Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Perceptions of Libraries, 2010; A clear call for revolutionary, not evolutionary, thinking in librarianship

The “Perceptions of Libraries 2010” produced by OCLC is a wonderful service to the library profession. This report holds a mirror to our profession and allows us to see ourselves as our end-users see us. The newest edition surveyed some 2,229 respondents, based in the U.S. and Canada who are age 14 and older, in order to determine how they perceive today’s libraries of all types.

The resulting report should be mandatory reading for every library administrator and should, in my opinion, be seen as a clear call to action. The report shows that the environment libraries exist in today is changing so fast that most libraries are not only not keeping up, they are losing out on substantial opportunities to reshape the profession. Consequently, other organizations, services and people are now addressing those opportunities and in some instances, quite successfully. Not only that, but if one charts the majority of the data in this report and then projects the trends for the last 5-7 years into the next 15-20 years, it should cause concern for any library administrator. The call to action I see after reading this report is this: It is time for revolutionary thought in librarianship, not evolutionary thought. The days for evolutionary thinking are fading fast.

I’ll focus on what the report says about academic libraries, although the report is written about all types of libraries and the majority of the trends and perceptions reported generally apply equally across the spectrum. Let me summarize some of the key findings from this report:

On page 32 it says that in 2005, libraries had a negligible hold on one percent (1%) of users at least starting their information search at the library website. In the subsequent 5 years, that has evaporated and it is now zero percent (0%). Not only that, but most users (91%) are totally satisfied with the results they get from the search engine, finding the information trustworthy or at the minimum, easily cross-checked with other search engines or web resources. On page 40, the report points out that the majority of Americans (69%) believed the information from search engines is just as trustworthy as they would find from their library.

On page 37 the report shows that in 2005, 18% of information consumers predicted their use of libraries would decrease. In fact, twenty-one percent (21%) of 2010 respondents reported a drop in library use. This despite the fact that users believe libraries exist to provide information. Unfortunately it would appear that most users believe that information is provided via books. Libraries, it appears, over the last five years, have lost mindshare to the search engines in terms of being an online information resource.

A table shown on page 59 which reports on college students’ utilization of library activities further documents this trends (comments/numbers in parentheses are mine):

“Annual use between: 2005 to 2010
  • Research specific reference book - 81 to 56% (a 25% decline)
  • Homework/study - 80-66% (a 14% decline)
  • Get copies of articles/journals - 64-50% (a 14% decline)
  • Get assistance with research - 64-51% (a 13% decline)
  • Use online databases - 68-59% (a 9% decline)
  • Borrow print books - 66-60% (a 6% decline)
  • Leisure reading - 52-48%” (a 4% decline)

With few exceptions college student usage statistics are showing a double-digit decline over the last five years. Even in the area of research, the news is cause for concern:
“Fewer seek research help. Seeking research assistance at the library fell from 39% in 2005 to 28% in 2010. Print material declined as a source for validating information: 68% in 2005 to 51% in 2010.”
The one time bastion of libraries, reference services, are also rapidly shifting away from libraries. From page 95 (emphasis is mine):
"One of the most significant changes noted from the 2005 study was the marked increase in the use of online reference, or “ask-an-expert” services. Ask-an-expert sites (i.e., question & answer sites) have experienced a tremendous increase in use, nearly tripling since 2005. Use of ask-an-expert services is up 186% from 2005 (15%) to 43% in 2010. Ask-an-expert services are used by all age groups.”
Yet, as shown on page 95 (emphasis is mine),
Ask-a-librarian services have not taken off. Five percent (5%) of information consumers used library answer services in 2005 and 7% in 2010. College student use remains low, at under 10%. Availability of ask-a-librarian sites has increased since 2005, with an estimated 58% of libraries now providing such services (ALA, June 2010). Ask-an-expert sites (e.g., WikiAnswers) showed the largest five-year growth—a 136% increase. The frequency of use increased as well. The majority of college students who used these sites did so on an as-needed basis in 2005; now 30% search for answers at least monthly. College students are asking experts for help; are they asking librarians? Our survey results indicate that only a few are using online librarian question services—10% in 2010 vs. 8% in 2005. The number of academic libraries offering online reference services increased more than 10% from 2004 to 2008 (NCES). "
Now, take the average of today’s usage of library services from the table above (55.7%) and then total and average the declines. Then divide that by the five years represented and you get an average yearly decline in usage of library services of 2.42%. If that trend continues, usage of library services would basically bottom out in 23 years. Now granted that’s a very rough calculation and says nothing for the many other positive things going on in libraries today that the table does not cover and that may well reverse some of these trends, but it’s clearly cause for concern.

