Jun 222009

A  job transformed

My friend Peta Hopkins has been working for the last 18 months or so as the project manager for the new  Bond University web site that launched yesterday.

When Peta first told me that she had gone from library systems to secondment for this job I thought – “Yay Peta, I’m glad you can do that – I’d find that overwhelming”.

A few niggles in the last week have me thinking that, like Peta, within the next 10 years most librarians will be working outside physical libraries by necessity. I hope that if it is in other professions, then this is by choice. I hope that libraries can change our service models quickly enough that we still have the option of working in libraries.

Physical media in rapid decline

Jeff Trzeciak from McMaster University points in his blog to an article in the New York Times about the closing of the  last Virgin Megastore in New York City.  The quote that resonates with me is from Gartner’s  Michael McGuire :

“The Titanic that is physical media started slowly sinking in 2000. Certainly this is a traumatic event for those who worked there, but it’s an expected product of the digital transition.”

The article details hundreds of other recorded music stores that closed in the last five years. This bugs me. Several times in the last year I have heard library leaders proclaiming how many branches libraries have across our countries and how much book stock we have.

It makes me think of a quote attributed Rupert Murdoch – who is someone who knows about the effects of the decline of physical media:

The world is changing very fast. Big will not beat small anymore. It will be the fast beating the slow.

How to have fun in the NYPL   Uploaded to Flickr on March 29, 2009 by cindiann

How to have fun in the NYPL Uploaded to Flickr on March 29, 2009 by cindiann

Being fast

We have big, but do we have fast? Are we nimble enough, changing quickly enough to deliver services in a way that can compete with other content providers that deliver access faster and more conveniently? Are our buildings  located, staffed and open hours that suit users who increasingly are their own mobile hub of content access?

Are our libraries staffed by people who realise that the Titanic that is physical media is sinking – or will they be traumatised like the record store staff if libraries are bypassed ? Are libraries – who are also dependent on moving physical stock – likely to face a similar decline? Our stock  issues look healthy enough now, but let us not forget that in the year 2000, 785 million albums were sold in the US. Today it is half this.

Can our role as a central social hub save us, or will be left lamenting like the Virgin store employee:

It does matter because it was also a social gathering space, and that’s one thing that buying music online lacks.

Being as fast as our competitors

In his latest post, David Lee King looks at current alternatives to libraries : Who are your competitors? He covers alternative sources for books, movies, music, gaming and reference – and lists some of the convenient services that may be competing – services that I think understand the strength of “fast”. He offers some suggested tactics, including focusing on customer needs, turning non-users into users, rearranging our stock to be more findable and working on the digital experience of the library.

A comment from Karen Wanamaker about academic libraries is worth reproducing:

Academic libraries have many of the same competitors as public libraries for the social aspect of the library. For the academic role, we have a huge competitor with the Web and such things as Google Scholar and Wikipedia.

We need to focus on educating students about WHEN to use the Websites for information and when to stick with online resources such as the databases we provide or refer to print materials. We also need to lure them into the building and educate them (AND the faculty) about our services. It is a waste of time and money to offer so many services and resources and not publicize them to the patrons so that they know to make use of them

I don’t agree that services like Wikipedia and Google Scholar are necessarily our competitors. If we are *really* about ensuring our communities have access to the best information, then we can work with Wikipedia and Google Scholar without selling out. The German National Library’s Personennamendatei project is a good example. It puts authoritative personal name data into Wikipedia.de .

But – and this is important – we need to do just what Karen suggests and ensure that when we tell our patrons about these resources, we publicize our role in strengthening them. And ensure that they tell our funding bodies. Or that we tell our funding bodies. Or somebody does.

Staying around

We need to ask whether we want to be known as:

a great place for physical objects in a format that was substantially replaced in the 2010’s .

I’m not saying this will come to pass. We are not record stores and have a different business model. But if we all want to be working in libraries in ten years time, then I think that we do need to:

  • be asking what will happen if books are no longer physical objects best centrally stored and loaned through a library
  • identify our competitors
  • identify and play to our strengths that go beyond our physical buildings and collections
  • ensure that we have staff with skills that can deliver in those areas
  • move fast
  • publicise and market these strengths to maintain continued funding.

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  5 Responses to “Like a Virgin ?”

  1. Great post, Kathryn. I’ve started thinking about these things, too, as I get ready to teach a course called ‘Electronic Publishing Issues and Opportunities’ in our MLIS programme. In the first week, we look at various chronologies of electronic publishing developments, and I update my own personal timeline of e-publishing technologies I’ve started using. One of the things I’ve realised this year is that I use electronic journals almost exclusively now, particularly since most publishers have digitised their backfiles. Print books are still part of my world though, in part because I still don’t find e-books very usable, but I’m sure that will change over time.

    Moving fast is probably one of the biggest challenges facing most libraries – there often isn’t enough time to think through all of the possibilities, and sometimes we just have to accept that there will be change and go along with it. That’s when we need to understand and play to our strengths, and fall back on key professional beliefs like those you, John Blyberg, and Cindi Trainor articulated in the Darien Statements.

  2. […] post started out as a comment on Kathryn Greenhill’s latest post, Like a Virgin? If you haven’t read it, you should. In it, Kathryn talks about the concept of […]

  3. Reading your blogpost merely confirms my belief that you are one of the most “clueful” librarians in Australia Kathryn

  4. Yes, if you were wondering why my blog was so quiet lately. Getting close to a major website launch will take your mind off almost everything else for awhile.

  5. […] I learned (via Kathryn Greenhill’s Like a Virgin Librarians Matter blog posting) that Virgin is closing its last music mega-store in New York. The […]

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