Monday, August 07, 2006

The Perfect Storm: Did Libraries Miss the Weather Reports?

I had a chance to start reading a 2005 book from three time Pulitzer prize New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman entitled The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. While the book has received mixed reviews it has certainly sparked conversation.

Friedman describes how an unplanned cascade of events and advances in technology and communications has effectively leveled the economic world. He contends that although the dot-com bubble and subsequent bust was bad for some investors, it was beneficial in opening up world markets. The overcapacity which produced the bust reduced cost of entry and enabled players from marginal regions, like China and India, to get into those markets.

Friedman discusses how specific events converged around the year 2000, and "“created a flat world: a global, web-enabled platform for multiple forms of sharing knowledge and work, irrespective of time, distance, geography and increasingly, language." A"“political perfect storm" including the dotcom bust, 9/11, and Enron "“distract us completely as a country. Just when we need to face the fact of globalization and the need to compete in a new world, “we we’re looking totally elsewhere."

In thinking about this, the library world has also experienced a perfect storm of events which has flattened the information world. Just when we need to face the fact we needed to compete in a new networked world, we too may have been looking elsewhere when:
  • NSFNet: The first TCP/IP network was opened to commercial interests in 1985.
  • WWW: CERN first publicizes Tim Berners-Lee's work in 1991. Allows anyone to publish online.
  • NCSA Mosaic 1.0: The first graphical web browser released in 1993 gave users easy access to information resources anywhere on the Internet.
  • Google: Started as a result of a personal argument and in 1996 and grew into a research project called BackRub. Recent forays into the library space including Google Print, Google Scholar, and Google Library are having a disruptive effect on libraries.
  • Open Source: Is the infrastructure under many Web 2.0 services. Yet, most libraries have not embraced the approach and still rely on vendor-based proprietary systems.
  • Social Software: The rise in popularity of MySpace and other social software based services are creating new information sharing networks outside librarysphere. The rise of social tagging.
  • Wireless: Devices can access information resources from anywhere. Library customers are no longer dependent on the library as building.
There are librarians out there that may view all of the above as being bad for the future of libraries. I, however, feel they have been extremely beneficial in opening up world of information. The fact that people are using Google, consuming information, and are creating and posting content (and tagging it) is the important point.

Some librarians are very anxious over the ideas of social tagging, wikipedias, and customers not entering the library building. These tools and the resulting information seeking behaviors are now a part of the information landscape. Or, as Lorcan Dempsey points out, they are now a part of the "lifeflow":

"We have begun to realize more keenly that the library needs to co-evolve with user behaviors. This means that understanding the way in which research, learning, and consumer behaviors are changing is key to understanding how libraries must respond. And as network behavior is increasingly supported by workflow and resource integration services, the library must think about how to make its services available to those workflows."

Libraries have reached a new crisis point in their evolution. If we continue to stay outside the information flow of our customers then libraries will have a very big crisis on our hands, one which we may never recover. It is therefore more critical now then ever for library leaders to adopt a new vision, reallocate resources, and create new service models and get back in the flow. Sphere: Related Content


T Scott said...

I'm not a fan of Friedman's writing style, and I think he overdoes the "world is flat" metaphor, but I agree that the book is must reading for librarians. I commented on it last January here:

Eric Schnell said...

Thanks T Scott. I had not read your post until now and as always I appreciate your perspective, especially:

"The challenge for us is not to try to figure out how to dig in our heels, get people to quit using Google and force them to come into our libraries -- that's the buggy-whip manufacturers talking. Our job is help the people in our communities navigate this very complex information space effectively. For that, excellent librarians are essential.