The changing landscape of academic libraries in South Africa from subject librarianship to functional librarianship by Reggie Raju and Jill Claassen

Restructuring for relevance: the restructuring of a South African research-led university library

The higher education system in South Africa is poised for significant change. However, that change is a double edged sword. On the one hand, there is the positive change with regard to pedagogy, rapid growth of commensurate technology, the accelerated transition to interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary research and learning; and on the other hand, there is a continuous decline in government funding. The role of the academic library within this changing paradigm is also in transition from a reactive support service to a proactive collaborative/partnership service. The library’s suite of services has to be dynamic and agile to stay relevant as techno-savvy users are very capable to fulfilling, on their own, their information needs, rendering the reference service provided by the library irrelevant. The mainstay of traditional academic librarianship is now being challenged. There is a dire need for academic library revitalization.

At the core of this academic library revitalization in South Africa is the move away from subject librarianship, which has been the bedrock of academic librarianship for decades, to functional librarianship. The University of Cape Town (UCT) Libraries has taken the bold step in developing a library structure that responds positively to the demands for library revitalization through the redefinition of the roles and responsibilities of the library and to strategically position the academic library for the future – ‘future proofing of the academic library’.

Using the seminal findings of the RLUK’s Reskilling for Research, UCT Libraries went about with the restructuring process. The first port of call was to rename client-facing section, now referred to as Research and Learning, which is now dynamically aligned to UCT’s research, teaching and learning strategy. For a staffing complement of around 80 people, there are only six job descriptions enhancing agility and flexibility. To ensure that the services keep pace with international trends, there were functional experts in scholarly communication (including open access publishing) bibliometrics, systematic reviews, clinical librarianship, bibliographic referencing and in the librarian as teacher. There is expectation that these functional experts will continually research trends in their specific areas of expertise. Learnings gleaned from the research will be shared in biannual training sessions. A typical example of growth in a specific area of specialization is the provision of a publishing service within the ambit of scholarly communication. In the last 18 months, the Libraries has published seven open books, three of which are textbooks. The Libraries is in the midst of negotiating the publishing of another three open textbooks. Colleagues assigned to the provision of the ‘library as publisher’ service are working with the developers of the software and is one of a handful of institutions world-wide that is rolling-out the latest version of the software. This transition to functionalism has provided the Libraries with the opportunity to trail and subsequently mainstream diamond open access publishing.

Given the growing expertise of the ‘librarians’, they are now in a position to offer the research communities (both academics and students) a far deeper and richer service. The move away from subject librarianship to functional librarianship is responding positively to institutional imperatives and reinstating the Libraries centrality in the teaching and learning and, research activities of the university.

Prepared by Reggie Raju and Jill Claassen