redefinition of ‘collecting’ is crucial, to mean not only collecting material which is published – print or electronic – but also collecting the intellectual output of universities. “This includes working with those creating e-learning objects – we want to make sure that these materials are reusable.” To this end Edinburgh University Library has set up the Edinburgh Research Archive – an attempt to gather material such as PhD theses, e-learning modules and anything else created by the University.

It is also impossible to ignore the issue of core funding for HE services – there is simply not enough. “We need to go out and seek alternative sources of income, whether philanthropic or project funding. We are looking to make an appointment in the library encompassing income generation,” she says. However Sheila does not believe in moaning about money. “We have to prove good value, prove we are efficient and effective – and go out and seek funding. At the same time, although we need to develop new skill sets in this area, as librarians we have to keep reminding ourselves that the core competencies of librarians – collecting and giving access to collections – are still there.”

Staff development is therefore very important to her, skilling staff to face new challenges and ensuring they are all flexible – and fulfilled. “Quite a challenge with a big staff,” says Sheila. Nor is it any good moaning about dealing with the ‘Google generation’. Sheila believes the answer is to acknowledge that Google is a very important source whilst at the same time raising the profile of what services the university library can offer. “We have to find a way of presenting the user with all the information they may want – including information collected via Google. An important role for library staff is to teach users to find information for themselves, to ensure that the signposting to online resources is good enough. Many people within the university may not understand that the digital resources they use are mediated – and paid for – by the library. There is a need for more branding as quite often users feel the information they are using comes free from the Internet.”

Within Edinburgh University, the library service has been proactive in redefining its role. And, Sheila believes, libraries of all types are now more highly regarded. “We do what we always did but in a changing environment. Ten years ago pundits were saying that libraries wouldn’t exist by now. But we do and we are doing well. We must now respond and move forward over the next ten years. I think in general there is more appreciation of the core skills of librarians – now people are even aware of the meaning of metadata!”.


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Information Scotland Vol. 2 (1) February 2004

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Last updated: 19 February 2004