Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why and how librarians have to shape the new cloud computing platforms.

Photo property of iStockPhoto.
At the ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim, I gave the keynote talk at the NISO Update Session.  (It must say something that the fire alarm went off just as I concluded the talk, emptying the Anaheim convention center.  Either the talk inspired smoking hot ideas or I went down in flames. Or perhaps it was actually just an overworked popcorn machine.  In any event, it made for an memorable conclusion. :-)  

My goal was to give attendees some thoughts about how important it is that they  participate actively in the shaping of the new cloud-computing platforms which are are emerging from a number of organizations, including OCLC, Ex Libris, Serials Solution, Innovative and Kuali. I stated that the main reason for our participation as librarians is simply this: So we can ensure the value of librarianship is contained within, and amplified by, these new technological foundations

There were three key points I talked about us doing in order to accomplish this. They were:

1.  The mission and values of librarianship have to be embedded in the software you’re using.  Now, first this requires us to agree upon, to some degree, what is our mission? There is a much-discussed about this topic in today's environment and there is no shortage of opinions.  

R. David Lankes says: “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities”. Really, that’s a great, simple and inspiring statement. 

I also like this one by T. Scott Plutchak, Director of the Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences at U of Alabama at Birmingham: “We connect people to knowledge. We bring people together with the intellectual content of the past and present so that new knowledge can be created…. This is what we have always been about.” 

It's important to note that he’s absolutely right in making that last point. I went back to a library text book by Wheeler and Goldhor written in 1962 and it says: “The library’s functions and programs derive from the conviction that books (knowledge) are 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.” 

Now all of those statements sound pretty compelling if not inspiring.  So given the lofty mission of those statements why are libraries struggling so hard today? My feeling is that as librarians, we’ve lost our focus. We’ve let the technology, the collections accessed and even our buildings define us. And that has been very, very unfortunate for our profession. 

This is being compounded by a couple of other factors. They include: 

The entry of equity investment.  While an entirely expected and logical step in for businesses serving our market, the result in my opinion, has been that this has resulted in many of the companies that provide our technology platforms becoming refocused in ways that are not advantageous for libraries.  For instance,  I’ve pointed out in some of my other talks/posts the very obvious fact that libraries are NOT a rapidly growing market.   Over the last five years the average annual growth of the market has been around 5%. That’s not a big number. So for companies with equity owners looking for higher growth objectives, it means they must either acquire their competitors (which will limit choices within the market) or they must look for revenue in adjacent or different markets. And we’re seeing that happen. The inevitable consequence of this will be that that their focus on understanding and representing libraries becomes diluted. 

Equity investment also represents a different flow of the profit made by these technology firms.  Typically, it means the profit goes to areas outside the profession of librarianship rather than staying internal to the profession as can happen with collaboratives or open source software. Now, does this mean equity investment is bad? Not at all, they bring distinct value to the table. However, for you to decide what is best, you need be aware of the differences and align your organization's mission and values accordingly.  Check my blog post on equity investors to better understand these aspects. 

Directly related to this, we have to be aware of the likelihood of “disruptive innovation”, i.e., the likelihood that we’ll be replaced by companies and technology that comes from outside our field. For instance, in academic libraries, we’re seeing firms like Pearson, McGraw Hill and in public libraries firms like Amazon and others who are moving to offer end-user what they call library services directly to professors and to end-users. So, for us to preserve and promote our value as librarians, it’s time to get back to our core mission and make sure it's embedded in the technology products we use. We also need to step back and realize what others are doing better than us in meeting end-user needs and thus we should leave those areas to them.  Meanwhile, we need  to find new places for us to add value that is consistent with our mission. I’ll mention some specifics later. 

Here was my second key point: 

2.  Defining our future is a task of participation, NOT representation. I can’t emphasize this one enough. If you want to be sure the core mission and values of librarianship are properly designed into the products you use, you have to be part of the process. Do NOT leave it to others to represent you in this process, because ultimately, they have to represent their interests, not yours. 

Furthermore, if they’re not trained in librarianship (and increasingly the leadership of these technology firms are NOT) the result will be diluted librarianship. Some of the existing ways to participate include working in the area of standards development (yes, I know, it can be slow and tedious, but it IS important!).   NISO is a great place to do this and has work underway in the areas of Demand Driven Acquisitions, the New Bibliographic Framework, SIP and NCIP, ERM and Open Discovery Initiative along with many others. 

We also need to be involved in demanding and specifying standards covering API’s (see my blog post on API's for more about this) and the ability to migrate data into and out of cloud-computing environments and at reasonable costs and in reasonable time-frames. 

All of these things can and will play key roles in shaping the new platforms being built and we need to ensure they’re done in a way that creates a good platform for the promotion and provision of librarianship based services. But that will only happen if you’re at the table. If you’re not, for all the reasons I’ve already cited, it’s not likely to happen. 

Other places you can participate are in: 
  • focus groups, 
  • development partnerships, 
  • usability testing, 
  • conferences and certainly by 
  • reading, researching and contributing to our professional literature. 
Yes, I know, your days are already packed, but remember we're talking about our future here. We make time or we'll be finding new jobs.  (I'll give you some thoughts on how to make time below).

