Makeover For The Academic Library

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.

12 thoughts on “Makeover For The Academic Library”

  1. I find the notion of concentrating on the “top 20%” and leaving the rest to their own devices to be a troubling one, not only from the standpoint of professional ethics but also in terms of sheer practicality.

    That other 80% comprises the majority that will keep us in business by helping to push back against the notion that “everything is on Google anyway, let’s fire the librarians and make the library a study hall”. Market yourself only to your elite users, and you guarantee your irrelevance to everybody else.

  2. I have recently been reading and thinking about the work of Clayton Christensen and his colleagues and I think these suggestions largely miss the mark.

    First we need to be clear, we are not just competing against Google. We are competing against the web. We also need to be clear in which realm we are competing. We are competing to proide content. Library’s models for providing content — purchased collections — will not win this battle. And they shouldn’t. Open access and all of our efforts at creating digital collections will and should win this battle. We also will not win the battle to control search where Google is the competitor. We don’t have the resources and our approaches are all routed in the world of paper.

    Second, the strategy of moving upmarket — providing premium products for high-end users might work in the short term, but will fail eventually.

    What libraries need to do is to find services and products that are themselves disruptive and use the strategies Christensen suggests to deploy them. I would suggest two areas where this is possible. First, as suggested above, open access and repositories have the potential to disrupt traditional scholarly publishing. Libraries can be one of the agents for this disruption and we should push in this area. Free access to large digital collections also have the potential to be disruptive and they should also be agressively pursued. I also think the redevelopment of library space can be disruptive and should be a priority. The movement toward Inforamtion Commons on many campuses shows this.

    In my view this discussion is a critical one for libraries becasue we are at great risk of being disrupted. I would encourage librarians to read and reflect on Clayton Christensen’s work. I think it a key to our survival.

  3. I’m all for being disrupted, even for being disruptive (isn’t that usually a bad thing on report cards? oh, well) but I don’t understand the notion we’re in some great competition with the Web for the information market or for people’s attention.

    That’s like saying we’re in competition with newspapers – if people get information from the paper they might not need to come to the library. Or that we’re in competition with museums. If they go to museums they may not have time for the library. We help people find information (in newspapers, on the Web, and elsewhere, and yes, for some of it we have to pay a bunch of money on behalf of our user community. And people who go to museums (and who use the Web) are quite as likely, if not more likely, than those who don’t to use libraries.

    I also think the idea of a premium edition library is not only against our core values, it’s a huge mistake. The New York Times is trying it … we’ll see if it works. It annoys the $%&$# out of me and I’m a subscriber! But I can’t share my reading with others who aren’t and that means their content will lose readers. The Washington Post, on the other hand, just made the decision to extend their free access to six months. Why? So that the links on blogs will work. So that people will read the Post. So that the ideas will circulate more and they will gain readers who will then respect them as a source and maybe even subscribe. The idea of enhancing services to people who already can help themselves to the banquet won’t enhance our services generally or give us more “business.” It could, however, alienate people who have every reason to use libraries but feel excluded or intimidated or simply haven’t yet had the pleasure.

    We aren’t paid by our “customers.” We aren’t pressed, like newspapers, to make shareholders happy with higher short-term profits. We need to think of libraries as a necessary common ground for the public and we need to make them places that are vibrant, interesting, wholly owned by their users, and responsible to the past and future.

    What’s so hard about that?

  4. Thanks for some excellent comments to the post. These help my own thinking about how we re-imagine our libraries for the future. I tend to agree more with David than Barbara on the competition issue. Just consider libraries and the ready reference business. Sure, it wasn’t a competition in the traditional sense (e.g., Ford competes with GM for a share of the market), but lots of folks who used to call the library for facts probably wouldn’t think twice (if they have an internet connection) about doing so now. That’s a share of the market for information seekers that libraries used to have that we don’t have any more. I also like to say that in a competitive environment it is important to know the competition. The more you know the better you can differentiate yourself – and develop that potentially disruptive service.

    Yes, the 20-20 strategy is controversial, but I didn’t say we would abandon the 80% of low-level users – perhaps just offer them a minimal level of service – while putting more resources into the best users to give them a truly rewarding experience for which we ask – a premium? Probably not since that may be heresy. But if the 20% who use libraries the most get even better service they could become more intense users – who might be better community advocates than the majority that really doesn’t care – or has already been lost to the competition.

  5. Yay, people can find their own information without calling the library. That’s not competition, that’s success. Think how successful we are becoming at letting people get it themselves as open access takes off. Aren’t we trying to make some of this information available through other channels? If we really bought into competition, we’d either try to take over those channels or shut them down. In fact, we’re doing the opposite. Information to the people!

    You knew I’d say that.

    As for the 20-20 strategy, I think we already do shower more attention on our regular users. I’m far more likely to send e-mails about new books or articles I’ve bumped into to faculty and students who I’ve already helped with something or who appear to live in the library. I’m more likely to have an engaged faculty member try to engage their reluctant students by designing interesting assignments.

