Information desk

Access to information in a changed learning environment

This article was written by Stephen Thornton
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As part of our joint 'Teaching politics and IR online: “design matters” webinar series', run in conjunction with the Political Studies Association (PSA), speaker Stephen Thornton has put together this complementary article on access to information resources.

As a result of the pandemic, though university librarians themselves have been busy trying to keep the flow of information resources going in difficult circumstances, library buildings have been sealed and the physical collections frozen. There are signs of a thaw in places; ‘click and collect’ services have allowed some books to return to circulation. However, chances are, normal service won’t resume for some time. For those attempting to convert modules designed for a pre-COVID-19 world into ones that work for our current situation, it’s tempting to believe this doesn’t matter: much content is now available online, and any gaps that remain can easily be filled by scanning or buying ebooks. This assumption is unfounded.

Scanning can help for certain articles and chapters, but copyright legislation prevents this route providing a satisfactory replacement service. The ebook ‘solution’ is equally problematic. Even before COVID-19, university libraries had increasingly been looking to ebooks as their preferred choice of resource. This has been noted by many publishers, consequently prices for digital resources have risen dramatically in recent years. Furthermore, some publishers have introduced expiry dates, requiring the repeat buying of new licences simply to allow institutions access to resources they have already paid for.

Beyond financial considerations, there are other reasons ebooks might not be available. The older the book the less likely it is to be available digitally. Not all authors agree to have their work transformed into digital form. Similarly, not all publishers are willing or, in the case of the smaller publishing houses, have the means to make their content available for institutional access. Even when they do allow digitisation, some of the larger publishers then dictate the relationship through the licencing negotiation process.

Most licences allow only very restricted, often just single, use of an ebook at any one time. This is a serious consideration for those teaching large classes when assessment deadlines might encourage scores of students to try to access the same resource simultaneously. Those setting online ‘open book’ examinations need to check the licence situation particularly carefully. Some large publishing houses did gain publicity during the lockdown by announcing that single-use licences would be upgraded to unlimited licences, but these tended to be carefully time-limited symbols of generosity. A cynic might think time-limited just long enough for institutions to become dependent on the freedom these licences provide before the next round of negotiations commences.

The take home message here is simply to work with your library as early as possible in the process of module design, and to be prepared to adapt plans in the light of likely resource restrictions. Though librarians regularly perform tremendous feats, and are the often overlooked heroes of many education institutions, they can’t magically fill the spaces left on reading lists left by the move online. Nor can they swiftly conjure a particular resource for a specific task just because – according to Amazon – it’s available on Kindle. However, this crisis does provide an incentive to look carefully at our reading lists, some of which may have grown rather unwieldy over time, and to encourage thoughtful, critical use of less orthodox resources amongst our students.


Dr Stephen Thornton is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University.

Photo by Philip Strong on Unsplash