Participation however, is not performed solely in the area of the vendors or organizations whose products you use or plan to use. It is also done through “radical collaboration” between libraries. Now Libraries are already good collaborators. However, because we lack a clear national statement of the mission of librarianship we’ve got a diffusion in our focus and resources that results in creating silos and competition where cooperation and collaboration are needed. 

Jim Neal, when he spoke on Radical Collaboration at the Future of Academic Libraries Symposium a year ago (2011), identified some areas that would benefit from radical collaboration, and just I’ll mention a few from his list: 
  • “Advancing a repository network 
  • Developing the National Content Licensing Program 
  • Creating a national strategy for website and content capture and curation 
  • Developing a National Preservation Strategy for analog, digital, etc."
I’ll add to that list cloud computing.  One of the real benefits of us moving to cloud computing is for us to build enough critical mass to make our data driven services worthwhile. When we move towards true cloud-computing solutions, where data from all participating libraries can, with their permission, be shared and utilized with other institutions, it enables us to drive analytics, recommendations, reviews, reference and long-tail based services in meaningful ways for our library members. This also means when we're buying cloud computing platforms, taking a close look at the number of libraries using it. Consider it a powerful multiplier of your ability to provide excellent librarianship-based services. 

At the same time, a worrisome trend to watch for as we see these new cloud computing platforms develop, is the desire of the organizations providing them to cast a net around us, to lock us into silos that will make it far more difficult for us to: 1) quickly move or migrate in adopting new solutions as they come forward, 2) integrate the best solutions together, 3) avoid being locked into content silos where choices are made for us, but not by us.  We’re seeing this played out on large scale by companies like Amazon and Apple and we’re seeing a lot of troubling signs of the same thing happening within our profession in some of the new platforms and services being developed. 

Rich suites of easily used API’s (see the blog post mentioned earlier on this topic), open discovery interfaces and content features that are not locked to a specific supplier, but instead to the content they enhance, are things you should demand before signing contracts. 

My final key point in the talk was this: 

3.  For our services to have value they must offer differentiation. Organizations succeed by carefully analyzing those they serve and taking a broad view to get an understanding of where those end-users can get their needs met and therefore, where their organization fits.  It is important to realize in some areas, there are organizations that are going to do some things better than us and we simply can't compete with them and we should stop trying, it's a waste of our resources..

What we have to decide is what are our “core” services, i.e. what is it that we do that creates differentiation that leads to our being the preferred source of a knowledge/information service  for our users? Because these core services are what sustains our organizations, this is why our jobs exists, this is what we do. Everything else we do, while maybe very important, is “peripheral” service. It’s obviously related to our core but it doesn’t have to be done by our organization. It only needs to get done, so look at having it done outside of your organization.  (Cloud-computing can offer a lot of assistance in several key areas in doing this.) 

For us to move forward in doing new things, we have to squeeze and extract from this periphery the money, time, people resources they consume and redirect them towards our core services. That place is where we add value, where we create differentiation and thus value for our members. 

So, what are some new things we could do along these lines? Consider these ideas: 
  • We have to provide knowledge creation platforms, not just knowledge discovery platforms. This means providing tools to make it easier for the user to take existing knowledge and build new knowledge. To copy text, pictures, videos or sound recordings into a new work while automatically handling copyright clearance and/or creating the footnotes and bibliography. Tools that allow us to reach beyond the research and use a variety of analysis tools to work with the data behind the research, to create our new works using standard tools and to seamlessly feed the results of our efforts into the open access processes for review, publication and further distribution. 
  • We need to provide contextual support, the ability for library members to, when they’re working with existing knowledge, easily understand the environment in which it was created, the funding sources behind it, and to be able to say, through our technology: “Show me an opposing point of view, or show me other critical commentary on this view” We don’t want to place our user’s in a “filter bubble”, we want to place them in a “learning bubble” a place above biases, above unspecified and un-modifiable filtering. 
  • Our services also need to pay a lot more attention to the users needs and experiences. This is another place where aggregation of data about users, their lives and where they are in the continuum of their life can be used to help us know what they’ll need and when they’ll need it. Like so many business sectors, we need to use this data and analytics to provide our members with better, customized and very pro-active services. Because if we don’t do this, businesses will provide it direct to our end-users. Our future rests in providing unique services that our users want, need and value. 
I trust you'll find some of these ideas useful.   These are, to my way of thinking, really important steps for us to take. Why?  To answer that I want to borrow another quote from  T. Scott Plutchak the Director, Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences, University of Alabama, Birmingham when he says:
“While the great age of libraries is coming to an end, the great age of librarians is just beginning.”
These new cloud-computing platforms are the technological foundations of that great age of librarianship. They're going to let us define new and better librarianship based services that will truly give us the capability to differentiate ourselves from other information end-user services.  

Let's participate in making sure these new cloud computing platforms are not only a foundation, but an amplification, of the mission of librarianship so that our value in the days ahead is clearly understood.