In all references to "library" below, I am talking ONLY about a library that serves solely a research community in the anti-social :) sciences: physics, chemistry, computer science, nanotechnology, biotechnology, genetics, astrophysics, ... I think you get the idea. Not a public library, not a university/academic library. It is purely total coincidence that I happen to work at a library that meets that exact description...
And no, I'm not a librarian. Former Computer Science and Physics grad student, current Enterprise Architect. As an Enterprise Architect, I worry about achieving strategic business target state, which for my organization is currently mapped out to 2010. That involves, amongst other things, considering transformational technologies that may present a risk of say, the entire organization no longer existing in 2010.
What happened was, I was considering Yet Another posting about fixing the OPAC, based on Casey Bisson's Web 2.0 OPAC presentation, but then I thought to myself, you know what, I don't care about the OPAC. I'm more concerned about full-text digital articles online rendering the library completely irrelevant.
So my previous posting used deliberately provocative language to elicit some reactions, to see what people think about this issue. I joined the librarian blogosphere because I wanted to understand how librarians think about these issues, but I often see a lot of quite safe, non-controversial, inward-looking discussions. I'm with Steven Cohen when he says
If you attend conferences, go to a non-library show. If you read trade journals, put down Computers in Libraries for one month (sorry ITI) and pick up writings from another profession. Read more than just library blogs! Get out there people. The world is waiting for you to awe them with your talents.
However, there was an unintentional consequence due to the way I categorize things in my head. When I said "pave over the library" it got read I think as "pave over the librarians". To me, librarianship and librarians are completely separate from their current physical container, the library. You could pave over the library and still have as many or more librarians providing services, just from different locations, e.g. co-located with the researchers.
My fundamental argument is more around holdings, and how they are presented. Firstly, is it true that the sciences mentioned above are article-centric? If they are, then
1. Why would I use as my primary research tool a giant physical container of lifeless, non-searchable paper articles that I have to request and wait for, rather than having live articles online that I can access instantly, with clickable linked citations, interconnections to data, and all sorts of wonderful electronic goodness?
2. Why is the library's website book-catalogue based, or journal-title-based, rather than putting full-text articles front and centre?
Also, to make it worse, is it true that science is moving beyond just articles to becoming data-centric as well? If so, where is the library transformation to data-centricity?
Here are some other ways I could have put it:
* Is digital content the iceberg that our Titanic libraries have hit? Are discussions about upgrading the OPAC just so much deck-chair rearrangement?
* Do we need a Copernicus and Galileo of libraries, to proclaim that the library not only is not at the centre of the universe, orbited by its users, but that the centre of gravity that the library orbits is actually a binary star: articles and data.
I presented a number of assumptions, and I also outlined three possible future roles for the research library.
Here are my summaries of the reactions, and my thoughts:
* publishers may go bankrupt, so you need local copies of digital and paper
Yes. But is that still the role of your library? Is the library an actively used content store, or is it an archive, the Museum of Paper? There are huge issues around archiving, and the changing role of archives in the digital world. I think that's a whole separate discussion. Is archiving your mandate? Are you set up to be truly archival? Isn't archiving about a national strategy of Information Continuity with nation-wide backup sites, plus Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe initiatives, plus printing every digital creation out on paper two or three times and storing it all in stable caves deep underground? Or the government just declares "all publishers shall provide multiple digital and paper copies of documents in escrow, to be released to the public domain upon bankruptcy".
I'm going to define the primary mandate of library for my purposes as actively serving researchers. For that reason, I'm going to arbitrarily put archiving issues out of scope for this discussion, because I think it's more about information preservation than active information use.
* Using the library in situ is still a convenient way to scan a wide variety of published material, without requiring knowledge of the vocabulary or jargon needed for searching.
Doesn't that tell us that we need websites that don't require vocabulary or jargon? What if I restate this as "our website sucks for a non-librarian user, so it's easier to come in person"?
* Research librarians act as partners by instructing and collaborating with researchers to create the most efficient and effective means of reviewing the literature.
I absolutely agree. But, this does require the researcher to WANT such partnership, about which more later (the "delegation issue").
* The research library can provide many more services than just content access. There are many areas in which research librarians and other library staff add value.
I absolutely agree. I'd like to hear about more examples of this, and about how those services are communicated to your users. One of the big gaps that I have seen is that people are often unaware of the many things their library can do for them. Also, how are you communicating about the "invisible" infrastructure activities (e.g. licensing) that may add tremendous value for users - how are you making your community aware of the "return on investment" that you're providing?
* I really appreciated the passion of the response from Christina Pikas, as well as the depth of information and ideas provided:
we are more than the sum of our collections. We help scientists, mathematicians, and engineers find, use, keep, and make new scientific information so that as an organization we can supply critical solutions to our nation's critical problems. We do this through organization and providing access to our hybrid collections of print and electronic resources -- but more importantly through our well honed research and analysis skills. We stay relevant through continuing training and networking with our customers.
