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Academic Library Services in Strange Times

Under the very difficult and unprecedented circumstances brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic many publishers and e-resource aggregators have opened up, or are giving free access to, academic electronic resources including e-books, e-journals and other sources until the end of June 2020. 

Good news for Universities, libraries and online courses?

Head of University of London Online Library Dr Sandra Tury isn’t so sure. 

Written by Sandra Tury and David Baume |

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Free access to academic electronic resources including e-books, e-journals and other sources until the end of June 2020. Good news for Universities, libraries?

Under the very difficult and unprecedented circumstances brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. Universities, colleges and indeed schools have been forced to move all their teaching online almost instantaneously. Academic Libraries across the world are all working hard to maintain student support services and access to the necessary teaching, learning and research collections. In response to this, many publishers and e-resource aggregators have opened up, or are giving free access to, academic electronic resources including e-books, e-journals and other sources until the end of June 2020. 


While this could be good news for Universities, libraries and online courses, Head of University of London Online Library Dr Sandra Tury isn’t so sure. In conversation with CDE Fellow Dr David Baume she explains why.

Sandra: “The University of London Online Library has been wholly digital, online, since 2001. We are one of the few, possibly the only, and anyway very likely the oldest, wholly online academic library in the world. The Online Library, with a relatively small team of professional librarians, provides online access to approaching 100 million items for the some 50,000 students on University of London Worldwide programmes. As a short-term measure, major academic publishers and aggregators are providing free online access to core textbooks and other academic resources until June 30th. Until the same date the UK’s Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) has raised the proportion of a book that can be copied for students from 10% or 1 Chapter to 30% or 3 chapters. That sounds like good news, and it will be useful for supporting students on face-to-face courses – as we used to call such courses! These students can return the print equivalents after the lockdown. But it is little help for online courses, which are designed and produced over a year or more in advance.” 

David: “Why?”

Sandra: “Because the course materials, on-line activities, and sources, are written and curated to support students effectively and efficiently throughout their studies and as they work towards the course outcomes. Book chapters and individual academic papers are selected, purchased, catalogued and made available for students in close consultation with curriculum designers and teaching staff. So temporary schemes aren’t much help. It is just not practicable to build into current courses access to materials not previously selected, access which will end in, currently, two months. However, these schemes do show that publishers can be flexible around service and price. Which is encouraging. One of the hardest decisions that libraries and course teams together have to take is – how many individual licences for each core textbook should we buy, within a budget stretched to its limits for core provision alone.”

David: “I’m not sure I fully understand.”

Sandra: “OK, this is how it works. If a book has ‘unlimited’ access, it means that all registered students and faculty can access the required reading anytime, anywhere. This mode of access is suitable for distance learners and other part-time students who require maximum flexibility, because they are often juggling study with work and other family commitments. However, if the book has a limited access licence such as 1 or 3 simultaneous users, then only one student or 3 students can use the item at a time. (This is like a physical library, where, once an item has been borrowed, it is unavailable to other students until it has been returned.) Unfortunately a number of publishers still have this outdated model in place for a number of their core textbooks. Imagine a scenario where these core textbooks are opened up to students, and then locked up again after June 2020? This would mean that students could no longer access the book whenever they need it. As happens now, they may have to queue for several hours to gain access to the item. 

And it gets worse. If a book becomes available, a student is often sent an email. If this email arrives in the middle of the night, or at another time that is not convenient to the student, and they can’t respond in time, then they may have to join the queue again. In other words, opening up collections is great as long as libraries can continue to provide these resources to students beyond the pandemic. Withdrawing them would not be great for the student experience. The situation is a little easier for online courses like ours, where students are in many time-zones around the world. But there are still peaks – London, Islamabad, Singapore… So, selecting the right readings, with the right access licences, is fundamental in Online Library provision, and in in Distance Learning in general, where maintaining a great student learning experience is critical and ensures that independent learners are able to complete their Degree Programmes.

Licences are not cheap. For example, If a 1-single-user book license costs £50, and is required for a programme with 500 registered students, the library would spend £25,000 on 1 textbook alone, annually. We’d welcome some long-term flexibility from publishers on this. We understand that publishing is a business. But their business model makes it challenging for those of us offering on-line courses around the world.”

David: “Sandra, your comments about curation of course resources, the close selection of books and even chapters, of individual academic papers, prompt a thought. For their work and further study after they graduate, graduates surely need to be fluent in the selection and critical use of a wide range of published information. But, if we confine them to a tightly restricted paddling pool, so to speak, how do they learn to navigate the wide oceans of information?”

Sandra: “David, I think that’s a longer conversation for another day when I can tell you about our innovations in information literacy training. Meanwhile, thank you for joining me as an advocate for wider access to core readings so we can continue to change the lives of all our students, many of whom come from developing countries”.

David:  “A pleasure. And I look forward to it!” 

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