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.