posted 1 Mar 2011 in Volume 14 Issue 5
Vanessa Lewis explores the future of libraries and how different information demands will help determine their relevance
If you search the internet for ‘future of libraries’ or ‘changing role of librarians’ you will read a lot of comments about books disappearing from shelves; about archives of information no longer being accessed; and users wanting to find all their information online. Ask a librarian and they will agree that there is a shift in the information needs of library patrons. What you will also hear is that there is a continuing role for the libraries in public, corporate, government and other environments.
While libraries have always been about more than just lending books, a change that has been happening for a number of years is that it is no longer enough for clients to borrow material and seek their answers that way. Users are moving towards applications and gadgets that give them access to what they want, in a format they want, when they want it. Smart phones, digital tablets and eBook readers provide us with the tools to access vast stores of information quickly and easily. So where do libraries fit in the digital future?
Challenges for libraries
Libraries face the same challenges that all organisations face; funding, staffing, marketing and so on. But they also face a number of challenges that some people think will lead to the end of physical libraries. The issues below are trends that I have observed from a government library perspective and are focused on how librarians can embrace these challenges and use them to create new areas of work for their libraries.
The ease of finding the information online – the first part of this challenge happened with the effortless access to information from sources like online media or search engines. The next phase of the challenge is currently at its peak and involves finding out what news is trending on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Online search tools – many people use these tools because the technology is simple. But even that is rapidly changing as search tools become more sophisticated and offer a search experience that has never happened before. Smart phones for example include applications so you can take a photo with your phone and use the image to search for information like maps, directions or the location of your nearest library.
The competing priority of digital versus hard copy – all libraries have material that isn’t available electronically. Librarians need to find a way to digitise the wealth of relevant material in archives in a way that is cost effective to the library and in a format that users will take advantage of.
The growing catalogue of e-books – the increase of material available in e-book format should be exciting for libraries. Often the discussion about eBooks is hindered by licensing and contract agreements and what the increase of eBooks means for the physical collection of libraries.
With these examples it’s not just the tool that potentially makes information quick and easy to use. The format of information delivery has changed dramatically. Cheaper data plans, portable devices and the ease of customising the tools means that the physical space of the library competes with handheld devices and mobile phones.
Opportunities for librarians
The ease of finding information online
The increasing amount of information now available and the ease of accessing it can actually make keeping up to date very difficult. The need to filter information and evaluate sources has increased, but the time and skills to do this may not grow at the same rate – if anything the time that people spend sifting through newsfeeds and social media content will decrease.
More than just online media and news sites, the external environment – websites, subscription databases, and search engines – can become an overwhelming inundation of information for the user. By using various technologies and initiatives including federated searching, enriched catalogue content, social bookmarking and many others, librarians can create tools to assist the user to confidently navigate through quality information resources making this external information environment quickly and easily searchable.
The need to access vast amounts of information will continue to grow and as Web 2.0 tools mature into the dynamic and personalised space of web 3.0, the methods for interacting with that information will change. The ease of use and the low (or no) cost of use make sites like Twitter attractive, but what will be the cost for staff spending time searching and not finding? As information specialists, librarians are well placed to step in and support their community of users by collaborating with them to filter through the masses of information.
Online search tools
As more and more information becomes available, users don’t want to spend time searching for information; they just want to find it. As the search technology develops, people will not have the time and in some cases the skill to keep up to date with innovations.
Part of the resilience and survival of librarians is the ability to embrace new information technology and create something innovative. New products are developed almost daily and the choice for what to use becomes more difficult. Understanding information technologies and how they can benefit users is a role for librarians. Libraries have the potential to become a technology resource for patrons.
Again, when you read about the future of libraries, a lot of commentary discusses the role that widgets and applications play in connecting users to resources quickly and easily. For government organisations, this is not always the case due to privacy and security measures. Delivery of resources in these organisations is most likely to come via the desktop and this presents an opportunity for librarians to engage with users.
The way we view the web and how we interact with information continues to change with the term Web 3.0 being used to describe this next stage of web development. The key terms that are most frequently used to describe Web 3.0 are portable, semantic web, user engagement, customisation and ‘global information’. Librarians and information professionals have a history of providing information to users in formats they want – this shouldn’t change because the tools develop into something new. Librarians can continue do what they have always done; we will just use different tools to do it.
The competing priority of digital versus hard copy
Digital collections create another opportunity for librarians to collaborate with users and add value to existing content. By seeking out material that is in the library archive (or in some organisations on the bookshelves of senior executives), digitising it and making it available via library catalogues, librarians can create a subset of information that isn’t discoverable in any other way.
This can also take that one step further by engaging users and using collaborative tools like a wiki to capture the corporate or community knowledge that goes along with the digitised documents. Library spaces could potentially become podcast stations for recording local knowledge, or areas for collaboration via wiki’s and blogs. Librarians should also look to the semantic web for ways of delivering information to users. To quote Tim Berners-Lee:
“The Semantic Web isn’t just about putting data on the web. It is about making links, so that a person or machine can explore the web of data. With linked data, when you have some of it, you can find other, related, data.”1
Librarians have been organising and cataloguing information since there have been libraries. Embracing the semantic web only requires a small change from librarians. The semantic web provides the potential for librarians to take previously unrelated content (information sitting in silos throughout an organisation) and describe the information in a way that creates the relevant links.
As well as exploring digitised content and the best way to make it accessible in the long term, libraries also play an important role in archiving the community information. Whether it’s the public, corporate or government community some hard copy material will need preservation.
The growing catalogue of ebooks
The use of e-books in libraries can depend on licensing, budgets, technology and the type of material available in that format. Government and corporate libraries may not have the technology to support e-readers and the downloading of electronic material to a portable device, but access to the desktop within an organisation can provide information more broadly. Purchasing access to an entire bookshelf of material can provide cost savings – tens of thousands of titles can be purchased for less than the same number in hard copy.
The role that librarians have is negotiating with vendors and publishers for an access model that suits the information needs of the organisation. Contract and licensing discussions should also include ways to integrate the material into existing platforms.
E-books are often stated as marking the end of libraries. I don’t know what effect the increasing push for e-books will have in the long term. From my perspective, working in a government library, there are still a lot of books not published in electronic format that need to be purchased and made available for borrowing. Those collections that are available electronically can be delivered along side traditional material seamlessly to the user.
A key benefit of e-books for librarians is the time saved in accessioning hard copy material. Previously librarians would have spent time cataloguing, making the book ready for the shelf, shelving returned items and chasing up overdue loans; if more material is delivered to the user outside of the library (desktop or portable device), librarians have more time to engage with the community of users for the collaboration and co-design of new content.
While no one can predict what libraries will look like in 10 years time, it’s clear that formats have changed and will continue to change, delivery platforms have changed and will continue to change, but the users still need to have their information needs met in both the virtual and physical domains.
The old model where users were the passive recipients of information no longer applies. Users now want to do more than read and download – they want to create, modify and re-package the information they interact with. To retain relevance libraries must adapt to and make available the different systems, social interactions and renewed library spaces. By moving beyond the physical space of the library and engaging with users to place them at the centre of the consultation, collaboration and design, librarians have a very promising future.
Vanessa Lewis is a director of library and information services at the Australian Taxation Office. She can be contacted at Vanesssa.Lewis@ato.gov.au
1. Linked Data – Design issues, [http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/LinkedData.html]