Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An interesting environmental scan on academic digital libraries

The “New Review of Academic Librarianship” has just published (and it’s available for free download for a limited time period) a really excellent article entitled Academic Digital Libraries of the Future: An Environment Scan .

The author, Derek Law from the Centre for Digital Library Research at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow Scotland laments “it is no longer clear what business libraries are in and whey they should now interface with other parts of the organizations they serve” and he further says that librarians “have lacked the space to step back and observe it from a higher level.”

The good news is that if they take the time to read this article, he’ll provoke their thinking and help clarify what must be dealt with in the larger environment. He cites numerous reports to show what many feel, even if they couldn’t quantify it – users perceptions of libraries are radically different than what librarians perceive them to be. He tapes the CIBER report to show that researches “expect research to be easy” and that they “do not seek help from librarians” and only want to “download materials at their desks.” One of the most disturbing disconnects is when he points out that “when librarians assist users, satisfaction levels drop” because it is perceived that aren’t trying to simply help them find what they need, but are trying to show them “what is good for them”.

The article deals with the growth in digital content but very accurately points out that librarians have yet to add value to the digital content they do accumulate. Yet all is not lost, because he identifies that being a trusted brand is something libraries and librarianship needs to build upon. He puts forth two really interesting tables in the article, showing first, how many of the social networking tools can replace traditional library activities and the second table suggests how libraries can use those very social networking tools to the benefit of library users (the article is worth downloading for these two tables alone!).

Finally, the article suggests key things that librarians need to do “be at the core of any redefinition of the Library’s role”. I won’t spoil the read for you but let me say that you should grab this article and read it. It’s time well spent.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

“I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” -- Benjamin Disraeli

After my last post about e-books and e-readers, I saw a flurry of other articles and posts about the future of books, print, digital content and libraries. It’ll be no surprise to my readers that the points of view ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other.

In particular, Cushing Academy made quite a stir when they went completely digital. James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing stated in a Boston Globe article:
"When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books. This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology."
This, of course, drew all kinds of spirited responses, including some from Keith Fiels, executive director of ALA. I’m afraid I found Mr. Fiels remarks somewhat uniformed. He first indicates that e-readers and books aren’t free. To which one must of course ask, since when are printed ones free? Of course, I understand that once purchased printed books can be used by many others for a fairly low cost, at least to the library (and thus the taxpayer). But his remark seems to indicate that he isn’t up-to-date on how some of the e-book manufacturers (Sony most notably) are working quite diligently to make e-readers and e-books work for libraries in much the same way. Mr Fiels goes on to note “it may become more difficult for students to happen on books with the serendipity made possible by physical browsing.” I would strongly suggest that Mr. Fiels spend some times with students and see how they browse collections today be it music, books, photos, videos or any other digital media, outside or inside of a library. It’s done VIRTUALLY. Of course Mr. Fiels wasn’t alone in expressing concern. Many other people reacted in similar (and different) ways.

However, the reality is that this is not the first time something of this nature has happened, nor will it be the last. Back in 2005, the University of Texas at Austin, under the leadership of Fred Heath made quite a stir when they announced that they were making one campus entirely digital. More recently, the University of Connecticut at Bridgeport did something similar when Diane Mirvis converted the first floor of their university library to a digital learning commons with no books in sight (which, I might add, uses PRIMO as the centerpiece of this new digital learning environment). There are probably countless other examples.

These conversions will continue as time marches forward. Slowly, but steadily they will go on until they are no longer noted because they’re no longer newsworthy. In fact, in reading all these links, the thing that struck me was that the users of the libraries find it all rather mundane. They’re expecting it and welcome it, saying simply “it’s the future”.

The point was further underscored for me this week, when a friend and colleague, Ian Dolphin, pointed me towards the Shared Services Feasibility Study by SCONUL. While interesting reading for a variety of reasons, in particular this survey of 83 higher education institutions in the United Kingdom, showed “the strongest focus is on adopting digital solutions and electronic content to reduce physical holdings and therefore space.”

Taken in totality, all of it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes by Benjamin Disraeli, a former British Prime Minister:
"I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?"
Which is my way of saying that I hope as librarians, we will allow ourselves to be lead by those who understand where people want to go.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

e-books, e-book readers, but what about end-users?

Last week, I participated in a TALIS podcast on ebooks and ebook readers. You can find it here. It was an interesting conversation that featured many different perspectives, ranging from a librarian who is actively running an e-book program at a library, a person from Google (who discussed aspects of the Google book settlement) and other professionals representing other different technological backgrounds and experiences.

There is however, one concern I have when we gather industry people to discuss these topics. That is the fact that there is a important point-of-view missing or only slightly represented and that is the view of the end-users. While presumably, many of us on the podcast talk to end-users, directly or indirectly, and try to interpret what we believe they want, it's still an interpretation and a pale representation. For instance, I spend most of my time working with academic libraries and on academic campuses visiting academic libraries. It is not infrequent for me to hear (or read) reports that state many students use the library only as a meeting place, or a place to catch a nap and how little, if at all, they actually use the physical collection of the library (for a variety of reasons). They use digital resources, whether supplied through their library or not, but digital it must be. So, I try to represent that point of view in these forums as best I can. Yet, I think within the podcast parameters, I'm only able to represent a fragment of what I've heard from end-users.

For example, I've met more than a few students that have told me they expected to graduate without every having actually borrowed a single item from the library. Yet, I've seen these same students fully wired in that there are computers in their backpacks, iPods in their ears and mobile phones in their pockets -- all of which they read quite actively. So, reading is not the issue. We know that print will live on for a very long time in one form or another. Our printed library materials? Maybe, maybe not. I'm not at all sure students care.

Now perhaps digitizing these works will allow them to flow more actively into the environments where end-users appear to be spending more of their time and energy. That would be good. But that won't be enough. We, as librarians must also find ways to extend our value-add out there along with our library resources. That is something I think we need to seriously devote some active thought to in the very near term. More importantly, we need to hold some discussions with end-users so we make library services meaningful to them.

It's a frequent concern of mine when working with libraries, that libraries don't spend enough time talking to their end users about what it is their information needs are and how libraries might fill those needs. The most comprehensive description I've seen in the last decade was
The OCLC Environmental Scan: Pattern Recognition. Unfortunately, it is now six years old -- a lifetime when talking about the changes wrought by technology. I'm sure if this survey was updated today, we'd be very enlightened by what we would hear. Our profession needs to have these conversations more fequently, not less. Once taken, we need to listen and respond to the results. Reading the 2003 OCLC report, one is struck by how little progress we've actually made on the findings it reported. Six years later, our lives are complicated by a financial crisis. Library funding seems to be in critical condition. One has to wonder if the lack of funding could be tied to the lack of progress in meeting end-user needs? Had we done a better job there, would the financial situation be different today?

E-books, e-readers? They're here today and we're trying to grapple with the issues about what to do with them and how to use them in our libraries. Before we get too far down the path, I suggest we have some in-depth conversations with end-users.