Thursday, February 18, 2010

An inspiring vision for the future of librarianship

Last week, while in Europe, I heard a wonderful presentation by Birte Christensen-Dalsgaard the Deputy Director General of The Royal Library of Denmark. The presentation, called “Libraries in the Google Age”, brought me to a laser-like focus within the first 30 seconds when she said, “Libraries are struggling to find a way to add value…” Having personally said this so frequently that it feels more like a chant than a statement I quickly realized a kindred soul was on the stage. I was not disappointed--(unlike my experience with the recent ALA “Draft Strategy Plan” I read and commented on recently).

Birte pointed out that librarianship is “going from collections to service provisions.” (I nearly applauded right there. This is a librarian that understands what value-add to information is all about). She discussed numerous ways that librarians can provide that value-add to information, including using technology coupled with librarianship to help suggest, advise, and support users in their quest for information. However, as she pointed out, we need to use technology in order to scale our value-add to encompass the ubiquitous supply of information. Discussing methods, she talked about assigning relevance as something critical to providing quality information to users. While pointing out that the most relevant information must show up within the first two screens of the result set, she also noted that relevance is highly personal to the user. For example, a scientist typically finds the most relevant information to be the most recent, while for a historian the most relevant item might well be something quite different. Of course, she pointed out that assigning relevance in this way requires us to know a great deal more about our users than we typically do today.

Birte also looked at the issues of specialization wherein we need to use technology and librarianship to determine which of the available information resources are to be delivered to the user. Using mobilization as her next theme, she emphasized that we need to make sure our technology works with mobile devices, precisely because it is through these devices that we’ll be able to further personalize the information delivered. As an example, she pointed out that most mobile devices today have GPS capabilities; so, where the user is seeking a physical copy of an item we could use the GPS capabilities to filter down the information to that copy located nearest the user.

Returning to the question of how librarianship adds value, Birte pressed the issue of not only embracing mobilization, but broadening the scope of it by creating a tight definition for the interface utilized. By broadening the scope of the synthesized information we could also further meet the end user’s needs. Realizing that we’re facing more information, more researchers, and more knowledge, she pointed out that we’ve got to focus on creating more automated tools to handle and process information. Just as I’ve said before, she then went on to remark: we need to bring the community of users into the process of aggregating and using information. She suggested that librarians look at the Virtual Observatory as one example (See my post here, for others). She told librarians to move from merely helping users to “finding to understanding.” She was quick to point out that the “search process is also a learning process” and should be valued as such. Identifying the use and understanding of facets in the search process was an example of learning that could result from the search process.

Moving to a discussion of library services needed for users, Birte exhorted the crowd to ask themselves in the course of developing services to ask “who are we developing these services for?” The answer should be a strong guide in both how to develop the service and the features/functionality to be provided by the end product. She discussed interfaces on technology tools used in providing services and strongly made the case that “a user interface for everyone is an interface for no one.” Beyond and beneath the interface issues, she talked about digital data extensively and how we need to provide tools to make that digital data more useful to end users. Tools that allow, perhaps even encourage, users to interpret, disseminate, and work with data and to be able to place it in context. As a result, she felt librarianship would move toward providing users with “intelligent objects, not portals.” Those objects would ultimately be “able to present themselves rather than requiring intelligent systems to surround those objects for them to be presented.” Ultimately, she saw these as collections of “intelligent objects, not intelligent libraries”. Understandably, she was quick to also identify some challenges that this paradigm would invoke, including that of rights management. Like others I’ve heard, she made the case that “rights need to ride with the objects so that they can be intelligently handled.”

As Birte moved to concluding her talk, she underscored once again, the strong belief that “library services must add value to work processes and must integrate into workflows.” This was necessary because “while scarcity use to be the books, it is now time.” Excellent points and a truly inspiring talk.