The accidental librarian

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 September, 2004, 12:00am

Barry Burton is the custodian of 1.6 million books and electronic resources from around the world.

After 31 years as a librarian at Polytechnic University, he sees one of the major aspects of his role as making the imposing facility a place of welcome, as well as study.

He recalls that when studying physics and chemistry at Britain's University of Keele, he was often reluctant to use the library. 'The staff were dragons,' he remembers.

The atmosphere at Polytechnic University's Pao Yue-kong Library is very different. Students enter eagerly.

Mr Burton, who was the foundation librarian when the library opened 31 years ago, remains in the same position today.

In 1973, he determined a welcoming service policy that would encourage students to use the library. This is reinforced today by a world of computerised knowledge and data unimaginable three decades ago.

Last year, students and staff visited the library 2.6 million times, not counting the remote links offering a 24-hour service.

The modern library is far different to the one Mr Burton once had access to - gone are the days of cumbersome card catalogues to find information.

The doyen of academic librarians entered his profession accidentally. After graduating in Britain, he went as an assisted migrant to Australia. In his new home of Adelaide he was offered three jobs: teaching in a high school, working as a chemist in a brewery or taking a junior position in the State Library of South Australia state.

He went for the books and quickly fell in love with the work, moving to Flinders University library. He was working in Uganda when he applied for the job at Polytechnic University.

When he arrived, the building was being completed, and the interior untouched. 'This gave me a wonderful opportunity,' he says, leading visitors through the 14,000 square metre library over six levels. 'It meant I could design the space as a library for use by librarians, students and academics, rather than a library designed by architects.'

After lengthy discussions with academics and students, Mr Burton went on a book-buying spree to stock the shelves of the new library.

There was a similar restocking exercise when Polytechnic was elevated to university status in 1994. By then the task of sourcing and ordering books was considerably easier; the library was an early convert to computerisation.

'One of my major efforts is to explain the library to students so they get the most out of the facilities,' Mr Burton explains. 'You don't want them blundering around on the internet looking for something which we have provided in an easy-to-find format within our own database.'

He also tries hard to facilitate academic research. 'What's on offer to academics? Lots. We've got 19,000 academic e-journals which lecturers can access. This has made an enormous change to research.'

In the recent past, even with an unrestricted budget, a university could not possibly subscribe to all academic journals. Now, they are on the Web.

Staying abreast of these changes in technology, library science and academia requires constant updating; he attends professional conferences and stays in touch by e-mailing librarian and information retrieval contacts he has made during his long tenure.

Familiarity has not made him blase. 'It's all fantastic,' he enthuses as he explains how virtually all knowledge on every topic is available almost instantly, and for free. 'This has revolutionised research,' he adds.

One well-visited site is the exam database. Every paper set by Polytechnic University since 1995 is available. Students can read exams on the same subjects set in previous years, getting an idea of the format and possible questions.

Are there any problems? He muses. 'We get some student complaints about other students using computers to play games. But as we've got a course on designing computer games, we can't ban students from using them. We've programmed a lot of terminals in the library not to access games.'

Teaching students how to make the most of the intellectual treasure trove is a constant challenge.

There is a huge amount of information on the university's own website; a design student, for instance, can look up hundreds of slides on garments or can watch a video of design award presentations from earlier years.

'The key is to making the library user-friendly, to encourage students to use what we provide,' Mr Burton says.

'To do that, we have to explain what we have, how they can find what they need to know. It's rewarding to walk through the library and see those terminals in use, to see books being read. It's even more rewarding to know our students and lecturers can gain access to knowledge whenever they want, wherever they are.'


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The accidental librarian

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