Libraries Not Alone In Competing With Internet Services

There’s been no dearth of articles in the mainsteam media and in our own literature over the last two years about how Internet services (a generic term for you-know-who) are eating academic libraries’ lunch. To a large extent much of what’s being said is true. Most members of our user communities no longer routinely make the library portal their first stop when they need information, whether it’s for ready reference or more in depth research. But perhaps we don’t need to be the first stop, but just one of the stops that should be made. Perhaps we need to focus more on how we influence our user community to think of the academic library as a stop that’s worth making. And if we can learn from the lessons of others who are in situations similar to our own, then we may find ways to create that influence. But where are such case studies to be found? How about the newspaper industry.

I draw your attention to an op-ed article in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. Like libraries, the newspaper is being portrayed as the 21st century equivalent of the buggy whip maker. It’s a dinosaur soon to be extinct, and who will really miss it because no one really makes use of it any more anyway. Sound familiar? While I’m not sure about the presentation of data that suggests that the Inquirer is actually more heavily read than thought, I think there are some points made here to which the academic library community should pay attention. First, newspapers are realizing that Internet services are eating their lunch, and they are doing something about it, mainly having their own competing Internet presence. Well, academic libraries are way ahead of them. We’ve been on the Internet pretty much since day one. Somehow we failed to make ourselves essential and indispensible to our user communities and they went elsewhere. But we do have an Internet presence and we need to continue to capitalize on that.

The second, and more important observation, is that newspapers are continuing to be relevant to their communities because they are effectively influencing how people think and act. This article clearly demonstrates how the Inquirer rallied individuals to create change in their communities through reporting, editorials, and partnerships within the community. If we look at our academic user communities as a newspaper sees its readership community then we might find some parallel ways to reach and influence their thinking and action. One of the primary ways we can do this is through user education. Whether it happens when a librarian speaks to students directly or when a faculty member has integrated the library into the fabric of the course, it’s an opportunity to influence a member of the user community. Beyond that, like newspapers, academic libraries can create partnerships with other academic units to allow for more opportunities to reach the user community. Newspaper editors appear to be savvy in identifying issues of relevance to their communities where they can get involved. That may be a strategy worth studying more closely.

In the good old days academic libraries could sit back and focus on building and organizing collections while waiting for business to come through the door. Just as newspapers can no longer count on everyone picking up a newspaper on their way to work, academic libraries can no longer afford to wait for the user community to acknowledge our resources and services. We need to pay more attention to industries in situations similar to our own, and identify strategies that will allow us to be more influential in getting our users to think about all their potential options when they have an information need – and how we can be at or near the top of their decision tree when the search process begins.

6 thoughts on “Libraries Not Alone In Competing With Internet Services

  1. Good piece. One big difference though – we don’t have library staff write the books and journals in our collections. We’re more like you-know-who than the newspaper is.

    The real threat to newspapers isn’t Google, it’s corporate ownership that demands quarterly profit margins that demand cuts that make the product less valuable that means smaller revenues that means cutting more positions… okay, sell this asset and go buy something else that’s more profitable now that we’ve looted this one.

    It’s a different dynamic than the crisis in scholarly publishing but it’s the same root cause. Concentrating ownership of information in the hands of a few companies whose entire focus is on profits not providing quality information is bad for society. This is exactly why people were on the streets in Seattle and Quebec and Miami – and whether you identify as a capitalist or not, we need to build public awareness of the importance of good information, whether it’s tax-supported basic science or a free and robust press.

    Yes, let’s act locally. Let’s also think globally. This is a part of information literacy that needs far more attention than we give it.

  2. I’m wondering if certain digital projects don’t come closer to being like newspapers though …. when a library puts together a “digital collection” it is often selecting out from the collections they have, creating a “context” for the collection, and may be adding scholarly information (often through collaboration with scholars in the area). It seems to me this sort of digital “edition” of a compiled “volume” is what a number of digital humanities scholars are calling for and that is a bit closer to newspapers. I’m most familiar with my own library’s projects in this area so, as an example – http://images.library.uiuc.edu/projects/emblems/ – in another era this project would have been conceived of as an edited volume (probably a reference book) and one could easily argue the library is the “publisher” and “editor” of this project. We probabaly are still more like “you know who” but the black-white lines of demarcation of what a library does/does do or is/isn’t are a blurrin’.

  3. Yes, but for a great many libraries (smaller ones, like mine) their role as “publishers” is limited to their course materials, their web content, and their own scholarship – published like any other scholarship.

    I see what you’re describing as a partnership like that a museum or archive might have in creating a publication based on holdings or an exhibit. Wonderful stuff, but not the same thing. Newsgathering is writing that famous “first draft of history” and it’s quite another responsibility. And one that librarians (I would argue) need to defend as passionately as scholarly communication.

  4. Yes. Not really disagreeing about the need to defend the role. I just think libraries are becoming publishers in more cases now that previously. In the way back of my mind, I’m thinking of a library that documented the WTO protests as they were going on? Maybe my memory fails…

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