Recent Events

Transforming the Library Empire–Possible?

Steve Coffman

Wednesday’s keynote session featured Steve Coffman, VP, Library Support Services, LSSI; and Roy Tennant, Sr. Program Officer, Research, OCLC, reviewing some of the history of librarianship and speculating on where we are going.  Coffman is the author of a widely read article in Searcher entitled, “The Decline and Fall of the Library Empire.”  He noted that libraries are at a crossroads, and they have been for about 50 years.  We had an opportunity to play a significant role in the digital era. Library 2.0 did not work out because libraries do not have the critical mass of users that companies like Amazon do.

Many of our roles have been superseded by the appearance of new technologies.  For example, web interfaces for databases have changed or eliminated the role of professional searchers.  Public access computers have done the same thing; people are now accessing information on their Smartphones or tablets.  E-books are also eliminating the library.

The digital library we all dreamed of is here.  We helped to make it, but it is not ours.  Books are available through Google, Amazon, and Apple.  Searching can be done on Google and the Web.  Library 2.0 functions are available on GoodReads, LibraryThing, and many others.  And the Smartphone, Kindle, and iPad are providing access to it all.

So where do we go from here?  We need to transform the roles we played in the library into valuable services we can offer our communities when they no longer need our books; for example, maker spaces, community convenors, gadget gurus, or publishers.  In the Atlas of New Librarianship, David Lankes said that we can “help improve society by facilitating the creation of knowledge in our communities.”

We are no longer associated with books.  Librarianship has become a function.  But our libraries are still associated with books and buildings.  If that is removed, we become just one more face in a huge crowd of skilled people.  What makes a library unique?  What value do we add?  Why would people go to the library rather than Amazon, Apple, or other service providers?  The contribution we have is associated with the materials we work with, so instead of running away from what makes unique, let’s focus on it–books, especially print books.  Studies constantly reveal that the first thing people think of when they think of the library is books.  There are 2 billion books in libraries in the US, 20,000 buildings to house them, and 1.6 billion people walking through the doors to get them (and this number continues to grow).  In 2011, 347,000 titles are published by traditional publishers.  Books are still a major going concern, and there is no reason to count print out yet.  The uptake of e-books is 50% of what it was last year.  The longer people have their e-readers, the more they read in print.  Books are an antidote to the frantic elements of an overly digital life.  Coffman predicts a backlash against constantly being online.

If we are going to focus on books, we must stop apologizing for them.  Enter “more than just books” into Google and see how many library sites come up.  We must focus on our resources: budget, staff, programs.  We need to fix our inefficient distribution system.  The average public library only spends 12 cents/budget $ on content.  The rest is spent on staff, buildings, etc.  New technologies make it possible to improve that balance sheet.  Why are we still paying for catalog records?  Amazon pays nothing for them because they get them from the publishers.  Why can’t we ship ILL books directly to the readers and then have them return them to the library?  We need to take advantage of similar new opportunities, such as adding book sales to library services.

Can the empire be transformed?  Yes it can, but the real question is who is going to do it.

If we are not up to these tasks, others will do them for us.

Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant pointed to another Searcher article entitled “The World’s Largest Library”.  W face many challenges and opportunities in our fast changing world.  Do we have what it takes to make a difference?  YES we do!  Tennant believes in us!  We need to look at where we have come from to be able to see where we are going in the future.

One advantage we have is our flexibility.  We were one of the fastest to get on the Internet.  It was not that long ago that we were using 300 baud modems to access online searching systems.  Then Mosaic browsers changed our access.  Now we can stream records from a large database.  We are able to adapt to new technologies and are willing to throw away old ones.

We have the following advantages:

  • We have collaboration, beginning with catalog records.  Collaboration is how nonprofits prosper.
  • Our gender matters.  We are overwhelmingly female.  This is significant because women tend to collaborate better than men.
  • Our principles.  We believe in making sure that everyone has access to information, not just the people who have money to buy books.  We should be able to read whatever we want.  We have a right to privacy, and we believe everyone has a right to it.  Showing people how to control their own privacy is important.  Public service is a deep principle that we bring to our work.
  • Our people.  We bring the best people to this profession.  We have all fallen into it and love it.  We therefore want to be here and are all very diverse.  People are our greatest asset.
  • Imaginations help us find new ways to provide services.  See Patrick Sweeney’s “The Story Sailboat“.  He leaves books in public places for people to find.  Libraries are experimenting with maker spaces.  Failure at various things is not reason not to succeed.
  • Engagement.  The R Squared conference (risk and reward) was to help librarians take risks and engage with our communities.  We are engaged in things not only among ourselves but out in our communities.  The ALA Think Tank is a group that make things happen.


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