The report goes on to summarize the change over the last five years wherein end-users increasingly have pocket computers and increasingly use them to interact with information. Yet as we all know, libraries are moving slowly to address that method of access and the report shows that libraries, even in meeting users in the PC environment, hasn’t proven satisfactory for end-users. From page 52:
“Results show a decline in use of library Web sites, electronic journals and online databases since 2005. This drop is driven by a decrease in use among college students, ages 25–64. Use rates among 18–24-year-old students show a modest increase for library Web sites (53% to 58%), while e-journal use declined slightly (41% vs. 39%) and online database use did not change (30%). While the number of college students using the library Web site declined (61% to 57%), those who do so are using it more frequently—22% use it at least weekly, up from 15% in 2005.”
Librarians should pay particular attention to this extremely powerful statement on page 40 of the report (emphasis is mine):
Americans consider search engines to be more convenient, faster, more reliable and easier-to-use.
To me, this statement continues to underscore my gut feeling that as librarians, we are still trying to force users to search “our” way instead of the “their” way – and so we are losing them to search tools and devices that address their needs. The statement above details a partial shopping list of end-user needs that are not being met today by libraries. It is time to take that shopping list and address it. (Note: A product like Primo will let you do this.)

Also explored in the report is the rapid growth of social networking and how when combined with mobile device access -- be it tablet or smart phone, this is fast becoming a growing point of interaction between users and information of many types. Social networking (and texting) is rapidly supplanting email for the younger and forthcoming generations. Even older generations are spending increasing amounts of time in social network environments and Google is now losing face-time to these services. While many libraries are exploring the social network avenue, one wonders if it will be quick enough or coordinated enough across many libraries for the efforts to really make an impact for libraries.

How do we revolutionize what librarianship means?

The combination of the above facts with the increasing digitization of content, access but not ownership of content and the massive budget cuts libraries must grapple with for the foreseeable future all create a daunting task of redefining librarianship. It is time for reinvention and reinvigoration of this profession. It is time for revolutionary thought, not evolution thought.

As the Perceptions report shows us, for at least the near future and probably until the next generation of technology comes along, users will be starting their information searches elsewhere. Therefore, it seems obvious that if libraries have content they want their end-users to find and utilize, the metadata or content itself needs to be made fully accessible to the search engines. This will allow libraries to either bring the user back to their site where library services can be offered or to deliver those services through to the portal where the end-users are working. Once there, the users need to be met with a discovery interface, like Primo, when coupled with access to aggregate indexes, like Primo Central, offers them single search box access (like Google) to the vast resources of the library. I strongly suspect that libraries, rather than trying to customize the appearance of the search interface, should focus more on branding the information that is delivered through whatever device and software the end-user utilizes. Ubiquitous access is here. End-users are device agnostic. The library resource interfaces offered need to be viewed by librarians with a critical eye to ensure it is an interface that meets end-user needs for consistency, simplicity, speed and ease-of-use. We must purge our interfaces of terminology that requires a library degree to understand. The question we have to ask ourselves given that information, access and devices are ubiquitous: Are the services of our library equally ubiquitous? The Perceptions report answers that question, but we clearly need to work towards changing that answer before the next update of this report.

Change is not a word librarians embrace. Yet we must. Technology will continue its march. Jack Plunkett of Plunkett Research, a firm that studies global trends, says “
Technology will move ahead more in the next twenty-five years than it has in the last one-hundred years.”
In other words, change will continue to accelerate and while technology is only a tool for librarianship, it is a tool available to both librarians and our end-users. In order to keep up librarians need adapt to rapid change and evolve with it. That will be a multi-step process but it can't be a multi-decade process. Library administrators will have to lead this change and make it a priority. Applying revolutionary instead of evolutionary thought to this will mean re-evaluating everything we’re doing in the library today. If a service or activity can’t demonstrate clear value to the organization the library belongs and to the end-users it serves, the funds allocated to it must be repurposed to something that does show clear and documentable value. If there are better workflows that can be performed to achieve tasks, they need to be implemented (Alma will be a vehicle that will support this). Tom Sanville of Lyrasis is publicly quoted as saying:
“Any thing done commonly, must begin being done in common.”
I agree with him. Cloud computing based products like Alma will enable libraries to do this.

Implementing all of these things will require leadership to encourage librarians to immerse themselves into the communities they serve and understand the real needs of those users. It will require library administration to find the funds to send staff to conferences (not just library conferences..) and to enable them to have time to meet with users outside of the library. The librarians that staff our libraries need to become externally rather than internally focused. They need to become learners and listeners, not linear and lecturing about how to find and utilize information. We must meet the end-user on their terms, delivering information to the interface of their choice, at the place, time and format of their choosing.

There is an excellent new article in the latest issue of Library Leadership & Management (Vol. 25, No. 1) that talks about a management approach that would enable some of the above to happen. It is well worth reading.

I doubt any reader of this blog will disagree that librarianship is important. However, what the Perceptions report shows us is that there is an increasingly large disconnect between the perceived value and importance of that work as seen by librarians versus how it is seen by end-users. Libraries will not disappear soon. However, the trend towards the collections they serve their end-user being increasingly digital, available through many different access portals and truly ubiquitous is revolutionizing information access.

Librarianship must also be revolutionized to be equally ubiquitous.