Thursday, April 8, 2010

Time’s a-wasting – we need a new organization to articulate a new vision for libraries.

The recently announced “Research Libraries, Risk and Systemic Change” report is an interesting read.

For me, the report confirms what I’ve been feeling/saying about libraries and the value proposition they represent to users and those who fund them. It’s not good. This is reflected in its rating as a high-risk issue. The report also points out (page 9) that user satisfaction is linked to a lack of understanding of user needs. Nonetheless, the report ranks the issue itself only as medium-risk, and I would take some exception to this myself. But overall it’s clear that these institutions see and understand there is a real problem here that needs to be addressed. In the Risk Cluster Observations on page 12, it’s very interesting to note the observations recorded:
  • “Alternative service providers in the network are providing a more compelling research environment and support tools.
  • Our current value proposition can’t compete with the alternative service providers.
  • Our users have noticed this.
  • We’re continuing to rely on the old success metrics.
  • The university has now also noticed the disparity.
  • We haven’t yet responded (with an aligned strategic plan).
  • Our internal competitors for dollars are winning.
  • We can’t get other funders to help.”
That’s a depressing list. Of course the question is: what will be done about it? We'll get back to that in a moment.

I was also alarmed that the issue of “digital content being lost as a result of it not being properly managed and preserved” is only considered a medium-risk issue. I can only assume that this means when the issue is seen as of minimal importance when placed in the context of ALL the other issues we have to deal with in these challenging times. Given the fact that the average ARL institutions is buying $6M worth of digital content every year, not to mention all the digital content and research data being created locally, I have to say this indicates to me a continuing need for education about the risks involved in preserving digital content for future access. The fact that it is considered a “medium-risk” issue means it will become a critical risk if we don’t get in front of this problem.

The section on “Strategies for Mitigation” is where the report starts to address how to deal with these and the many other issues identified in the report, but it seems to me that it too quickly steps into the nuts-and-bolts of the solution without first identifying how to deal with the far more critical issue: developing an aligned strategic plan. We have limited resources, as this report points out in several places. We have numerous competing priorities. We have complicated funding scenarios, often tied to extremely narrow objectives. Until we can articulate an overall plan wherein we focus those resources, objectives and funds, anything we do is going to be diffused and further debilitating to our overall success.

Finally, in the “Epilogue” the report identifies the most critical issue (page 19):
In the absence of organizations within the U.S. library community that can address strategy, operational requirements and implement change on a system-wide basis, some bolder institutions are implementing action plans at the local or regional level fueled by the fiscal imperatives of the current dire economic times.”
It continues:
“This is heartening but likely to be inadequate. Most institutions continue to direct resources in traditional ways towards operations that are marginal to institutional and national research priorities, towards processes and services that are ignored or undervalued by their clients and towards staff activities that are driven more by legacy professional concerns than user needs. To properly respond to the risks identified here, research libraries need to come together around an action agenda aimed at improvement of the research enterprise they serve. Incremental revision of traditional operational models will only hasten the movement of important new research services to other entities within the academy, leaving the library with only the vestigial values of its book- determined legacy.”
That’s a very powerful couple of paragraphs. Can we do this just as suggested? I personally think we need a new organization to do it. ALA is apparently too large and too bureaucratic and thus unable to do this, although many would argue it should. OCLC could have a role here, but it’s continued multiple personality existence (are they a vendor, are they a competitor, are they a cooperative, are they a partner, are they a collaborator or are they all?) hinders their ability to effectively meet this need because they can't bring together all the necessary people and organizations that will need to play a role here. This is a big, complex task and will need resources, structure and considerable focus. Yet, somehow it must happen.

Time’s a-wasting. The profession needs to find a way to deal with this problem. Soon.