Stephen Thornton, Cardiff University14 April 2021


A blog based on a talk delivered at the Wednesday 31st March 2021 PSA Teaching and Learning Network Roundtable ‘Twelve Months of Teaching Online: What Works and What Doesn't?’ as part of the PSA Annual International Conference 2021.

It’s Spring 2021 and, though academic libraries are still not able operate in the traditional fashion, our worst fears have not been realised. Inventive workarounds have been found for most problems. Various systems with names like ‘Click and Collect’ have kept much library material circulating. Despite widespread rationalisation of reading lists, I’m not aware of any Politics/International Relations modules having to be pulled through a lack of availability to sufficient books, journal articles, etc. In short, while some physical library doors have been closed, services operating behind those doors have remained tenaciously open.


However, not everything in the garden is rosy. There are, as I see it, two broad areas of particular concern exposed by this period of pandemic. The first is a growing problem regarding the cost and availability of ebooks, particularly e-textbooks. According to Anna Fazackerley – in a piece with the pointed title ‘Price gouging from Covid: Student ebooks costing up to 500% more than in print’ – the pandemic has exacerbated the situation whereby ‘some students are now reading what is available or affordable, rather than what their tutors think is best for their course’.1 Though the picture is uneven, with a few publishing houses proving sympathetic in the crisis, it’s not an accident a campaign called ‘#ebookSOS’ has started with the aim of highlighting questionable practices by some academic publishers.2 This problem is unlikely to improve once the pandemic has subsided.


The second issue is, perhaps, even more significant. Harried by Covid, many universities have successfully created a learning environment in which students (and staff for that matter) don’t physically need to go to the library. Indeed much, sometimes all, the required reading matter for students to perform well in terms of getting a good grade on their module is handily available at the click of a mouse. Which is all fine and dandy within the closed environment of a university. But then what? Does this closed, protected, privileged information ecosystem actually help prepare the student for what awaits beyond the sanctuary of the campus?


Just before the pandemic Alison Head and the team at Project Information Literacy (PIL) published a fascinating report based on over a decade’s research at various colleges throughout the USA.3 One of the conclusions was that, on balance, such institutions do a pretty good job at cultivating an information environment which enables students to write pretty good traditional academic assignments. However, Head argues, this does not prepare students well for the ‘real world’, a world that’s not centred on the expectation of easy access to relevant (and costly) information in order to perform a series of well-defined tasks.


This disconnect between the academic world and the real world is growing wider because of technology, not least the arrival – boosted by the pandemic – of automatic reading list systems such as Leganto. As one UK university website advertising this service puts it:

Your reading lists made easy! Leganto Reading Lists is an interactive, student facing reading list system that allows academics and administrators to build lists for students and manage, edit and update them in one place.4


Obviously, in terms of accessibility, devices such as Leganto are marvellous – essay-writing lifesavers in some cases. But there is a price to pay. All the information for most university assignments is there on a plate and helpfully checked as reliable; no critical skills required. Really just needs to be tied up with a pretty ribbon. Outside this ecosystem of course, the information world is feral; the information consumer has to fend for themselves. As another PIL contributor, Barbara Fister, puts it, ‘canned classroom situations don’t necessarily transfer to more complex realities.’ 4 And the result, according to Fister, is not simply that many former students become annoyed and frustrated to find their academic skills next to useless outside the peculiar environment of an academic institution  but also that this mismatch helps to foster a society more suspectable to the types of conspiracy theory that fuelled the attack on the US Capitol back in January.


The pandemic has shown the steely resilience of academic information services, but it has also highlighted wider issues about the very nature of university education that need to be addressed, and soon.




  1. Fazackerley, Anna (2021), ‘“Price gouging from Covid”: student ebooks costing up to 500% more than print’, The Guardian, 29/01/2021, available at
  2. LSE Blog (2021), ‘E-Textbooks – scandal or market imperative?’, 17/03/2021, available at
  3. Head, Alison, Fister, Barbara, and MacMillan, Margy (2020), Information Literacy in the Age of Algorithms, Project Information Literacy, 15/01/2020, available at
  4. Imperial College London Library Services (2021), ‘Leganto Reading Lists’, available at
  5. Fister, Barbara (2021), ‘Lizard People in the Library’, Project Information Literacy, 03/02/2021, available at

Click here to find out more about the PSA's Teaching and Learning Network. If you'd like to support the PSA's work please consider becoming a member of our organisation today! Or make sure you renew your subscription when the time comes.