Posted on April 9th, 2010 5 comments
A couple of recent events got me thinking about differences and similarities of public and academic libraries in the digital age. I used to think that current and future digital developments would in the end result in public and academic libraries moving closer to each other, but now I’m not so sure anymore. Let me explain how this happened.
On April 1st I attended the UgameUlearn 2010 symposium organised by Delft University Library and DOK, “The library Concept Center“, a public library. Two of the speakers there were David Lee King, Digital Branch & Services Manager at Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, and Michael Stephens, Assistant Professor Library and Information Science at Dominican University. Have a look at David’s and Michael’s slides.
A week before that I had the opportunity to see Helene Blowers speak at DB Update 2010 about “Reality check 2.010 – 5 trends shaping libraries“. She is Digital Strategy Director for the Columbus Metropolitan Library and the inventor of 23 Things. Also John Blyberg was there, Assistant Director for Innovation and User Experience of Darien Library, another well known innovative public library. He presented SOPAC, “the Social OPAC”.
The central topic of the presentations of these four people, all working for, or mainly dealing with, public libraries, was and is “connecting with the public“, both in material and digital ways: by creating inviting, welcoming and collaborative spaces, both in physical library locations and online.
What particularly hit me was the fact that David Lee King’s official title is “digital branch manager“, meaning that the library’s online activities, or web presence, constitute just another branch beside and equal to the physical branch locations, which has to be managed as one front office in a coherent way.
Judging by all four people’s job descriptions and presentations, public libraries appear to be very much involved in improving user experience (UX) and web presence. How is this in academic libraries? I think it’s different. I started to think that university and public libraries are moving in different directions the day before UgameUlearn, when I participated in the final session of a brainstorming and discussion track about the future of the library, more particularly of the Library of the University of Amsterdam, the institution I work for. Some of our conclusions are:
- 90% of the university library’s material will be digital
- Physical library buildings will disappear
- Library tasks and services will be more closely tied to the university’s core business, education and research.
Only the Heritage and Special Collections departments will still have lots of physical books, journals and other objects, and become a separate museum-like entity. I think they should have a look at Michael Edson‘s UgameUlearn slides about the efforts that are being done at the Smithsonian Institute to engage their audience.
The “digital branch” concept was not identified as a separate development in the future of the library discussion, probably because effectively we will see separate branches developing per subject area. Currently, at the Library of the University of Amsterdam, managing the Library’s web presence is the shared responsibility of the three main central divisions: Acquisition and Metadata Services, Public Services and Electronic Services, and a number of Faculty/Departmental Libraries. Still, the digital branch idea is an interesting concept to investigate, at least for the short term. But at university libraries a digital branch should extend its tasks beyond user experience alone.
Anyway, the day after UgameUlearn Helene Blowers, David Lee King and Michael Stephens were guests in the live stream show “This week in libraries”, organised by Jaap van de Geer and Erik Boekesteijn, both DOK, and also two of the four UgameUlearn organisers.
I took my chance and asked them the question: “What should a digital branch in an academic library look like? Different from public library?” If you’re interested, you will find the question and answers towards the very end of the stream.
Helene, David and Michael agreed more or less that there probably isn’t much difference, that you should ask your community what they want, and that, just like with public libraries, every community has different needs. A clear distinction is that in universities there are three groups of customers: students, faculty and staff, with somewhat different needs. University libraries should at least support the learning process, for instance by creating spaces for collaboration.
Since then I had the chance of giving this some more thought, and I came to the conclusion that there are probably more differences than similarities between public and academic libraries. Not in the least because Aad Janson of the Peace Palace Library commented (in Dutch) that their library is an academic library too but without students and scientists. This made me realise that there are several different types of libraries, distinguished by a number of important characteristics (audience, subscription, collection type, funding) that influence their position in digital developments. I have tried to compose a, definitely not complete, summary of these library types in a table. I guess the Peace Palace Library would qualify as a “research/scientific library” in this classification scheme.
local community voluntary local, mostly physical subscriptions, public (local) National
national, global voluntary national physical + digital public (national) Research/scientific
specific professions, students voluntary local physical, remote digital pubic, private Museums/archives global community voluntary local physical + digital public, private Special explicitly defined voluntary, automatic local physical + digital public, private Company
staff automatic local physical + digital, remote digital private Governmental bodies
staff automatic local physical + digital, remote digital public International organisations
staff automatic local physical + digital, remote digital public, private University/higher education students, faculty, staff automatic local physical + digital, remote digital public, private
I presume that libraries that are dependent on voluntary subscriptions, like public and research/scientific libraries, will put more effort into improving “user experience”. This will be reinforced if the library’s collection is not a unique selling point, and funding is partly based on patron fees. Public libraries have to compete for customers (and not with their collections) and at the same time satisfy local city councils.
On the other end of the scale we see university libraries that get there customers “into the bargain”, customers who need their affiliation to get access to restricted databases and e-journal articles. Contrary to public libraries, the collections of university/higher education libraries consist of more than the local catalogue: numerous local and remote repositories, databases, e-journals, etc. Consequently, these libraries will put relatively more effort into consolidating and linking all these databases, especially when they have the technical staff to do so. The contributions by academic libraries, and also some national and museum libraries, to linked data and mashup developments for instance seem to confirm this.
Libraries between these two extremes will probably merge both approaches in various ways, depending on the actual mix of audience, subscription, collection and funding type.
