New users – new libraries – new librarians


Meeting new user expectations at ELAG 2010

In the near future libraries and librarians will be very different from what they are now. That’s the overall impression I took away from the ELAG 2010 conference in Helsinki, June 8-11, 2010.  ELAG stands for “European Library Automation Group”, which is an indication of its age (34 years): “automation” was then what is now “ICT”. The meetings are characterised by a combination of plenary presentations and parallel workshops.

This year’s theme was “Meeting new users’ expectations”, where the term “users” refers to “end users”, “customers” or “patrons”, as library customers are also called. When you hear the phrase “end user expectations” in relation to library technology you first of all think of front end functionality (user interfaces and services) and the changing experiences there. A number of presentations and workshops were indeed focused on user experience and user studies.
Keywords: discovery, guidance, knowing/engaging users, relevance ranking, context.

But a considerable number of sessions, maybe even the majority, were dedicated to backend technology and systems development.
Keywords: webservices, API, REST, JSON, XML, Xpath, SOLR, data wells, aggregation, identifiers, FRBR,  linked data, RDF.

It is becoming ever more obvious that improving libraries’ digital user experience cannot be accomplished without proper data infrastructures and information systems and services. This is directly related to the shift of existing library traditions to the new web experience, which was the leading topic of the presentation given by Rosemie Callewaert and myself: “Discovering the library collections”. We are experiencing a move from closed local physical collections to open networked digital information.

First of all, library collections will be digital. If you don’t believe that, look at the music industry. The recording of stories started 5000 years ago already. The first music recordings only date from the 19th century.

Next, collections will be networked, interlinked and virtual. Data, metadata, and digital objects will be fetched from all kinds of databases on the web, not only traditional bibliographic metadata from library catalogues, and mixed into new result sets, using mashup or linked data techniques.

In this open digital environment, existing and new library systems and discovery tools simply cannot incorporate all possible data services available now and in the future. That is why libraries (or maybe we should start saying ‘information brokers’) MUST have ‘developer skills’ in one form or another. This can range from building your own data wells and discovery tools on one end to using existing online service builders for enriching third party frontends on the other, and everything in between, with different levels of skills required.

Another inevitable development in this open information environment is “cooperation” in all kinds of areas with all kinds of partners in all kinds of forms. Cooperation in development, procurement, hosting and sharing of software (systems, services) and aggregation of data, with libraries, museums, archives, educational institutions, commercial partners, etc.

Last but not least there is the question of the value of the physical library building in the digital age. A number of people stress the importance of libraries as places where students like to come to study. But being a learning center in my view is not part of the core business of a library, which is providing access to information. In pre-digital times it was obviously a natural and necessary thing to study information at the location of the physical collection. But this direct physical link between access to and processing of information does not exist anymore in an open digital information environment.

Back to the ELAG 2010 theme “Meeting new users’ expectations”. In the last slide of our presentation we asked the question “Can LIBRARIES meet new user expectations?” Because we did not have time to discuss it then and there, I will answer it here: “No, not libraries as they are now!”.

New users don’t expect libraries, they expect information services. Libraries were once the best way of providing access to information. Instead of taking the defensive position of trying to secure their survival as organisation (as is the natural aspiration of organisations) libraries should focus on finding new ways of achieving their original mission. This may even lead to the disappearance of libraries, or rather the replacement of the library organisation by other organisational structures. This may of course vary between types of libraries (public, academic, special, etc.).

We may need to redefine the concept of library from “the location of a physical collection” to “a set of information services administered by a group of specialists”.

To summarise: the new digital and networked nature of collections of information leads to a focus on new information services, supported by library staff with information and technology skills, in new organisational structures and in cooperation with other organisations.

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