Sunday, May 02, 2010

"I've Got Google, Why Do I Need You?" (or, "Thoughts about the Future of Public Libraries" Part 2)

[From Part 1]

A manage-your-expectation Disclaimer: These posts are just my way of articulating thoughts and refining ideas. Definitely work-in-progress. And if you're expecting earth-shattering ground-shaking life-changing concepts and revelations, you can stop reading now :)

I've been told that the first step towards effective treatment is to acknowledge and accept that there is a problem (be it drug addiction, learning disabilities etc.).

So I suggest we librarians have to accept that the old "rules of the game" have changed. There's no turning back (except maybe if the Internet goes kaput and it's back to printed references).

To put it simply, I see the problem boils down to one issue: disintermediation.

This issue isn't unique to librarians. The banking industry have faced it in the '90s. So have brokerage and fund houses. We see that happening with 'traditional' music publishers and distributors.

It's a problem faced by organisations and institutions whose main business is/ was being the middle-man. Technology and market maturity (among other factors) will reach a stage where suppliers and customers can, and prefer to deal with, each other direct. The middle-man gets cut out.

Public libraries are middle-men.

We source for information materials and make them available to our members/ customers. Our members indirectly pay us through taxation. The gnawing issue is that in the future, more customers may prefer to get their materials direct from suppliers (especially digital content).

The writing on the wall may be just a scribble right now. But it's there.

Public libraries, to me, are also particularly vulnerable. Because our business is largely invested in print-based information inventory.

We may say we're in the business of promoting learning and reading but in essence, what public libraries are really doing is to promote the use of print books. Printed materials are still the mainstay of the public library's inventory. This affects how our stakeholders measure our performance.

What about eBooks? I've explained why the current eBook business model for libraries may not be sustainable.

What about public library services that are independent of printed materials? Like our advisory/ reference services?

I'm uncomfortable when I read/ hear proclamations that librarians are still the best source of information. Or that only libraries offer credible and authoritative information (implying that anything else is junk).

Statements of that sort only serve to push our proverbial heads deeper into the sand.

Take for instance, back in 2008 this Google employee blogged that Google results are often good enough.

Self-serving Google propaganda? I don't think so. If what he blogged didn't have elements of the truth, would the liblogsphere would let him get away with it? He would have been blasted off the face of the Internet. Right? :)

The reality is that library customers value convenience over anything else. The debate of Satisficing (in the context of information search) is over, in my opinion.

If anyone -- librarian or otherwise -- takes issue with the above position (and some of my colleagues frequently do), just answer this: What's the first thing you refer to/ use when searching for information (whether for your individual need or to help others with their information need)?
  1. Google/ Yahoo!/ Wikipedia/ Bing [name your preferred internet search engine]
  2. Ask a friend/ colleague
  3. Search the library's online catalogue
  4. Search the library's databases online
  5. Email a librarian

Come on, be honest.

It's Google/ Yahoo! etc., isn't it?

Hey, I am NOT suggesting it's about professional laziness or incompetence.

The truth is that few public library customers need to embark on anything that requires the level of academic rigour, that requires them to refer to in depth information from electronic databases.

I entered the public library world at about the same time the Internet was introduced in public libraries (i.e. mid '90s). My early impression of the general library-world mood was one of 'seige-mentality' and possibly denial -- one that centred on the threat of widespread proliferation and adoption of the Internet. The reaction was usually "Librarians know better" or "Libraries have credible information compared to the junk out there".

Today, that sort of thinking still lingers.

But for the most part, I sense the mood has shifted from away from a 'them-Vs-us' to a more proactive 'let's try/ do this'.

For instance, changing the way libraries are valued and measured (British Library's Contingent Valuation is one often cited approach). Some are experimenting and reconceptualising library spaces, for specific audiences (e.g. Mindspot

In Singapore, the changes introduced include the provision of eBooks/ electronic databases, an improved Search feature, SMS services, a social experiment in allowing unmoderated publishing and community monitoring of images, bringing the library to social spaces...

I believe the solution isn't necessarily about competing with Google (nay, Google is my friend). It's also not about making library customers need us in the way they need Google.

It's about creating value, in the context of public service. And making attempts to change the rules of the game.

It's also about learning from how other non-library industry players have changed, or are attempting to implement change.

I'll explore a few ideas and thoughts in the next few posts. Recently I came across some interesting sources that may give insights and ideas:

NLB Call No. 338.762138456094897 LAT -[BIZ]

NLB Call No. 658.4012 GRA -[BIZ] | EBook version.

NLB Call No. 658.4012 RAS -[BIZ]

Above all, I believe it's for librarians to adopt a positive mindset. Acknowledging that we have a problem is the first step. Keeping an open, realistic and positive mindset is also part of the recovery.

Success, even.

[Next: Exploring ideas].


  1. Great article. But you know that already. Did you also post this on facebook? I saw it on your Twitter.

  2. Thanks, Nch! No, I don't think it's that great a post. Nope, didn't post to my FB status update.

  3. Sounds like Facing the Brutal Truth in "Good to Great"

  4. Hi 林老师, hmm... I've not read the book in its entirety. Maybe I should!


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