Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The approaching divide in the provision of library services…

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Like many of you, this blogger is deeply concerned about the growing divides we see in our society in the areas of income disparity, medical care and the quality and affordability of education.  These gaps increasingly create a society of have and have-nots.  As history has repeatedly demonstrated (“Qu'ils mangent de la brioche”), when this happens, the friction between those segments can eventually result in violent and ugly resolutions.   

So it alarms me when I see the same kind of divides potentially opening up in the provision of library services to the citizens of our respective societies and the students of our academic institutions.  I always like to think that libraries are the bastions of open and free access to the record of human culture and knowledge.  Yet the application of technology to that access can either create a powerful enabler, or a powerful divider, depending entirely upon how we, as librarians, select and use that technology.  Let me share what I’m seeing and you can decide if you agree there is cause for concern.  

The new cloud-computing library services platforms (LSP’s) we’re seeing emerge in the marketplace are offering some truly impressive new capabilities.  Particularly those that are what I call “true” cloud-computing platforms, i.e. those that use a common image of the software to support all customers connected to that platform and, more important for this discussion, that aggregate usage data globally for all library members connected to the libraries using these LSP’s.  The end result of this is a massive pool of aggregated data, which when coupled with analytic engines and astute data analysts, becomes a currency, a treasure chest if you will, for librarians who are willing to understand how to use this data to provision and provide library services.  Plus we’re very close to having what is called transactional analytics, which means that we’ll be able to analyze the data virtually at the same time is being captured and aggregated, and as a result, we’ll be able to act immediately upon what we find.

So what kinds of actions might be possible as a result of all this intersecting technology?  (Remembering that I’m writing from the perspective of an academic librarian).  Here are some sample ideas of things I’m chomping at the bit for my library to be able to offer our members/users:

  1. Interfacing the LSP data with the student data from other campus departments (be it IT, IS or Assessment), we should be able to do detailed comparisons of those students who used library resources in preparation for a test in a course and we should be able to determine if that provided those that did the use the library with a higher test score.  
  2. If a researcher worked closely with library staff in preparing their grant applications and then win the grant award, we’ll be able to compare them with another user who didn’t use the library and didn’t win.  We’ll begin to have some data that deserves further investigation to see if all other conditions were similar and, if so, then we have a compelling reason to show members that using the library as part of the grant writing process improves their ability to win the grant.
  3. We can do the same thing in helping to determine if the result of library usage results is higher matriculation and/or graduation rates.
  4. Our contributions to the success of faculty will be open to analysis to determine if those that worked with librarians and their subject guides or other materials librarians help prepare resulted in professors who obtain higher ratings from students for the quality of their teaching.
  5. Certainly the library will be in a much better position to help show the role of the library and librarians in producing higher scores on assessment criteria and or accreditation processes.

There are hundreds of additional possibilities.  However, to go into those in detail is beyond the scope of this post.  And I certainly agree that this short list is fraught with many missing details that will need to be added into the mix, properly weighted and assessed in terms of their contribution to the desired outcomes.  However, for discussion sake, let’s assume we can work through those details successfully.  Then let’s talk about might happen if we do.

The desired goal of all this data and analytics is to go from being a reactive service organization, to that of a proactive service organization.  In other words, we’ll be able to reach out to the library membership/end-users and show them that when they’re taking a course, if they, like others before them who achieved a top grade, confer with librarians “x” times and use library resource “y” at time points “a”, “b” and “c” then they’ll likely get a higher grade.  Furthermore, we’ll be able to provide grant-writing researchers with that same kind of proactive and predictive incentive.  

Of course, as we do this, the bar of success, across that institution, not just the library, rises for all. Success builds on success.  

The problem of course, is that as we do this we begin to create the gap in the provision of library services.  Some library members/end-users will get excellent and proactive service that will help them achieve more grant money, higher scores on tests and generally create a wealth of opportunities for them to be more successful.  

Others library members/end-users, that are at institutions without these advanced and proactive services, will start to fall behind because they aren’t being as well prepped and thus they won’t easily compete at the same level.  It’s the haves and the have-nots, only this time it’s in the world of library services.

How to avoid that fate?  The librarian today that hasn’t learned about  analytic capabilities and that doesn’t ensure the systems they’re buying are laying the foundation for this level of service are, quite simply, placing their libraries on the wrong side of this new societal dividing line.  

Installing locally mounted ILS’s, or even hosted ILS’s that aren’t true cloud computing solutions are the activities of librarians that aren’t looking far enough ahead to see the implications of what is happening in the rest of our society.  Nor do they understand how easily “haves and have-nots” can result in their libraries, and more importantly in their communities and/or parent institutions, if they don’t stay on the leading edge of this very important transformational technology shift.

As librarians, we must take it upon ourselves to continually learn, to incorporate new technology as it comes along and most importantly, to stay focused on our members and end-users needs. Technology remains a tool for us to use in addressing those needs.   

Of course, we’ll also need vendors/collaboratives who are willing to listen and engage closely with analytic engineers and librarians to understand exactly what outputs are needed in this process and how those outputs can be turned into proactive service initiatives for the library members/end-users.  

Only then will you be able to ensure your library isn’t left on the wrong side of this fast approaching divide in the provision of library services.  I'm guessing your library's member/users will most certainly want to be on the "have" side of excellent and proactive library services.