Thursday, May 14, 2015

It's the End of the Library as we know it . . . Again

Despite the click-bait title "Do We Need Libraries?", Stephen Denning of Forbes magazine is not predicting the impending obsolescence of libraries as has been done elsewhere. He's saying that libraries might become obsolete.

Doctor Who's "The Library" - why is it so quiet?

He states in his lead paragraph that it is now possible to read almost every book and article that's ever been published; implying that libraries have nothing to do with this. That sounds to me like he's saying we don't need libraries.

I beg to differ. Good luck reading the current issue of Nature without shelling out the bucks for a subscription or pay-per-view article charges. Or you could walk down to the local library and take it off the shelf and read it. Free of charge. While you're there you can check out one of those books that the library bought before the advent of e-books, which the publisher never bothered to digitize. Sorry, we don't have a Kindle edition of that, because there's no financial incentive for it.

Denning talks about libraries' efforts to update and modernize themselves, to keep pace and 'stay relevant' in a computerized world. What, does he think we just noticed yesterday that computers are everywhere?  He also discusses organizational structures and clearly favors the broad, flat structure of what he calls the Creative Economy over the older, more bureaucratic Traditional Economy, which is vertical and hierarchical.

Fine and good, Mr. Denning. Except that libraries are not a business. He writes for Forbes, a business magazine. It is understandable for him to see libraries through his default mind-set.

There are things that libraries can learn from the business world, but chasing business fads is not a winning strategy for a non-business. Our users are our 'shareholders' and they vote on our performance every time they come or call or dial in. Our library has a dean, but I see her at meetings and can discuss projects with her directly, no paperwork or bureaucracy required. Librarians know how to do the collaborative thing.
Yes, people do still use libraries to find books.
Denning remarks on three Wrong approaches to responding to this marvelous digital world we live in. I'm sure some libraries have made these mistakes.
  • computerizing existing services
  • using computers merely to improve 'efficiency', whatever that means
  • creating programs or "apps" for things that users don't need
He then counter-proposes five Right approaches for libraries. Boiled down they are:
  • Figure out what the patrons want and deliver it
  • Employ continuous innovation and improvement
  • Focus on changes that are better for the patrons, not for the library
  • Meet needs that the patrons are not yet aware of
  • Learn what patrons already like and do it more, and in new ways
Hardly earth-shattering revelations, these.
Our new plan to attract patrons to the library

Denning suggests that libraries can 'discover' the future rather than 'invent' it. If we're being honest (and we should be) we will admit that there are a multitude of forces shaping library use and users, and we only control one - ourselves. We should accept our place in the stream and see where it's going. That, I agree with.

Overall, though, Denning's tone strikes me as patronizing; his Right choices are all things that don't require an MBA (I have no idea what degrees Denning holds) to figure out. Librarians have always tried to know their patrons, and shape their programs around what their patrons want, whether that is more computers, 3D printers, or someone who will patiently explain things for the third time so you understand how all these fancy gadgets work. 
Photo Credit: Stockholm Transport Museum Commons via Compfight cc

No comments: