June 13, 2007

My Job in 10 Years: Conclusion

To recap:

My Job in 10 Years:

(PDF version of the whole series, including appendices, for printing here.)

In many ways, the speculations I've given over the last many months since June 2005 are a best-case scenario, the scenario where we as librarians and as institutions are able to ride the wave of transformation brought upon by new technologies and social patterns. The interactive & collaborative web are opportunities; failing to seize the opportunities will come back to haunt us as institutions and as a profession. Engaging the net generation is also a formidable opportunity; failing in that task isn't an option. Empty buildings, collapsing circulation and usage statistics for purchased and licensed eresources aren't things I look forward to justifying to our funders.

Our patrons and the social and technological tidal wave they are riding is what is going to drive us to embrace transformation and change.

So, if my extended ramblings over the last two years have a main theme, it's that libraries and librarians have to be able to embrace transformation, to go with the flow. Where once we had a monopoly on research, back in the day when you had to come to the library to get anything done, now our students have options. And we want to remain one of those options.

Some of the transformations will be painful, some will feel natural.

We have to move on several fronts, each just as important:
  • We will have to accept and be at the forefront in changes in scholarly communications patterns. Open access, wikis, blogs, social networks, whatever, we don't want to be viewed by the new generation of scholars as behind the times. If that happens, we'll lose credibility. And credibility is going to be very important as we try to forge a place for ourselves in the new world. So, be an evangelist in your community, be it for blogs or institutional repositories or open access, but we must be at the crest of the wave or we risk going under. Really, we'll miss them more than they'll miss us. Because it's a lot easier for them to get along without us (even if with some inconvenience and inefficiency -- they won't even recognize the inconvenience) that it will be for us to get along without them. We need to use this credibility with faculty and students to encourage them to allow us to take part in their instructional activities, to help them teach their students about being scholars in their fields.

  • We need to become the social learning space on campus. This is vital. We have to transform our physical spaces to make then as collaborative and inviting as we possible can, to be the premier technology labs on campus for creating assignments. This will be a battle as labs in departments will see this as their mission as well. We also can't risk abandoning older roles for our physical space. Libraries will still have some print collections, books and journals mostly but other things as well such as archives and special collections. Magazines like Wired and Scientific American will likely not disappear and we'll have to provide them. We'll have to house retrospective print journal collections where online doesn't exist or we chose not to provide access. Our active print collections will probably be relatively small compared to today but still quite large and we'll need space for those as well. Large collections of older print material, much of which will have quite low usage but which we will not be able to discard, will also need some sort of relatively quick access arrangement. It will also be vital that we maintain quiet study space while also trying new and interesting activities to engage and encourage students to use our spaces. We will also need to be physically present in our spaces though reference and instruction.

  • As for our virtual spaces, we need to build systems that are flexible, scalable, modern, responsive, appropriate, usable, fun, social, studious. It's not going to be easy. Our virtual spaces will need to evolve into places that students want and need to come to, even if they don't necessarily associate them with the physical library. So, we have to figure out what students need from us going forward and provide those collections and services. We have to market and promote those collections and services so that the people that need them will actually find and use them. What's the use of having the New York Times archives available if students only end up using the NYT site and paying themselves for what they're looking for? Or not using news sources at all in assignments, even when it's important to do so. (How many times do we hear from profs that students don't use our resources because they claim they didn't know what was there?) We need to have an active presence in these virtual spaces to continue our reference and instructional functions in these new media.

  • We need to decide what content is worth paying for, either to purchase or to license. There's an explosion of content creation going on out there, an awful lot of it what might be called user-generated content. To the extent that we can harness both our own users and the mass of users on the web in general, that's a great thing. However, there's an awful lot of content that's being digitized or born-digital out there too that's very interesting and very worthwhile. Collections of primary documents, audio & video libraries, image libraries, ebook projects, newspaper archives, and much more -- these are all typically quite expensive to create and the organizations will want to earn back their investment quite on these. Even governments and NGOs that create these repositories may want to get some cost recovery. We need to focus on the fee-based collections that will add the most value to the educations and research programs of our patrons. And if that means participating in digitization and other content-creation projects ourselves, then so be it. If that means deciding that there are other things we've been spending a lot of money on in the past that no longer add the same value, well that's just evolution.

