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Gaining access to academic libraries: To swipe or not to swipe…

Right now I’m  a “Visiting Scholar” (that’s what they are calling me at any rate, so I have graciously accepted this title!) at the School of Information and Library Studies (SILS) at University College Dublin . This will be from July to December of this year.

Being in Ireland brings me in touch with academic libraries here. Firstly, my work with SILS is facilitating this, and secondly academic libraries are just a place I like to visit anyway. One of my own personal research goals for this year’s sabbatical was to earn a deeper appreciation of the differences between academic libraries in Ireland compared to Canada. Already I’m learning from the way they do things here. Or in some cases, no doubt, observed differences are there for good reasons, and reflect differences in higher education structures or cultures that should be respected and honoured.

I’m going to post several times on this theme. But I thought I’d start by commenting on one difference I’ve noticed so far, with a few reflections on this.

There may be exceptions, but from my knowledge and experience of Canadian academic libraries, anyone can visit them, in terms of being allowed to enter their doors.

In Ireland, I am yet to visit an academic library which does not require those entering to provide proof that they are legitimate library users and have some form of library card or university/college ID. This used to involve a manual check by a security person at a lot of academic libraries, but generally nowadays students, faculty and others with requisite ID must swipe their cards when they both enter and exit the library. There are often provisions to offer access to alumni, community borrowers  etc., but they need to get some form of library card  before they can enter the library’s doors.

I’m sure many pros and cons could be discussed but I thought for me these are the key points on each side of the debate:

To swipe…

Statistics, statistics, statistics. On a visit to one academic library in Dublin, the librarian told me about the useful statistics you can get where students, faculty etc. are required to swipe their ID cards on entering and exiting the library. Not only do you get a gate count, as we do at York University Libraries, for example, as well as information on what time people entered, but you also know who they are, what program they are in, what year they are in, whether they are an undergraduate or graduate student, or an alumnus, or a faculty member, etc. Basically the library benefits from a wealth of information linked to the user’s university or college record. And you can keep a log of when people leave, e.g., obtain insights on the duration of library visits. And I must admit I thought that data could be mighty useful in informing development of library services, and in identifying user groups, where more outreach needs to be conducted.

Or not to swipe…

Freedom of access to information is the bottom line for me here.

While I’m a huge believer in the importance of assessing what we do at academic libraries, and I see the value the swipe statistics could add here, I don’t think that this can come before the fundamental principle of libraries facilitating freedom of access to information for all, in so far as it is possible for them to do so. Of course, the vendor licenses for many of the e-resources academic libraries purchase, explicitly state that they must be used by registered students, faculty and staff only. And many academic libraries in Canada and elsewhere are requiring some form of ID before visitors are allowed guest access to library computers.

But when it comes to entering an academic library’s doors, keeping barriers to a minimum is arguably desirable. I like to think that academic libraries are there to educate, inform and inspire not just those who are teaching, researching or studying there, but also alumni, researchers from other universities, community users etc. Academic libraries in Ireland, do make provisions, for this kind of user and others to have access to their collections, don’t get me wrong! But first they typically require one to get a library card.

Might eliminating that step be best? I can’t help thinking that if, for example, a community user, is instead allowed to enter an academic library, at will, he/she will feel more inclined to not only go there in the first place, but also to return. Just that ability to enter, without having to first prove his/her right to have that access, has the rather appealing outcome of immediately being able to browse the book stacks, find a spot to read within the library space, and even consult a reference librarian. Indeed, maybe said community user has always been curious about their local academic library, and decides to just pop in, scope it out, and leaves with the feeling that he/she very definitely want to come back, and get started on a pet research project that he/she has been pondering for a while. And maybe that leads him/her to go back to university or even start university education for the first time. Arguably a less likely outcome in a scenario where he/she has to apply for a library card (which very likely involves a fee) even to be able to enter his/her local academic library’s doors.

2 Responses to “Gaining access to academic libraries: To swipe or not to swipe…”

  1. I’m glad you are writing about this Sophie, as I have thought about access to academic libraries for years and still not decided upon what I think is the “right” policy. Ideally I agree that there should be freedom of access for the reasons you state but my hesitation in supporting this is based on three major concerns. One is that in our library at least, and I suspect in many others, there are often not enough spaces and/or resources for our students and we have an obligation to support our students first. The second concern I have is that our license agreements for our online resources limit access to current students, faculty and staff and we have an obligation to ensure that we honour our agreements with our vendors. There are obviously ways of ensuring that visitors do not have access but then are we not discouraging them from using our libraries. My last concern is that unfortunately not all visitors to our libraries come with education on their minds. I am referring to the escalating theft of personal property within our libraries. Having experienced a month of escalating thefts of laptops, wallets, and cell phones which we know are attributable to visitors to our campus, I am concerned about the loss and the impact on the students who have lost a year’s work when their laptops are stolen.

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