My customers are some of the most brilliant people on the planet-- why should they waste their time bouncing back and forth between the various databases and digital libraries? They need to be making the world a better place and I can help them do that by efficiently finding and synthesizing information for them.
I do still feel that there is still a bit of the "delegation issue", as well as an obvious technology failing, when expert knowledge is required to uncover the value of the library's licensed digital resources.
So: The Delegation Issue
There was a great comment on LISnews that sums this issue up for me:
They NEED it... They just don't WANT it...
by Darla on Tuesday February 14, @03:49PM
I am the sole MLS, under contract, for a research organization. Every day I find more and more evidence that they desperately NEED someone to do a variety of library-related duties for them. But they don't WANT anyone to do these things for them. I'm there for a specific project (long term) and that's all. I have found things that they have been doing incorrectly, that have been effecting their productivity and dissemination of their work, and have tried to bring these things to their attention, but they just don't care. They don't care if they do it right or not.
Also there has recently been the OCLC Perceptions report, and here's another tasty quote, from "Bridging the Chasm: First-Year Students and the Library" (published in the Chronicle of Higher Education):
"The campus library may historically be the centerpiece of institutional life on college and university campuses, but many first-year students think it is largely irrelevant to their lives."
"Why walk to the library when all the information you could ever need is available at your fingertips in the comfort of your residence-hall room?"
via Towards the Information Ecology - Bridging the Chasm...
This has a lot to do with so many issues of both modern life and life transition. In our society, we often feel empowered by doing things ourselves. Lots of people used to hire advisors to manage their investment portfolios, now they do it themselves. I'm not saying they do it better, I'm saying they want to do it. In a perfect world, I could walk into a TV store, talk briefly to an expert salesperson, and immediately get an excellent recommendation of the perfect model for me. In reality world, I research the entire thing online ahead of time, because I know the salesperson at best has some garbled knowledge about HD/Plasma/LCDs that is mainly targetted at upselling me the most expensive product, plus that indispensible extended warranty. In a perfect world, university teams would teach you the benefits of cooperation, in reality world, they usually teach you to you have to do everything yourself, if you want to get a good mark.
In brief, we have a society that values individual, self-directed action, and often rewards it, over delegation. We have a society that often destroys the trust in delegation. I'm sure everyone has experience working in projects or just in day-to-day life, where you have to spend half your time trying to track down why someone hasn't done a task they said they would do.
And then after all that, the librarian steps forward to the undergrad, or the grad student, or the researcher and says... trust me, delegate your critical research tasks to me, I am trained to do it better.
Thus: The Delegation Issue.
The other thing I found very striking about the response to my posting is that I held out transformational hope: be an institutional repository, be a data centre, provide advanced research workflow services and... not a single person responded to these ideas. As I read it, the general tone was in the "we currently provide great service, we will continue to provide the same service, all will continue forever into the research library future..." No one talked about the transformational possibilities at all.
“When simple change becomes transformational change, the desire for continuity becomes a dysfunctional mirage.” The Mirage of Continuity (1999) Hawkins & Battin
Some reasons I don't think I'm crazy:
- people like Dr. Liz Lyon talking about libraries creating data-centric services for researchers
- the incredible popularity of sites like arxiv.org for physics preprints
So what I really want to bring out is the transformational challenge. Do you agree it's real? Is your library finding ways to better focus on articles and data for your researches? Are there more items in the transformational column than repositories, data and workflow?
I'm waiting here in 2010, I hope to hear from you :)
Incidentally, awhile after posting the initial article, I added a bunch of links to related postings. I have decided to put these all in a newly-created category: Academic Library Future. You can now check out the articles in that category for some of my past musings (almost all links to other people's ideas, I can't claim to be a particularly original thinker on this topic). There are about 15 postings in this category, going back to the early days of my blog in January 2005.
Elsewhere on the web:
- Open Access News - Maintaining IRs is a key part of the future role of research libraries
- DrWeb's Domain - Science Library Pad: is the research library obsolete?
- Issues in Scholarly Communication - Is the research library obsolete?
- Confessions of a Science Librarian - Poke in the eye
- Tom Keays blog - Is the Research Library Obsolete?
- LISnews - Is the research library obsolete?
- Scitech Library Question (STLQ) - Richard Ackerman [sic] On The Obsolesence of the Research Library
- IB Weblog - Forschungsbibliothek, überflüssig?
- I also made it into ERIL-L mailing list. The tale of the complexity of subscribing to that list in order to read the archived posting linking to me is too painful to recount.
- UPDATE 2006-03-03: Data Obsessed - what makes a library?