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.

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