Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why are cloud computing and web services so important to the future of libraries and librarianship?

We recently completed a series of regional meetings for Directors, during which we met with close to 600 senior level library administrators. One question that was posed to the attendees for roundtable discussion was:

“How do you see the value of librarianship being sustained and extended in the future?”
The variety of answers was enlightening, but I want to focus on just one cross-section of answers in this post that were very common across most of the meetings. This category of answers involved face-to-face interaction with a librarian. For instance, librarians’ serving in various capacities in the classrooms was a very common answer or librarians being assigned to various courses to conduct support work, for example, or to write LibGuides or other course specific support tools.

When the various presenters brought up these ideas, I’d pose two questions back:
  1. How do you plan to scale up and support it on the campus?
  2. How do you deliver this kind of service across the Web given that so many course attendees are increasingly remote?
Not surprisingly, the answers to those two questions were not easily formulated. Especially in the current economic climate in which libraries are forced to function.

As if to answer the questions I asked, I recently came across a presentation from October 2010 by Donald King and José -Marie Griffiths entitled: “The Future of Academic Librarians: A Ten-year Forecast of Librarian Supply and Demand”. It’s a fascinating, yet very sobering presentation that underscores the problem I was trying to highlight with my questions.

The problem is this: We’re facing a severe shortage of Academic MLS Librarians. King/Griffiths presentation, on the last slide, summarizes the situation (not all points are listed and the emphasis below is mine):
  • “5,850 MLS librarians received degrees in 2008-2009
  • ~4,500 took jobs in libraries
  • Of the 4,057 MLS grads that were hired in 2006, 1,380 were hired in Academic libraries
  • Demand for all MLS librarians is 62,320
  • If the supply remains constant, the demand fast outpaces the available supply
  • The Academic MLS librarian workforce could be in dire straights.
This data (if, like me, you agree to substitute “could” with “will be”) provides answers to the two questions I posed in the meetings. That is, we can’t plan the future value-add of librarianship using existing or new face-to-face service models. It can’t be done because we’re going to run out of the sheer human resources to do it.

It can, however, be done using a different model. That model is based on implementing cloud computing and web-service tools that deploy the value-add of librarianship right next to the vast information services now available to everyone. Wherever and whenever they use them. Here are some examples based on what we’re doing here at Ex Libris:
  1. bX recommendation service for scholarly articles. I’ve said many times that what makes this product so exciting to me is that we’ve taken the SFX log files, data largely unique to libraries, and mined it to build a data set we can process with analytic tools in order to develop recommendations. bX then takes those recommendations and allows libraries to deploy them across the web and potentially to any device, be it a smart phone, tablet, a personal or organizational PC. So a process that formerly required an end-user to interact directly with a librarian has been captured and automated in a way that now makes it scalable and widely deployable across the Web. This is a perfect example of the kind of tools we have and will continue to develop in order to make librarianship and the work we do important to end users.
  2. Discovery services, such as a hosted Primo with the Primo Central Index, are another example. Products like these are truly scalable, web services that can be embedded in Facebook™, Blackboard™, Sakai, and numerous other places. They are again examples of putting the library and librarianship added value right where the users are located.
  3. Alma, our unified resource management product that is in early releases now and scheduled for general release next year, will also substantially move forward this kind of value-add librarianship. While Alma is designed to manage the backroom operations of print, electronic, and digital collections and provide workflow consolidation. It will also, as a cloud computing web service and through data-in-the-cloud and related analytic analysis, result in data-driven decisions that allow libraries to be more efficient and effective in responding to end-users needs.
Are cloud computing and web-services the end of person-to-person library services? Does this kind of technology replace librarians? No. Anyone worried about that has a far too narrow view. There will be face-to-face library services for a long time. However, as the data above shows, if we continue on the path we’re on, more and more people will never experience librarianship, nor assign any value to it. That, in turn, will mean a decline into obscurity for librarianship.

If we leverage the librarian/human resources we have and will have, take the skills of librarianship, re-engineer them in ways that we can encapsulate and deploy them across the Web to all the virtual places where users can enjoy their benefit; the future of librarianship will be far more vibrant. Librarians will be needed to embrace, implement and help develop and enhance this kind of technology to ensure that happens. Cloud computing and web services, such as these from Ex Libris, will help make this an achievable goal.