Developing collection-based partnerships – Newcastle University Library, Australia

What is the University’s institutional context?

The University of Newcastle (UoN) was founded in 1965 with antecedents in Newcastle Teachers College (1949) and Newcastle University College (1951). It is ranked 215th in the world by THE. [1] The University is not one of the Group of Eight universities but is a member of Innovative Research Universities Australia, and of the Council of Australian Librarians (CAUL – the Australian equivalent of SCONUL). The University is in a small metropolitan area, serving 45,000 students.

UoN undertakes (and places an emphasis on) both teaching and research, with a range of specialised research institutes, including for Medical Research, Energy and Resources, Technology, Mathematics, Social Sciences, Creative Industries, History, English Literature, Media Studies. Research in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences is focused on these institutes. In 2019, 95% of the University’s research was rated ‘at or above world standard’. [2] The UoN’s Strategy to 2025 envisages a significant shift to digital provision and excellence in research in specific targeted areas.

Coral Black, University Librarian, is responsible for a broad portfolio of services, support and learning spaces that support students, researchers, academic staff, and the region. This includes special collections, galleries, and museums. There are four libraries, two galleries and a museum. There are nearly 90FTE staff. UoN library’s annual budget is about ASD 25m, topsliced from the University’s income. There are no separate income streams to the library as a proportion of external research income earned. About ASD 1.5m is spent in support specifically of research (information, resources, staff). The library supports the Excellence in Research Assessment (ERA) [3] process at UoN and contributes to the publication verification work. Coral regularly benchmarks the library against those of other Australian universities.

What is the ‘collaborative context’ for the University? 

One of the differences between the UK and Australia is the relative number of higher education institutions (HEIs). In Australia, there are only some 40 universities in total. Therefore, most have a strong regional focus because they are the only HEI in the area. Like HEIs in the UK, UoN competes with other HEIs for students, and though a regional university, there is a strong impetus to attract applicants from other parts of the country, as well as abroad. Similarly, the university both collaborates and competes in terms of research regional, nationally and internationally.

Data can be gathered from the assessment of online teaching programmes in information skills delivered by library staff; the library also has a virtual real-time help facility which generates transcript data for performance indicators; individual researcher consultations, group workshops and collaborative working with researchers, particularly in the health disciplines on systematic reviews sometimes provide data on where the library has supported research. The library provides a range of support services to all researchers, including a digitization lab,  and a makerspace. The library is already involved in a number of collection-based research projects. [4]

The library provides a range of support services to researchers

The library provides a range of support services to researchers. Image: © University of Newcastle (Australia). Reproduced with permission.

UoN library has begun to have conversations with researchers from humanities and social science disciplines to identify priorities for collection development that would either support existing research or bring in new research. Library staff are looking to develop distinctiveness in the collections that will bring researchers in and, alongside that, how to develop library staff to be more of a partner in that research. At the present time, however, there are more examples of librarians being involved in projects to support  learning and teaching rather than research.

Where library staff are already involved in specific research projects it is around  digital humanities, or in relation to systematic reviews or in relation to specific collections.  For example, we are currently digitising the Wollong station weather records and as such, part of a dispersed research team who are not only translating these handwritten records,but analysing trends for a developing research paper by a Melbourne Uni researcher. Another example relates to our Galleries who collaborate to provide space, curate exhibitions and support researchers to promote their research, bringing in our primary sources to help tell the story.

What skills and staffing are required for effective research?

Reporting lines for university librarians vary in Australian universities. Most universities in Australia and New Zealand have a senior (PVC and DVC) lead on research, who may or may not have oversight of the library. In other institutions it is the Provost or the COO. For UoN it is the DVC Academic.

