Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The disintegration and redistribution of the library

Back in 2005, Roland Dietz and I wrote an article called the “Disintegrating World of Library Automation.” This past week however, I realized how much this trend has accelerated.

The CNI Task Force Meeting was in Arlington, Virginia this past week (Dec 12-13, 2011) and as I sat through the various sessions, it was obvious the extent to which we are now witnessing the disintegration and redistribution of an increasing number of the functions of the library. This is not to say that those functions are disappearing, disintegrating into the bins of history, or that they will. Rather, it is to say that we are steadily watching the functions of libraries breaking into very discreet units that are being redistributed outside the walls of the physical library and reintegrated in new and highly collaborative environments where far greater efficiencies can be achieved.

  1. Virtual reference. This is now widely available from numerous sources on the web and many libraries are now shutting down their virtual reference service. In the current economic environment, given the usage statistics for library virtual reference services, it simply becomes a reality that other organizations are doing this more efficiently.
  2. Circulation. The paper book increasingly bears a striking resemblance to a dead man walking. No doubt, there are many that will proclaim this untrue. I agree it may continue to walk for another 20 years, but the trend is becoming pretty obvious. Digitization efforts and remote, collaborative storage facilities are growing. Ebooks are a major topic in the news these days. As a result, Amazon and other ebook companies continue to chip away at the edges of traditional library circulation models that serve many citizens. These new models give instantaneous delivery while all too many libraries still want members to come and pick up physical items. Library members don’t have time for that, nor will they tolerate it any longer than they must. With the rapidly dropping cost of e-readers, this technology becomes available to more and more people. Libraries are testing ebooks, but I fear by the time the sort out the related issues the other suppliers will have built significant momentum. It is clear the ebook vendors are testing out their business models at this point, frequently to the exclusion of libraries, but once they’ve sorted those models out, I fully expect to see a major ramp-up and rollout and high levels of usage. This will likely have a major impact on library circulation numbers.
  3. Acquisitions are increasingly being moved outside of the library to the library membership. The recent Charleston Conference had numerous sessions on how libraries are implementing this model. Once done, those members can initiate the order and are promptly notified by the systems when the item has been received and processed and is ready for them to use.
  4. Serials/Journals are beginning to move from a recognized name being a title that contains articles, to individual articles residing on that name as a platform. Usage is increasingly being done via rentals or sales of individual copies of articles. Again the recent Charleston Conference had some speakers showing how they were saving money and seeing greater usage of a broader range of content as a result. Coverage of this fact has been increasing in publications. The trend will continue and in it, the libraries are at best, middle-people. That alone should give us pause and cause, to stop and think.
  5. Cataloging is increasingly being done collaboratively, or by the supplier and metadata is being shared more openly. We see technology increasingly being utilized to develop and extract metadata elements and pre-populate records before being touched by a traditional cataloger. While much of this functionality will remain in existence, it will migrate to centers supporting numerous institutions (See the 2CUL project for an example ). These types of efforts will easily expand to include e-resource management, collaborative collection development, and digital preservation.
  6. Cloud computing is moving many of the basic functions of the IT department out of the library and into the cloud. Indexes, discovery tools, management systems are also smartly moving to the cloud where numerous benefits and greater collaboration can be derived.
  7. Reading recommendations are increasingly being driven by automation, as they should be given the born-digital nature of so much information and the need to sort through the vast supplies of that information to find the right information to meet the library member needs.
  8. Mobile systems. Library members now are increasingly accessing collections and information resources from mobile devices. They are having resources delivered wherever they are, at any time, on any device, from only from the library but from the many other sources they consider equivalent to libraries. Many users of libraries may never set foot over the physical threshold we know as the library.
  9. Research data and datasets are, as I’ve written in other posts, an opportunity for librarianship, but even here we must realize that we can’t afford to house these datasets or the expertise needed to understand them. Almost certainly, given the volume involved and the need for wide access, this will have to be done via some collaborative model, using cloud computing.
We’re all painfully aware that administrators, provosts, government and community leaders are starting to seriously question the value of the library and certainly the need for existing or additional physical library buildings. Many colleges and universities are reducing and/or combining libraries. We're likely to see more of this as the functions of the library increasingly disintegrate and migrate elsewhere.

So what does this mean for librarianship? In my mind, the reality of this convergence of trends and technology is that librarianship will become, for those nimble enough to re-engineer their libraries in the near future, a series of very focused value-add services and activities upon the vast reservoirs of digital information now available. (See the recent article in American Libraries, for an excellent article entitled “Avoiding the Path to Obsolescence” by Steven Smith and Carmelita Pickett to prime your thinking here). While many of these services will have massive technological underpinnings, librarians must develop new services and rethink the existing to leverage that technology and their allocated resources, or they too may see their skill sets dispersed into other departments and functional units of their organizations.

For example, while noted above that eScience offers new opportunities for librarianship, the subject and research process expertise required is specialized enough that it might easily result in those functions being better placed within the departments doing the research. Only if librarianship can develop compelling reasons (i.e. clear value-add) for these functions to bind together and reside in the library, will they do so. Clearly those reasons exist, such as metadata creation/management, cross-silo awareness, discovery expertise and much more, but we must, as a profession, move outside the walls of our libraries to actively promote those skill sets to the other departments on our campuses, so that we build awareness and demand for that value.


The disintegration of many of the functions of libraries and librarianship outside the walls of the library is well underway. Those functions will, through their redistribution, reformulation and reintegration into new highly collaborative environments, mobile devices and mobile services, provide better services. The challenge for us as librarians however, is to ask ourselves if will we have be prescient enough in this process to have clearly defined new roles for ourselves and to have promoted them well enough for their value to be understood and even demanded? Or will librarianship also disintegrate and disburse, soon to be reintegrated outside of the library in ways that ultimately leave the profession unrecognizable?

As many of you head into the next ALA Mid-Winter Conference I encourage you to focus your attention on identifying those new roles and opportunities, learning about them and when you get back to your library, implementing them and promoting them.

Librarianship is important. Let’s build upon our foundations, a new definition of it for tomorrow, that makes that importance equally obvious to everyone.