Friday, January 18, 2013

Can The Public Library Deliver That Golden Egg?

Why do we allow the goose that could lay a golden egg to decline? If you could envisage one service , one hub, one recognised body from today that could do battle with the internet’s digital  omnivores and add real value, it would not be the big chains, nor the media chains, not the independent bookstores and not even the supermarkets, but could be the public library.

The public library has the real ability to add real value and to be a real community hub in social network community world. But does it understand this, or as in the UK, is it obsessed with its statutory obligations and keeping everything ‘as is’ at all costs? Are the ‘Shhh, no noise’ signs actually hiding a sleeping environment that is simply not listening to the market and its customers?

We are witnessing harsh funding cuts, a worrying migration to voluntary services, the wholesale dumping of every customer facing civic service into the library’s ‘underused space’ and a general lack of leadership and digital direction within the public library community.

This last week we read about further potential cuts to library services in Newcastle, Sheffield and Islington, but today’s  budget cuts of today are not so much a result of the current financial climate but the years of lack of leadership, coherent strategy which have lead them to be seen as ‘soft targets’ for decline and cuts today. Joining up the service dots now is proving a challenge in an environment full of different agendas and too many experts. Many ‘talk the talk’, but few ‘walk the walk’ and innovation is often viewed as ‘not invented here’. There are as with any diverse group, exceptions which will get quoted to rebuke this view, but the majority remain wedded to the past, or find them selves struggling to treat the patient that is now past plasters and bandages.

Has the media and publishing community really helped? Where they there when the market started to turn digital, or sitting on the side looking after their own interests? Why is the only real substantial offer in the UK libraries from the US Overdrive? Why are some publishers still undecided on how to licence ebooks to libraries and some more concerned about reorders for no worn out digital copies than promoting open lending? We will give books away to promote reading. We will support 15 million unit promotions with junk food giants, but we still fail to resolve the digital economics of ebooks in a library world. There is no national incentive to build a UK digital library to serve all but several initiatives to outsource the core business to others such as Overdrive.

Perhaps we are dreamers, but replicating digital programmes in every community and ‘cut and pasting’ Overdrive’s API onto the back of the library system is not a viable long term solution and is not a sustainable model.

Some have suggested that libraries should only be able to lend digital books from the physical library. We wish they had used the same logic on the High Street, but again we all know how ludicrous that argument would have been. Libraries now have to be available 365 x 24 x 7 and the internet offer today in many is woefully short of offering that service. It’s not just about digital its about community service and that should not stop when the librarian shuts the door. 

Some have struggled to define what staffing resources should be in the front line. Its not about staff but resources and access to them. Educators are realising that all teachers are not equal and that the ‘best of class’ resources can be brought in by services like TED Ed. We can’t expect staff to be experts in everything and have knowledge of all things, they should be great with people, know where to find the best help, engage  are developing why do we believe that every librarian is perfect? The key is to adopt a uniform approach that engage in many ways and levels and that owns the interface until the customer is satisfied. Libraries don’t need an Information Managers but a Customer Mangers with access to information. 

We have to recognise that Amazon is just one step away from being a universal library today! Look at FreeTime, LoveFilm, Audible, or their own ebook lending programme and ask what is different to a library. Google and Wikipedia are accepted as the sources of information that is good enough for the majority and available in a click. Google is scanning in the world’s top libraries and amassing a significant body of work. They will only hold it once and they can serve it to answer any search , or as a feed, or to sell and of course to growth advertising revenues. If Amazon has the media and Google the information what does the library have except the legacy and cost? The key is collective vision and co-operation, something often foreign to ‘information managers’.

Why do we believe that libraries have a place tomorrow and can lay that golden egg? How do we think that they can offer real value to the community? Why do we think that they can fare any better than the doomed chains when pitted against the Internet omnivores?

They are community hubs, funded by the community for the community and not merely to satisfy the letter of a law. They are meeting places and social hubs. They are sources of and access to information. If they focus on these aspects they can justify there future. However co-operation and a dramatic reduction of duplication and resources are the keys and the question should be how the communities can be structured to enable this and deliver that golden egg. 

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with the main point here that public libraries should/could be delivering the golden egg, but not that it’s “not about staff but resources and access to them” only.

Over and over again we see this sentiment that it’s only about the stuff, whether digital, paper, the building, computers, tablets, etc. Merely providing “customer service” with a smile is all one needs to qualify to work in a public library since Google is the premier information provider and anyone can do that. Really?

Don’t people understand that free online sources of information are often marketing devices and that do not always delivery the most reliable data, that most searches come out differently depending on where you are and what the search engine ‘’thinks” you want? You will just be skimming the surface if you think Google or Wikipedia is the end-all and it’s educated librarians who are in the best place to take the searching further. Yep, educated, paid professionals not just volunteers with an “Ask Me” pin stuck to their lapel.

Does it not take education, maturity, commitment, and no less experience to facilitate collective vision and cooperation as well? This is merely customer service too? Who is going to go into their community and facilitate programming and connect with people? Again, are you just going to rely on “customer service” here? Come on, when are we going to get past the commodified, dumbed-down approach to the public good that educators, schools, librarians and libraries should be transcending.