Library support for research is a recognised strength across UON, with expertise in scholarly publishing, research data planning, bibliometrics and support for systematic reviews. It is also evidenced by the library’s key role in the ERA exercise and through initiatives such as ORCiD and open access publishing. A recent restructure has increased the library’s capacity to support researchers with better alignment between the staff supporting the core areas of research, learning and teaching. GLAMx Living Histories Digitisation Lab, with its wide community reach and engagement across faculties, aligns closely with faculty research, particularly in the area of digital humanities, to facilitate broad community engagement and impact. A dedicated team of research liaison librarians provide support across a portfolio of subjects. They are support by a research and scholarly communications advisor and a copyright advisor, as well as a digital library programmes co-ordinator. Collectively they provide all the support for anyone who is in an academic position.

The library is involved in a number of collection-based research projects

The library is involved in a number of collection-based research projects. Image: © University of Newcastle (Australia). Reproduced with permission.

There is no articulated expectation that library staff will do research although librarians are active in this space, with a focus on evidence-based practice and particularly in support of digital humanities. Having an academic background can be advantageous in places where there is a strong research focus and strong research collections. Many librarians are involved in writing papers and presenting at conferences.

There is an impetus to help research and researchers in support of the UoN vision, especially in doing impactful research and making research as visible as possible. The University has its research advantage programme and a research and innovation team that does all the work around grants and ethics, scholarships and research innovation, amongst other areas .

This is in addition to the general support that library staff provide for  researchers, such as research skills development, copyright guidance, understanding journal metrics and advice with the publication process. A key area in this respect is making sure that people have the skills and knowledge that they need. The library has just carried out a piece of work to better understand research needs now and in the future. One area of focus relates interdisciplinary research and the need to work with  external (industry) partners.  Librarians are well placed to support researchers in identifying those industry partners.

What is the future of research at the University?

Australian universities are now ‘coming off COVID’. This has resulted in serious financial challenges for the sector. A lot of delivery has gone online, and the likelihood is that this will continue, albeit in a more blended approach. There will also be less academic diversity and choice as universities strive to remain financially sustainable. There will also be much more integration with industry.

As part of implementing its current strategy, UoN will look to provide ‘support for researchers through grant development, project support and commercialisation’. [5] Post COVID, there is a problem with lack of investment in infrastructure now, though that is not necessarily the case with all Australian universities and the UoN intends to continue ‘on its upward trajectory of research excellence’.

Australian universities – and their libraries – are waking up to the fact that librarians have skills that will be useful in the future and that institutions need to make more of them, as for example with the library leading a project to develop the digital capabilities framework for students.

A big focus has been on open access, where Australia is behind the UK and Europe. The situation is starting to alter, with librarians very much the drivers of change. CAUL has been leading work on Open Scholarship and FAIR principles. UoN has developed a role as scholarly publishing advisor, working with academics to help them see the benefit of open access for their resources and their publications, which raises their profiles and that of the University, making the research more visible in the process.

This is all part of the challenge for university libraries in Australia being a real true partner in the academic process. But the rapid move to online in the wake of COVID has created new possibilities. What might have taken five years in a normal situation has taken 12 months thanks to the pandemic. There are now opportunities for librarians’ key skills to come to the fore. One big opportunity is coming from the move online. Previously, face-to-face delivery brought in small numbers to library programmes; now, there are significantly greater numbers attending. At least some of this delivery will stay online after COVID. It is acting as a ‘feeder’ for the library, and students and staff are ‘coming back for more’.

The NOVA open access repository showcases the research outputs of the staff and postgraduate students of the University of Newcastle

The NOVA open access repository showcases the research outputs of the staff and postgraduate students of the University of Newcastle. Image: © University of Newcastle (Australia). Reproduced with permission.

As academics continue to deliver teaching online, accessing library resources and library-provided research skills ‘training’, will become more embedded in their courses. The opportunity has been identified to connect the wider community of interest with special collections.

UoN library is also using COVID to push open access to information and data and how it helped the speed of vaccine rollout. Transformative agreements are also being negotiated. Will there be a need for institutional repositories? A debate is needed.

Coral Black, University Librarian, University of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia

[3] The next exercise will take place in 2023.

[4] The Store Oral History Project; The Deep Time Project; The Living Archive of Aboriginal Knowledge; Virtual Sourcebook for Aboriginal Studies project