This is not to say that academic libraries are not interested in improving user experience at all. But it’s just different. Unlike public libraries, academic libraries don’t have to attract new customers with staff recommendations, themes of the month, etc., because students, teachers and researchers each have their own fairly well described subject areas. They just have to provide them with the right finding aids. And these finding aids do not necessarily have to be provided by the libraries themselves, as long as they do offer their patrons efficient delivery mechanisms.
Of course all types of libraries can learn and benefit from each other’s work and even cooperate. After all, good data structures and relations are indispensable for an optimal user experience.
Posted on May 24th, 2009 11 comments
Will library buildings and library catalogs survive the web?
Some weeks ago a couple of issues appeared in the twitter/blogosphere (or at least MY twitter/blogoshere) related to the future of the library in this digital era.
- There was the Espresso book machine that prints books on demand on location, which led to questions like: “apart from influencing publishing and book shops, what does this mean for libraries?“.
- There was a Twitter discussion about “will we still need library buildings?“.
- There was another blog post about the future of library catalogs by Edwin Mijnsbergen (in Dutch) that asked the question of the value of library catalogs in relation to web2.0 and the new emerging semantic web.
This made me start thinking about a question that concerns us all: is there a future for the library as we know it?
To begin with, what is a library anyway?
For ages, since the beginning of history, up until some 15 years ago, a library was an institution characterised by:
- a physical collection of printed and handwritten material
- a physical location, a building, to store the collection
- a physical printed or handwritten on site catalog
- on location searching and finding of information sources using the catalog
- on site requesting, delivery, reading, lending and returning of material
- a staff of trained librarians to catalog the collection and assist patrons
The central concept here is of course the collection. That is the “raison d’être” of a library. The purpose of library building, catalog and librarians is to give people access to the collection, and provide them with the information they need.
Clearly, because of the physical nature of the collection and the information transmission process the library needed to be a building with collection and catalog inside it. People had to go there to find and get the publications they needed.
If collections and the transmission of information were completely digital, then the reason for a physical location to go to for finding and getting publications would not exist anymore. Currently one of these conditions has been met fully and the other one partly. The transmission of information can take place in a completely digital way. Most new scientific publications are born digital (e-Journals, e-Books), and a large number of digitisation projects are taking care of making digital copies of existing print material.
Searching for items in a library’s collection is already taking place remotely through OPACs and other online tools almost everywhere. A large part of these collections can be accessed digitally. Only in case a patron wants to read or borrow a printed book or journal, he or she has to go the library building to fetch it.
All this seems to lead to the conclusion that the library may be slowly moving away from a physical presence to a digital one.
But there is something else to be considered here, that reaches beyond the limits of one library. In my view the crucial notion here is again the collection.
In my post Collection 2.0 I argue that in this digital information age a library’s collection is everything a library has access to as opposed to the old concept of everything a library owns. This means in theory that every library could have access to the same digital objects of information available on the web, but also to each other’s print objects through ILL. There will be no physically limited collection only available in one library anymore, just one large global collection.
In this case, there is not only no need for people to go to a specific library for an item in its collection, but also there is no need to search for items using a specific library’s catalog.
Now you may say that people like going to a library building and browse through the stacks. That may still be true for some, but in general, as I argue in my post “Open Stack 2.0“, the new Open Stack is the Web.
In the future there will be collections, but not physical ones (except of course for the existing ones with items that are not allowed to leave the library location). We will see virtual subject collections, determined by classifications and keywords assigned both by professionals and non-professionals.
On a parallel level there will be virtual catalogs, which are views on virtual collections defined by subjects on different levels and in different locations: global, local, subject-oriented, etc. These virtual collections and catalogs will be determined and maintained by a great number of different groups of people and institutions (commercial and non-commercial). One of these groups can still be a library. As Patrick Vanhoucke observed on Twitter (in Dutch): “We have to let go of the idea of the library as a building; the ‘library’ is the network of librarians“. These virtual groups of people may be identical to what is getting known more and more as “tribes“.
Having said all this, of course there will still be occurrences of libraries as buildings and as physical locations for collections. Institutions like the Library of Congress will not just vanish into thin air. Even if all print items have been digitised, print items will still be wanted for a number of reasons: research, art, among others. Libraries can have different functions, like archives, museums, etc. and still be named “libraries” too.
Library buildings can transform into other types of locations: in universities they can become meeting places and study facilities, including free wifi and Starbucks coffee. Public libraries can shift focus to becoming centres of discovery and (educational) gaming. Anything is possible.
It’s obvious that libraries obey the same laws of historical development as any other social institution or phenomenon. The way that information is found and processed is determined, or at least influenced, by the status of technological development. And I am not saying that all development is technology driven! This is not the place for a philosophy on history, economics and society.
Some historical parallels to illustrate the situation that libraries are facing:
- writing: inscribing clay tablets > scratching ink on paper > printing (multiplication, re-usability) > typewriter > computer/printer (digital multiplication and re-usability!) > digital only (computer files, blogs, e-journal, e-books)
- consumption of music: attending live performance on location > listening to radio broadcast > playing purchased recordings (vinyl, cassettes, cd, dvd) > make home recordings > play digital music with mp3/personal audio > listen to digital music online
From these examples it’s perfectly clear that new developments do not automatically make the old ways disappear! Prevailing practices can coexist with “outdated” ways of doing things. Libraries may still have a future.
In the end it comes down to these questions:
- Will libraries cease to exist, simply because they no longer serve the purpose of providing access to information?
- Are libraries engaged in a rear guard fight?
- Will libraries become tourist attractions?
- Will libraries adapt to the changing world and shift focus to serve other, related purposes?
- Are professional librarian skills useful in a digital information world?
I do not know what will happen with libraries. What do you think?