Libraries are About Inquiry not Service

Is this our highest aspiration as a profession?

I’ve recently been having conversations with colleagues about the place of Librarians and Libraries in academia. At the Greenhouse Studios we are testing, among other things,  new models of librarianship that put librarians and all collaborators on an equal footing.

In another conversation, I said that I thought librarians had painted themselves into a corner by insisting that their core function was “service”–however that might be defined. I took the position that service was a poor defining characteristic, since if we define our value primarily in the service we provide we define ourselves as servants.

Libraries have always been much more than service centers, and originated as preservers of culture. The first libraries were preservers of culture and knowledge in a time when written knowledge was scarce and not easily reproducible.

Libraries have been evolving for centuries (Wikimedia)

Books were literally chained to the shelves to protect them from theft. With the advent of the printing press and the mass production of books. Librarians became mediators in the search for information when the amount of knowledge became greater than the ability of one person to absorb or know. The mediator role increased as the amount of information increased, librarians created elaborate finding and inventory systems, and Librarians came to be seen by themselves as essential filters between the seemingly overwhelming amount of information available and the essentially clueless researcher.

This idea of librarian as information service provider then is a relatively recent development, and was suited to a time and place where information resources were growing at a pace faster than the technology to make sense of it, requiring a human mediator. But now that, in the words of Chris Bourg of MIT “machines can read all the books,” and suggestion algorithms can work faster and more accurately than a human, hanging the future of librarianship and libraries on the ability of a librarians to create LibGuides seems to me be an evolutionary dead end.  If the era of Librarian as information mediator has come to an end, what is next?

I suggest that we return to the notion of the library as a place of inquiry, with librarians as information professionals who understand how information interoperates, how it interrelates, and how the standards of persistence and discoverability drive and validate scholarship. Libraries are places where inquiry begins, progresses, and ends in scholarship. This is what makes libraries unique and necessary in academia. Without libraries, scholarship and academia are houses built on sand.

Libraries are centers of resources (whether or not you enter them physically), centers of inquiry, centers of the creation of knowledge, and centers of knowledge dissemination.  Service is something that we do to achieve that end, but it is not the end in itself.

Note: A portion of this post forms part of a forthcoming article by Holly Jeffcoat and I in UKSG Insights

Records Management Meets Digital Preservation

Library data architecture map

At UConn Library we are involved in a project to develop a systematic data architecture, although we don’t quite use that term, which is more of an IT term.  According to Wikipedia, “In information technology, data architecture is composed of models, policies, rules or standards that govern which data is collected, and how it is stored, arranged, integrated, and put to use in data systems and in organizations.”

This definition does not address the preservation or sustainabilty aspect of data management that is central to the data curation lifecycle, but data architecture is meant to be only one of the aspects of what is called solution architecture.

Like many organizations that made the transformation from the analog to the digital world, Libraries have over the years developed multiple and sometimes conflicting solutions, systems, and policies for managing digital collections and files in their domain. These solutions  were usually implemented to solve particular problems that arose at the time, with less thought of how those decisions would have large-scale impact, often because there was no large scale impact, or there was no way for these decisions to affect other areas of the organization.  And of course external vendors were only too happy to sell libraries “solutions” that were specific to a particular use case.

As digital content became the medium of activity and exchange, systems improved and became more flexible, it is now possible, and in fact necessary, to look at our data management systems more broadly.

If we keep in mind that, at the root, all digital content is “ones and zeros” and that any system that can manage ones and zeros is potentially useful to a library, no matter where it comes from or what it is sold or developed for, then we can build an approach, or data architecture, that will serve us well, efficiently, and effectively.

How we get to that point is easier said than done. In order to get beyond thinking about the system first we need to understand the nature or characteristics of our data. That’s where records management thinking intersects with this. RM thinking assesses the needs and limits of access and persistence (or what RM folks would call retention). Based on those criterial records are held and managed in certain ways and in certain environments to meet the requirements of their characteristics.  For example, sensitive records may be stored in a more secure facility than non-sensitive records.

How does RM thinking apply to digital libraries?  The RM idea is embodied in the DCC’s Lifecycle model, and many digital archivists have internalized this idea already. Many librarians, who work more with current data, have had less of a reason to  internalize the DCC model of data curation into their work, and the model has generally only been applied to content already designated as preservation worthy. What would it mean to apply RM/Lifecycle thinking to all areas of library content?

We have been mapping the relationships among different content types that the library is responsible for in terms of six different characteristics:

  • File format
  • Manager
  • IP rights holder
  • Retention
  • current management platform
  • Current access platforms

Then we are going to look at the characteristics the content types have in common, and develop a set of policies that govern the data that has these characteristics, and only then will we look to use/alter/build/purchase applications and systems to implement these policies.

It is always difficult to separate applications from the content they manipulate, but it is essential to do so in order to create a sustainable data architecture that puts the content first and the applications second.