  • Related to the previous point, we also have to get over our obsession with container and focus on content. Personally, I'm second to almost no one as a bibliophile but I also recognize that we owe it to our patrons to give them the content they need in the container that's most appropriate. Sometimes that's going to be a real live paper book (and paper books will part of the collections mix for a good long while yet) but more and more it will be something that isn't a paper book, but that somehow exists online, be it text, audio, video, interactive tutorial, textbook wikis, data, property data, geospatial data, whatever.

What is the thread that binds all these forces acting upon us? All of these follow from the notion that we really need to figure out what we want to spend our money on. We have large budgets, mostly spent on staff and collections. We must continue to invest in the best staff with the best, most forward-looking skills. The new library I envision won't have fewer people, it will have more, they'll just be doing different things. They'll be highly professional and highly skilled in a range of areas, some generalists, some with very a very narrow focus. So, where will the money come from for the transformation? I have to think that it might be from collections. We will have to seriously look at the stuff we're buying and licensing and ruthlessly evaluate whether or not it truly meets the needs of our patrons and act accordingly. What will decline? Print books and A&I databases will decline in importance; to the extent that print books aren't just replaced by ebook packages, we may see some savings. Traditional journal subscriptions will start to transform into some sort of open access model in the 10 year time frame (perhaps to the extent that they will barely be recognizable as journals) so the savings there may just be starting to hit our budgets around then.

But, how are we going to justify spending more of our money on programmers, subject librarians, metadata specialists, software, hardware, virtual environments and all sorts of new services we can't even imagine yet and less on our traditional collections. When our funders say, "Aren't libraries really just about stuff?" what do we respond? Stuff is still important and we'll never stop buying and licensing the stuff we really need, but just like the old industrial economy has transformed into a new service economy where adding value is paramount, so too has the information economy of the library transformed from hoarding stuff to adding value to the intellectual efforts of students and faculty.

At the same time as all these forces are buffeting us, we must also avoid what I call vision drift. In our rush to embrace the new, to be all things to all people, to catch the wave, we must absolutely remember that our core mission is to serve the academic mission of the university. If we try to become a second student centre or cafeteria, then I'm not sure we're on the right track. It's great to be a social and collaborative learning space, but most of us didn't become librarians to serve coffee to teenagers.

Second Thoughts

Over the last two years, I've made a lot of predictions and assumptions. Are there any I regret? Is there anything I forgot to mention but that I think is important? Well, probably lots. But I'll restrict myself to just a handful.

  • I sometimes think I'm overestimating the speed at which print books will decrease in importance. For sure, the decline probably won't happen anywhere near the same way outside scitech fields, but even in scitech fields I'm not sure we won't be buying more textbooks and popular science than I thought before. Review/problem sets like Schaum's Outline Series may survive quite strongly as well since students seem to like them, but on the other hand if anything that seems to be a natural for the online environment. And certainly math and other fields may certainly continue to have a relatively strong monograph culture that will still manifest itself in us buying print books.

  • In the instruction section I didn't write very explicitly about curriculum integration, the idea that IL concepts will become part of what students learn in their program of study, and librarians' role in that process. I probably should have gone into more detail, but frankly it's hard to know what direction that will take. It's nice to think that it'll happen, and that it'll be our efforts to build our credibility as subject specialists that will get our foot in the door, but we'll just have to wait and see.

  • One of the things which I suspect I'm underestimating is the speed at which search & discovery will be transformed by new search tools, new OPAC platforms and the changing nature of scholarly communication. If more and more information becomes available Open Access, then more and more the tools we use to find that information will be open as well.

  • And speaking of scholarly communications, I also think this is an area where I'll be completely surprised by what happens, and surprised a lot sooner than I think. This will be one of the most fun areas to watch. I look forward to watching what happens at exciting places like Nature, PLoS (Hi Bora!), IEEE, ACM and a whole host of other places as new and old publishers forge their places in the new world.

