Brewing up Access and Delivery to Reach users

Convergent Library Services and Systems
Cyril Oberlander, SUNY Geneseo

When you consider library discovery mechanisms, we’re a creative bunch — we want SO MUCH — but we’re very fractured as a result.  Therefore, within 10 years, search engines took the central focus of discovery away from libraries.  Recommends David Walker’s presentation on Worldcat API.

Our technologies and services make delivery very problematic.  There are dead-end paths everywhere, because the user has to learn the rules and the roads and the tricks that get them from point A to point B.  If you were brand new to a library, how easy would you think it was to find information?  Would you be compelled to ask a librarian or a friend for help?  Compare that to finding information on the web… is it equally hard?  Users say no.  The social networking aspect of new web technologies blurs this question, and will be interesting to watch.

[and then he makes us actually TALK to each other, asking what we’d like to see as the top two priorities for technology to be implemented in libraries.  My table digressed wildly onto getting students a little headset to put on which will interpret their information need and then deliver the materials to them by teleportation technology.]

Cyril gathered up our votes and ideas, and said that “this is your votes for what’s most important for libraries, and I feel badly for wasting an hour of your time talking, because you are the people who can go out and make these things happen.”  He bets that our votes focused on discovery — because that’s what librarians do, look at things as a discovery problem.  But what do users consider to be important?  The crowd whispers, “Delivery”.  Cyril says we can assume that the user thinks that they’re discovering plenty of information, but they want to get it more effectively.  They want delivery.  The web gives them delivery.

Libraries still have a significant role in information delivery, but only if users know us very well.  Libraries like to have multiple services and delivery mechanisms based on our interpretations of information and users.  This simply complicates user access, and we need to reconsider our service silos.  We need to re-look at the idea of what a ‘request’ is, and ask what users really want from us.

When people place ILL requests, they are telling us what they really want from us.  We have made a lot of decisions in the past based on things other than what users are telling us, and we need to rethink them.  We can get volumes from the information they’re offering us, and we can create change with it.  We derive a lot of value from our meetings with our colleagues and our peers, but we must learn to refocus our attention onto users, and create our migration plan for the future based on the user’s needs.

So, we have to ask.  What are the users’ needs?  What are the library’s needs?  What are the vendors’ needs?  We need all three pieces in place in order to move forward productively.  Right now, we expect users to come into the library to pick up information.  Users expect to have information delivered.  This isn’t an unfair expectation; the market has provided information delivery services all over the open web.  We have to consider the user’s world before we insist that libraries are doing everything right.  Dozens (hundreds?) of commercial book delivery services have sprung up on the internet in the past 10 years, and they are free, they provide information to the user’s home, and they do it without the roadblocks that complicated library systems often erect.  We can and should be taking advantage of this environment and these user desires.

Our strategies have to mature with the times.  Cyril offers a good example of market forces that we have not matured our services to capitalize on:  An article purchased directly from Elsevier through ScienceDirect costs $30.  The average cost of an ILLed article is $17, plus $35 for the copyright on this particular article.  Most libraries are choosing the ILL option.  The more expensive option. Because “that’s how we do things.”  We need a new way of doing things.

Question:  Why are we so opposed to delivering books directly to users?  We have comfortably moved to mailing or scanning articles and delivering them to patrons.  Why is book delivery so hard for us to consider in this environment?  Why can we not link our internal processes — ordering, receipt, cataloging, and delivery — to external services, in order to provide faster, better, more responsive service to users?  Answer:  If we choose to, we can do all of these things.  We must simply choose.  APIs, commercial services, and emerging technologies are making it possible to push and pull our data into new interfaces that will allow this to happen.

But we have to bash down our silos.  Acquisitions and ILL think they are very different, but they do so many similar things:  Check holdings, ascertain availability, determine efficiency of material acquisitions, monitor transactions, and serve up to users.  But we speak two different languages about these tasks depending on where they’re housed.  Why?  Why can these two library functions not be merged?

At what point do we decide that it’s more effective to (fairly, legally) digitize works on demand rather than shipping physical items?  At what point do we decide to authorize purchase works on demand rather than borrowing them?  At what point do we decide to fund materials acquisition and materials borrowing as though they were one activity?  We need to find our places of parallel activity and merge them.  Our converging services need to be merged, to find and create efficiency that will improve service.

We need to create community spaces that our users feel a part of.  If we’re trying to reach our users, we need to know who we are.  We used to be about print reference materials — but that’s no longer the case.  And we cannot do effective outreach or build useful community unless we know who we are and what we do well.  We need to redefine that.  We also need to know who they are, and actually care about what matters to them.

“Lastly, the future is going to be very fun.”  Less about “the library” and more about projects, group studies, and getting our collections and spaces to work with the user and groups of users.

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