Our project is in its early phases, and the map linked to above is very much a work in progress. Check back often to see the evolution of our thinking.

Is the Future of Academic Libraries Like Blockbuster or Netflix?

A couple of months ago, I read an article  on the Financial Page  of the New Yorker (sorry, subscription required) called “The Next Level” by James Surowiecki, author of “The Wisdom of Crowds.” This particular article compared the fortunes of Blockbuster video stores with Netflix in the changing landscape of DVD rentals. The article had an eerie similarity to what I see happening in academic libraries and caused me to wonder if academic libraries will end up like Blockbuster (i.e. bankrupt) or Netflix (agile and successful–for now).  I thought about substituting “academic library” for “Blockbuster” everywhere in the article to see what it sounded like. For example:

“… [Libraries] the argument went, had customer expertise, sophisticated inventory management and strong brand… they’d be able to offer customers both e-commerce and physical stores–“clicks and mortar” It seemed like the perfect combination.”

I’ve heard many librarians make this argument. Oftentimes it is a means of justifying the status quo. The article goes on to say this:

“The problem– in [Libraries’] case at least–was that the very features that people thought were strengths turned out to be weaknesses. [Libraries’] huge investment, both literally and psychologically, in traditional stores made it slow to recognize the Web’s importance.”

Now many will argue that libraries were well aware of the Internet from the start and were leaders in their institutions in adopting the Web for information management and delivery. I’d agree to a point. While libraries were quick to adopt the Web as a means of delivering library catalogs, etc., they were slow to realize the transformative nature of the Web.  Yes, libraries put their catalogs online early, but remained faithful to the traditional approaches to library service until search engines and the social network overwhelmed them. Why?

Let’s return to the  Blockbuster story:

“It was because of what you could call the ‘internal constituency’ problem. The [library] was full of people who had been there when bricks-and-mortar stores were hugely profitable, and who couldn’t believe those days were gone for good…As for ‘clicks-and-mortar’ … there’s not much evidence that consumers really need a company [library?] to offer both…” since “… places like Netflix… have demonstrated the great irony that computer algorithms can provide more personalized and engaging customer experiences than many physical stores.”

This is the really scary thought for librarians, that libraries and librarians may in fact be obsolete in their current form.

Since Netflix had no investment in bricks-and-mortar physical locations, it was able to take advantage of changes in consumer habits. But, as in Blockbuster’s case, ” Netflix’s expertise in shipping red envelopes as quckly and efficiently as possible will no longer be a competitive advantage..” in the streaming video arena. Yet, Netflix has, so far, been able to hold its own and prosper in a market that is increasingly crowded and is “wide open technologically” by adapting and adjusting to the new reality.

Surowiecki concludes by saying that “Sometimes you have to destroy your business in order to save it.”  Do we need to destroy the academic library in order to save it? I think the answer is that we (librarians and archivists) must destroy the academic library in order to save it. If we don’t other interests will destroy it with no intention of saving it.

Beg it, Buy it, Borrow it, or …

What is collection building in the networked world? We’ve been having some discussions recently about “patron driven acquisition.” In this scenario, we would load metadata records about physical and electronic resources (usually books) into our library catalog that we don’t yet own, but are available from our suppliers. These records would look just like any other record in the catalog except where if would normally say “available” or “Due 9-5-2010” it would say “Under Consideration” or something like that.

If the patron wanted the book, the thinking goes, he or she would click on a button that would generate an order for the acquisitions department and the book would be purchased for the collection. As we discussed this scenario our thoughts expanded a bit.  We  began to ask the question: Why buy any book that we don’t absolutely have to buy? How about checking first to see if it was available through our consortial catalog and get it faster for the patron (and more cheaply for us) through our courier service from another library in the system? The patron doesn’t care where the book comes from, he or she just wants it.

Even more interesting is the idea of renting the book from our book supplier. We have the ability to purchase views or uses of electronic books from our book supplier that don’t charge until someone actually uses the book. Something like cell phone minutes that never expire, the deal allows us to offer access to a vastly larger number of electronic resources than if we owned them outright, and we serve the needs of our users.  Additionally, the electronic version has capabilities, like full-text searching and cut-and-paste directly to a document, that the print version does not. Since we started this program, we’ve had the unexpected behavior of patrons using the online book as a browsing and selection tool, and then heading to the stacks to check out the print version.

What does it mean nowadays to be a library and what does it mean to have a collection in this new world of published resources?  Does it mean storing a huge number of books just in case someone wants one, or does it mean being connected to a larger network that makes it possible for me to fulfill the patron’s need without purchasing a book that we will then have to process, store, and manage for the next 100 years or so? Does purchasing just-in-time access to resources fulfill my responsibility to develop my collection? Right now, it means a good bit of both, it will be interesting to see where we are five or ten years from now.

These questions have more to do with published resources than unique resources held in most archives and special collections. But, as I like to say, we try to think a little bit about everything here in the quantum space.