More On OCLC’s “Perceptions of Libraries” Report

I just finished listening to a podcast that features George Needham of OCLC discussing the recently released “Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources“. If you don’t have time to read the report, Needham does summarize some of the most salient findings. Among the ones he mentions is that only one percent of the people surveyed indicated they begin their Internet research at a library web site. I would be interested to know if that sort of data is broken down by type of respondent. Is that number consistent for college students or are academic libraries more effective in connecting with their user communities? Needham mentions the importance of the library community communicating to the user community what it offers, and I think it’s well recognized in our profession that we need to market, promote, and educate users about our resources. With the advertisements it places in publications like the Chronicle, OCLC certainly tries to help in this effort. It would be interesting to know if the new report tells us how we are doing. The podcast runs about 40 minutes.

4 thoughts on “More On OCLC’s “Perceptions of Libraries” Report

  1. I haven’t listened to the podcast, but this finding is consistent with everything I’ve heard from students who I interviewed about their research processes. These were accomplished students, by the way, and very library-savvy. They used the library’s resources through the library’s website, but they rarely started there. One major problem undergraduates have that experts don’t is getting the “lay of the land,” simply getting a sense of how a particular issue has been explored by others. An internet search seems to be one way they like to start the process, a quick and dirty snapshot of contemporary attitudes. What’s wrong with that?

    We have a tendency to see ourselves as being in competition with the Internet when it’s quite a wonderful resource that has added a lot to our ability to find and disseminate information. This competetiveness (or defensiveness) seems very inconsistent with our values. Maybe library pundits have read too many business books that focus on market share, profitability, and the need to dominate the competition and that has clouded their thinking. It’s troubling to me how much the capitalist model (markets, customers, brands) has infiltrated our language and our attitudes when we are custodians of the commons. A commons which, by the way, is doing very well in terms of visits to libraries, circulation of materials, and other measures.

  2. I have advocated in some of my presentations the importance of thinking more competitively, and I think there is some value to it. We have to recognize that our users may not understand why our resources should be consulted – or why you can’t just depend on Internet search engines. It’s not a matter of dominating in a competitive information environment but simply developing expertise about the competition’s product. If you don’t know that product, its weaknesses and strengths, then you can’t differentiate your product (e.g., databases, books, etc) in a crowded marketplace. If we can’t clearly differentiate, why should they bother using it. So I would encourage academic librarians to take a more competitive stance. It doesn’t mean you’ve gone over to the “dark side”. And just to set the record straight, I haven’t read a business book recently, but I can claim to read every issue of Business Week and Fortune, along with a quick look at the Wall Street Journal.

  3. There you go. Gray side, if not dark side. (Just jokin’.)

    There’s a useful critique in John E. Bushman’s Dismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy (Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2003) of the ways library professionals and organizations justify their existance using a consumer model focused on private good rather than by embracing our role in sustaining the public sphere,where communal benefits are social and democratic. Well worth a read.

    I also have just been reading Wayne Wiegand’s October 2003 article in Library Quarterly on how we tend to focus on the “user in the life of the library” rather than the “library in the life of the user.” Too often when we’re in a competetive mode we’re negecting what our users like about libraries and focus instead on what they like about Google or games or gizmos.

    Oh, and one last thing – there’s a fascinating article in the Annual Review of Sociology on “Reading and the Reading Class in the Twenty-First Century” that affirms the place of reading in most people’s lives, examines it as a social practice, and rebuts the idea that Internet use leads to a decline in reading: “the relationship between reading and going online is not zero-suz but more-more … the heaviest Internet users are also the heaviest readers” (137). It seems true of libraries, too – heavy users of those tools with which we feel “in competition” are often heavy library users.

    By the way, I have nothing at all against promoting libraries or even “marketing” them. I just don’t see us a being in competition so much as being responsive to users and eager to make non-users comfortable and aware of what we have.

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