Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Are librarians choosing to disappear from the information & knowledge delivery process?


As librarians, we frequently strive to connect users to information as seamlessly as possible.  A group of librarians said to me recently: “As librarian intermediation becomes less visible to our users/members, it seems less likely it is that our work will be recognized.  How do we keep from becoming victims of our own success?”  

This is certainly not an uncommon question or concern.  As our library collections have become virtual and as we increasingly stop housing the collections we offer, there is a tendency to see us as intermediaries serving as little more than pipelines to our members.  We have to think about where we’re adding value to that information so that when delivered to the user/member that value is recognized.  Then we need to make that value part of our brand.  Otherwise, as stated by this concern, librarians become invisible and that seems to be an almost assured way to make sure our funding does the same. As evidenced by this recently updated chart on the Association of Research Libraries website, this seems to be the track we are on currently:

What is our value-add (the high level view)?

Understanding where we add value to information is important. To express that, we should start with a high-level description of that value and then add detail to it.  I maintain, that our primary value-add is this: 

We help people create new knowledge by helping them find existing knowledge that is authoritative, authenticated and appropriate to their needs. We put that knowledge in context and provide it without bias.  This becomes the foundation upon which they create new knowledge.

That’s our focus, that’s what we do; we help people to create new knowledge using the best knowledge that is available.   Ok, admittedly, that’s a short, easy sentence but one that is packed with a lot of hard value. Think about what that means and how hard it is for systems, as sophisticated as they are, like Google, Bing or Yahoo to provide those things. 

On top of that core value statement, we build other services that extend the value to meet the needs of the organization we’re affiliated with, be it a community, a college or a university.  However, even while doing that we must focus and be sure we’re moving towards the overall mission and vision of librarianship.  This is critically important.

Before going further, it should also be realized this isn’t anything new. Maybe we’ve temporarily forgotten or lost it, but it isn’t new. For instance, back in 1962, Wheeler and Goldhor, in their book the “Practical Administration of Public Libraries”  told us (and I’ve updated it only by substituting the word “information” for “books” and the emphasis is mine as well): 
“The library’s functions and programs derive from the conviction that [information] is a powerful, indispensible agent for bringing enlightenment, new knowledge, encouragement and inspiration to every member of the community. … The quickest and easiest access to the world’s best thought is through the library.”  
It’s also fascinating to flip through this book and scan some of the sub-section headers in various chapters.  If you do, you’ll find things like:
“A relentless drive to dispel ignorance…” “Objective:  To serve individuals” “The Library’s Prime Educational Function” “Serve the whole community” “Understand one’s community” “The Influence of Non-Users of the Library” “PR and Publicity; An Essential Part of Administration” “PR outside the library.” “Knowledge of Community Interests”
Those could be right off any modern day library list of management issues.  My point here being that over the last 50 years our focus has apparently become blurred, if not obscured and now it is time to refocus so that members of our libraries clearly see and understand our value in helping them create knowledge.   Delivering information, in and of itself, is simply not enough.  People have access to plenty of information (and misinformation) and most of those sources used are far easier to access and use than most libraries.  So we’ve got to move to a higher level of valued services, and I submit that what I described above (and in the past) gives us a place to hang our hats.

What is our value-add (the ground level view)?

Ok, for the sake of discussions let’s agree that’s the high-level view.  The logical follow-on question becomes: How do you translate that value add statement into what we actually need to be doing in our jobs today?

The first thing to do is to step back from all the activities you do in your job and ask:  Are these activities showing, in ways that can be measured, support of that high-level view?  To quote a colleague of mine: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”   It’s a firm reminder that some people do a lot of activities only because they’ve always have been done, or to support some out-of-date need.  If those activities don’t directly tie to value statement, they’ve got to be put on a list to cease doing at the first logical opportunity.    We’ve got to boil down the internal activities of the library to just those activities that support our professional and organizational goals.  This will help us deal with reduced funding by allowing us to take the resources, money, staff and time that were being devoted to those activities where we don’t add value and reallocate them to where we DO provide value.  It will allow us to do those core activities, as well as new ones we should be doing, but didn’t think we could afford, and do them better than anyone else. Our end goal should always be to become the best at providing those particular services for our library members.  Now, what are some of those possibilities?

To answer that question with just a specific list of products would be to miss the point. Going forward, we should be focusing on more fine-grained service goals and objectives and then selecting technology that supports those goals/objectives.  For instance, in today’s (2012) environment, I think we should be focusing on providing products that support these types of services:

  1. Access to the library collections and services from any device, at anytime from anywhere. (Mobile products)
  2. Massive aggregates of information that have been selected for inclusion because of their quality by either: a) librarians, or b) filtered by communities of users through ranking systems and ultimately reviewed and signed-off by librarians for final inclusion in those aggregates. (Cloud computing products are the foundation technology here)
  3. Discovery workbenches or platforms that allow the library membership to discover existing knowledge and build new knowledge in highly personalized manners. (Discovery products serve as the foundation, but they don't yet have the necessary extensions)
  4. Easy access and integration of the full range of library services into other products they use frequently, such as course or learning management systems, social networking, discussion forums, etc.  (Products that offer rich API’s, extensive support of Apps and standards to support all types of other extensions)
  5. Contextual support, i.e. the ability for librarianship to help members understand the environment in which a particular piece of work was generated (for instance, Mark Twain’s writings, or scientific research—is this a peer reviewed publication? Who funded it and what are their biases?) is an essential value-add we provide.  Some of this is conveyed by the fact that the item is in collections we provide access to, but other aspects of this will require new products we’ve yet to see.
  6. Unbiased information. I've written about this in another post and I strongly believe we aren’t conveying the distinction we offer our members by providing access to knowledge that is not biased by constructs based on data unknown and inaccessible to them.   This is a huge differentiator and we must promote and ensure is understood.  If we do decide to use filtering technologies, and there are strong arguments this is necessary to meet the need of providing “appropriate” knowledge, then we should provide members with the ability to see and/or modify the data driving that filtering.  I’ve yet to see the necessary technology or products that provides good answers here.  
  7. Pro-active services (Analytics).  David Lankes makes the point in many of his presentations (here is one) that library services need to be far more pro-active.  He and I couldn’t agree more.   We need go get out there in front of our member needs.  Someone is up for tenure?  Let’s go to their office.  Find out what they need and get it to them.  (Analytic tools, coupled with massive aggregates of data are going to enable us to do this and a lot more.)

If we can get this list done, our value-add to information will be well underway and will become increasingly obvious to our library membership.  However, that will take a long time to permeate everywhere we need it to be understood.    So that alone won’t be enough to stop us from disappearing in our members’ eyes.  We’ll have to accompany that foundational work with some promotion and marketing so they know what we’re doing for them and where to find it.   An excellent work to examine for ideas is: “Marketing today’s academic library” by Brian Mathews.


If we do the above, we will choose to differentiate our services from those of other information providers and we’ll be seen as THE place too go to create new knowledge by helping them find the existing knowledge that is authoritative, authenticated and appropriate to their needs. They’ll understand that we put that knowledge in context and provide it to our members without bias. That’s value that our members will easily understand and fund and that will prevent us from  disappearing in the information and knowledge delivery process.