An ACRLog post written back in November suggested that academic librarians might learn something about dealing with disruptive technologies from industries confronted with new competitors changing the nature of the service/business model. That post suggested examining how the newspaper industry was confronting the challenges of Internet competition. The January 9, 2006 issue of BusinessWeek offers a column (Jon Fine’s “The Daily Paper of Tomorrow” – no longer free online) that just happens to also use the newspaper an an example of a business that needs to be updated for competition in the 21st Century. Fine presents six suggestions for reimagining the local daily. Here I attempt to see if those suggestions might fit for a makeover of the academic library service model.
1. Steal From Google: Newspapers should identify local companies that advertise on Google – and then do whatever it takes to steal them away from Google. What do librarians need to steal away from Google – our user base. Sure, we know it’s good for our users to consult Google for certain kinds of information just like newspapers know some classifieds are better off at craigslist. But what can we makeover to bring back the users? The interfaces? Better integrating into where the students are? Most likely it’s a combination of strategies.
2. Bifurcate: Newspapers should offer a free mass market giveway paper aimed at the least committed readers and a higher priced premium edition for those wanting an elite daily paper. Libraries should explore the 20-20 strategy. Can we possibly identify the top 20% of our users and increase their use by 20% more by offering them premium services (maybe more customized research and analysis) while we offer minimal levels of service to the other 80%? Of course, we do have this ethic about equality in the delivery of services. But perhaps challenging times call for new and different measures.
3. Redeploy Mercilessly: Newspapers should explore whatever can be done for less dollars another way. Is a Saturday edition necessary? What columns won’t be missed? Is a Washington bureau needed? Does every library need to maintain a local catalog or can we redeploy this to a national provider of catalog information? Does every library need to bind copies of the same journal issues? What can we redeploy to save funds that could be spent in better ways?
4. Increase Local Coverage: Newspapers need to be the local expert because Internet competitors don’t know or report what’s important to the local community. Libraries are the local experts for their user communities. Don’t we know what many of the assignments are? Don’t we have access to the syllabi and the faculty who create the assignments? Shouldn’t we be able to leverage this knowledge to create resources customized to local needs.
5. Redesign Your Premium Product: Newspapers need to have better production values and to go for a classier look (less newspaperish). Libraries need to adopt better design values that pay attention to how resources (web site, handouts, resource guides, ) are presented to users. We’re not designers by training so we should seek out local assistance. Perhaps your institution has a design program that can lend help.
6. Use Your Readers: Newspapers need to take better advantage of user contributed content. They should identify talented content providers among users and invite them to contribute to the newspaper. Libraries should explore how students and faculty can participate at a higher level. Can we identify talented writers or researchers in our communities? Perhaps they could contribute stories about how they use library resources to write and research at higher quality levels. That content can provide the exact type of word-of-mouth promotion that will work to our strengths.
This has been a challenging exercise, and I suspect it holds up better in certain places than others. Clearly there are some ideas and practices that academic librarians should be comtemplating as we look at how different industries respond to a future where there are constant challenges from Internet competitors.