Friday, December 02, 2011

Libraries: Where It All Went Wrong

Nathan Torkington has published the text of his address the National and State Librarians of Australasia on the eve of their strategic planning meeting in Auckland at the start of November this year. It is his contention that libraries aren’t the great sources of knowledge and information on the web that they were in the pre-Internet days. This should pique your interest:
Libraries are like Microsoft.

At one point you had a critical role: you were one of the few places to conduct research. When academics and the public needed to do research into the documentary record, they’d come to you. As you now know, that monopoly has been broken.

The Internet, led by Google, is the start and end of most people’s research. It’s good enough to meet their needs, which is great news for the casual researcher but bad news for you.

Now they don’t think of you at all.

Oh yes, I know all the reasons why the web and Google are no replacement for a healthy research library. I know the critical importance of documentary heritage. But it’s not me you’re talking to at budget time. It’s the public, through the politicians.

They love public libraries, in our country at least. Every time a council tries to institute borrowing fees or close libraries, they get shot down. But someone tries, at least once a year. And England is a cautionary tale that even public libraries aren’t safe.

You need to be useful as well as important. Being useful helps you to be important. You need a story they can understand about why you’re funded.

Oh, I know, you have thought about digital a lot. You’ve got digitisation projects. You’re aggregating metadata. You’re offering AnyQuestions-type services where people can email a librarian.

But these are bolt-ons. You’ve added digital after the fact. You probably have special digital groups, probably (hopefully) made up of younger people than the usual library employee.

Congratulations, you just reproduced Microsoft’s strategy: let’s build a few digital bolt-ons for our existing products. Then let’s have some advance R&D guys working on the future while the rest of us get on with it. But think about that for a second. What are the rest of us working on, if those young kids are working on the future? Ah, it must be the past.

So what you’ve effectively done is double-down on the past.
You can read the entire essay online here, or download the PDF here.

Text reproduced under Creative Commons by Share Alike.

No comments: