Friday, March 25, 2005

Oxford, et al.

I love cowboy music, and the old Gene Autry song "I'm Back in the Saddle Again" keeps running through my mind today. I've been away from the office, my e-mail, and this blog for about 10 days. I'll be back in the office on Monday, but I decided to jump in to do some work on my e-mail before then. Thanks to my wonderful assistant Susan, most of my listservs, CNN updates, daily New York Times, broadcast e-mail jokes, and other materials had been excised, but I still had about 300 items to go through. *sigh*

Last week, I gave a scan presentation at the Staff Conference 2005 for the Oxford University Libraries. I was on the agenda early in the day, and then was invited to participate in the rest of the conference. Oxford, like most other universities on this planet, is going through a number of convulsions. Funding and purpose seem to be huge challenges. The vice chancellor of the University, Dr John Hood, gave the opening address. He talked about the difference between being a"great university" and being one of the "best universities." His take on this was that being a great university is about history, what the institution has done in the past. On the other hand, being one of the best universities in the world is about performance, what the institution is doing now and in the future. He gave a pretty fearless talk and he truly set the tone for much of the rest of the day, for good or ill. (Dr Hood has been at Oxford for about six months, and spent many years of his career in the private sector. I got the sense that his ideas are, to be generous, controversial, such as can be seen in this article: "Mutiny at Oxford?")

The theme for the day was "Are They Being Served? Supporting Our User Base: Changes, Challenges and Champions." After ensuring with my host that this title was truly cribbed from the old BBC sitcom "Are You Being Served?" I used a Grace Brothers Department Store theme as my intro. Audience members over 45 chuckled charitably at my comments. But the discussions throughout the rest of the day were what really fascinated me. Electronic versus traditional materials, the definition of service, distribution of resources, conservation versus access, difficult users---all of these were topics for the day. These are some of the brightest people in our field and they are struggling with change, so that should be either reassuring or terrifying for the rest of us.

Incidentally, the speaker just before lunch was one of the best speakers on library marketing I've ever heard. His name is Antony Brewerton, and he's at Oxford Brookes University. I was scribbling notes like an undergraduate in a survey course during his remarks. One might not think of Oxford as a hotbed of library marketing, but Mr. Brewerton gives the lie to that. I even learned something during his introduction! He's also hysterically funny in a sort of Graham Norton way. If I could figure out some way to bring him to the States to do a series of programs on library marketing, I'd do it in a New York minute.

The rest of my time in England was vacation. Three plays in five days, Stonehenge, the changing of the guard, the Tower, the British Museum (which, despite Ira Gershwin's contention, has most definitely NOT lost its charm), the new Globe Theatre, the Tate Modern---I never wanted to leave. OK, I could have afforded maybe three more days there before taking out a second mortgage on my house, but it would have been worth it!

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