  • The range of portable computing devices is exploding daily it seems, in ways that challenge me to keep track and assimilate. From the iPhone to the BlackBerry, these devices are going to play an exponentially growing role in the things we do and the way we deliver content.

  • Course management systems, virtual worlds, social networking systems are all in their infancy. It's hard to judge their longer term impact on areas such as reference and instruction, so I can't help but wonder if any of my speculations will even remotely resemble what happens.

  • When I started these essays, distance education was something that I really saw as outside the scope of what I was looking at -- the future of a librarians working in a physical science library serving the local student population. That was probably a bit shortsighted, as institutions of higher education are moving into distance ed in a big way. In retrospect, it's something I wish I'd incorporated more directly into each of the essays -- how we will provide collections and services to remote users. Sure, a lot of the stuff I talked about would work for them, but I also tied a lot of my ideas into the physical presence of the library.

  • And speaking of changes in the higher education environment, if I were starting this project all over, I would definitely start with an environment scan. I would look at both the trends and characteristics of the millennials as well as higher level forces that are affecting and changing the higher education environment. I would draw on the kind of things that Pew and OCLC and other organizations have been publishing in the last few years.

Closing thoughts

My sons are 11 and 14 right now. Looking out 8 to 10 years from now (ie. 10 years from when I started this series in 2005), they'll be right in the sweet spot of the generation that will be in university. What do these two data points tell me? First of all, they really do love books, especially my younger son. He'll devour a big, thick novel in no time at all. My older son is a little more eclectic, he reads novels and popular science, both with great pleasure. But for school projects, they'd rather die than use a book; using a book to get information is an unknown quantity for them. Even when I encourage them to do it, they're not that interested. They want to use the web, they want to use easy sources like Wikipedia. For good or ill, these are habits that are going to be hard to break as they get older.

So, if I'm really trying to understand how they will fit into library/information culture when they arrive, it's their focus on easy to find and easy to use. They are truly the iTunes generation, they want to want to consume bits and pieces of information/culture (buying a whole CD seems almost as odd to them as using a book for an assignment). And they can be strangely lacking in discernment too. The most recent song they bought was the old cheeseball Eye of the Tiger. Old, new, good,bad -- it's just not as important as it was too me when I was their age. It'll beinteresting to see if all that will change as they grow up -- for example, I expect as they grow older that they will be more interested in album-sized chunks of unified artistic expression rather than just quick jolts of musical adrenalin. But really, who knows. Although they really haven't gotten into social networking software that much, I think that's coming too. They've used IM a bit and the older has started to hear rumblings about Facebook among his peers. So, I like to think of these predictions as trying to imagine if my sons will be visiting their old Dad at the library one of these days.

As for the predictions themselves, I must admit to feeling a lot of ambivalence about them at this point. And that's because I find myself not necessarily committed to realizing the future I've imagined, only to bringing about a future. If I've imagined wrong, if there are things I didn't anticipate, well that's fine. I'll adjust my vision to changing circumstances and to changing knowledge and try and balance the needs to change with the needs to maintain our core values. A tough balancing act to be sure, but one that I think I'm up to. I want to facilitate a future, one that is good for our patrons but one that also has me in it. And I think that's what we should all aspire to in our professional lives, to bringing about the best future we can imagine, for ourselves and our patrons.

Thank you for your time, attention and patience. I welcome feedback either here in the comments or at jdupuis at yorku dot ca.


Andrew said...

This is a fascinating process, and one that I -- as a PR and marketing professional -- should undertake. The impact of technology on all aspects of communication will wreak many changes on all kinds of crafts and professions.

Andrew Careaga
(one of the Visions bloggers)

John Dupuis said...

Thanks, Andrew, and hopefully you'll be able to do it in under two years...

BTW, I'm a great fan of your Visions blog and use it as an example to follow. It certainly shows that you're prepared for the future already better than most.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this post.

Worth the read indeed!

Martin said...

Eek, I'm a little scared now. I was going to go for an MSIS degree at university at albany, but if the very existance of librarians is threatened... well... :-(