    Now, engaging those faculty and students who don’t come in the door – that’s a harder challenge. Academics tend to be rugged individualists who leave each other alone to teach the way they want – so transfer from faculty to faculty is harder than faculty to student, where there is a power differential. Even when you offer stipends for faculty development, you’re likely to attract people who are already library users.

    So if anyone has ideas about catching the attention of faculty who seem content to get by without the library – let me know. I’ll still pamper my regulars.

  6. My best tactic Barbara…. Get to know what they are interested in and send them a link, article, database alert, whatever – every so often. The unstated message is “look the library has something of value” – the approach is to figure out what value-addedness the library could have for these folks. If there is no value-addedness (from their prospective – not ours), why should they bother? Here’s a close-to-home example … if you asked me a few months ago if I needed more to read – I would have said absolutely not. So, it’s good ACRL didn’t ask that question. Instead – this blog adds value for me and the marketing tapped that, so I added it to my life even though reading/participating takes time that objectively I would have said I didn’t have.

  7. The “premium product” issue seems to be one that it touching off some alarms, but I think Barbara and Lisa have touched on some of the reasons why I don’t think it should.

    First, in my days as an education librarian, I definitely provided “premium product” to certain user groups, e.g., graduate students, faculty, and the Dean’s Office. This included providing regular updates to the College discussion list, packaging customized “new book” alerts based on known program interests (e.g., “Look at all these new juvenile, non-fiction science titles I just acquired” – a message to our Science Education faculty that resulted in, no lie, all 40 new titles being off the shelf and out of the library in student hands within 48 hours), and providing information useful to administrators or to our partners around the state, e.g., the Superintendent of Public Instruction. As I became an administrator, I looked into ways to provide “premium product” to other administrators at the Dean level and higher.

    This didn’t mean that we abandoned the undergraduates, who, among other indicators, were coming into the library for instruction at an ever-increasing pace. It did mean that we looked to catch the eye of key constituencies who might not realize the full range of information services that can be provided by an academic library staffed by professional librarians (if this argument sounds familiar, that’s because it is one of the roles for school librarians identified years ago in Information Power, i.e., the library as information center for the school). And that, as I understand the gist of the source article under discussion, is the real point.

    And, it’s not the same as what Barbara characterized as paying greater attention to our regular users; it’s about being strategic in thinking about how to serve both our regular users and to use “premium” information product to regain the eye of important constituencies who are no longer regular users.

  8. What a thought-provoking contribution to the ACRLog! This blog is a great way to jump start thinking and debate. As I read Steven’s commentary, I thought back to a few presentations I did way back in 1994 where I advocated drive-up windows for libraries and a “silver platter” mentality where we DO give students things on a silver platter and DON’T turn every encounter into a teachable moment. I was literally booed during one such presentation. BUT, it takes less time and it’s often WHAT they want, WHEN they want it. It’s a different, yet efficient, model of service in the academic library. There is something from that 20/20 strategy that we could consider.

    Reading this also got me thinking again of the Dec. 2005 issue of Library Journal. I love the architecture issues! Item number 5 above–redesign your premium product. Many times that product is the library’s physical space and how the building iteself reflects our (and our community’s) values and changing needs. The article “Power Users” on pp.72-75 is particularly interesting about how designing buidlings and services from the user’s viewpoint transforms access for everyone and how libraries have done this–with great success.

    And, YES, to number 1–Steal from Google. Their mission is: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Sounds good to me. And let’s steal ideas from retail too–Barnes & Noble, Starbuck’s, etc. I’ve recently come to a library with a lot going for it but a really LOUSY physical layout (that cannot be changed). Using ideas from the LJ article, I’m going to “Use my readers” (#6 above) to help me redesign the physical package–and then get to the virtual product a little later.

  9. Since I know students are going to be searching the Web, in my instruction I include how to find scholarly information using Google (either through domain searching in advanced search mode or through Google Scholar).

    Usually I also choose a citation from Google Scholar that I know from the URL is going to lead to a publisher website and ask for a VISA card. That is the moment when I say: “But don’t spend your money to buy the article: use the library’s deep web databases and you get the article free of charge, or use the library’s interlibrary loan service to get the article free of charge.”

    Voila! Google has now been turned into a promoter of library services!

  10. With OCLC’s purchase of Openly Informatics, the idea of deploying our local opac to a national provider is not only becoming a viable alternative, but an attractive one. In this scenario, we can not only save money to use on enhanced services, but we can provide access to information that from a staffing and budgetary standpoint, that many of us could not possibly provide on a local level with our opac.

    My belief is that our users don’t care if our OPAC (if they even know exactly what that is) is local or not. They want to know if we have the book, if it is available right now, what formats is it available in, etc. Can a national provider deliver this service? If it can do so as well as our local opac, and provide enhancements we cannot, its something serious to consider

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