THE DEFECT IN REALISM
Last week I asked why it was that Amazon beat us at our own game of constructing catalogs. This week I'd like to suggest one possible reason: we may be too realistic for our own good.
We know that libraries exist either by the marginal grace of taxpayers, or by that of institutions which see them solely as a cost, rather than a generator of revenue. We understand that given the excessive rate of inflation in books and journal prices, and the technoeconomic imperative that forces us to continually add to and upgrade our equipment, our funders view libraries as a black hole capable of sucking up all available revenue.
I suspect what that means for many of us is that we focus our energies on what seems doable -- keeping what we've got, with maybe a few add-ons here and there. If you're busy fighting for an extra $20,000 just to maintain the periodicals budget alone, if you're working with an administration that would rather risk it costing $150,000 to buy compact shelving over six years than shell out $60,000 in one year to buy it all at once, it's hard to think about, let alone try to sell, blue-sky ideas that may run into the millions.
As some of you pointed out to me after last week's article appeared, Amazon could afford to spend millions of dollars on servers and software because they expected to make money doing it, and they got the start-up money upfront from other people who believed they would succeed. We know perfectly well that taxpayers and our administrations wouldn't fork over that kind of money, don't we?
Actually, I'm not sure we do, because I don't know if we ever asked them. Certainly we've gotten up the nerve to ask for bright, shiny, expensive, new buildings, and the equipment for them, because those are big, visible, obvious benefits people might be willing to pay for. But who of us would go to our administrations and say, "Give me a few million dollars and I'll produce the ultimate user-friendly catalog that, by telling people everything about any book or video or recording in our library, will help them find everything else they want to know"?
Even if we could think of the idea in the first place, would we propose it? It would require so much explaining, to people who don't understand much about libraries, who may not think libraries are all that important, who may still resent our decision to dispose of the card catalog. It would require extraordinary persuasive skill to sell the idea, first to a few influential potential allies, and then to a wider public. It would require the library director to have enormous credibility, to be well-known for the ability to deliver promised services, on budget and on time. And it would require the ability to build a scalable budget for the project, because sure as shooting, if the idea makes headway at all, it will be on a smaller budget than what you're asking for.
Daunting, isn't it? It's a lot easier to ask for what you're already getting, but more of it; people may not understand even these expenditures very well, but at least budget items like periodicals and equipment and licensed databases have the benefit of custom behind them.
The problem is, when we scale your dreams to fit our realistic budget, we might end up with cut-rate dreams, and people like Jeff Bezos and Stephen Brill might zip right past us and create a future that makes libraries irrelevant. As Joe Janes of the University of Washington says: "The AskJeeves of the world did not steal our users. We gave them away and it's time to get them back."
The political problems for any one library director are great enough that it seems to me serious blue-skying has to be done at the consortium level -- it's always easier to convince our own funders to contribute a portion of funding to a project a larger body is responsible for. Consortiums also have a wider range of funding resources to draw on -- state funding and grants, as well as member contributions.
If you've been playing the incrementalism game, how do you re-orient your thinking and learn how to dream big? One way is to pay attention to emerging technologies, and ask ourselves whether our own services might be improved by using them. [Are any of you investigating whether wireless library networks would be desirable or feasible?] Another way is to remember that many of the ways we do things now are habits based on the limitations of past technologies, and that we don't necessarily have to keep on doing them that way -- we put SEE references in just the few obvious places, because there was no way we could guess ALL the ways our users could misspell a word. We should re-examine every single service we perform, and the way we perform it, from the point of view of our users: could we make it more accessible, or more convenient? Do separate functions, like readers advisory service and the catalog, need to be separate? Can we incorporate fuzzy logic into our systems so that people can find things they can't spell?
In the Spring, 2001 issue of Library Futures Quarterly, John Guscott offers some "rules for imagining the future of your library." I really recommend that you read it and think through his questions. And that when you're finished, your consortium holds a "blue skying" meeting to talk about the futures that might be desirable and possible.
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Note: Thanks for the contributions I've been getting from some of you in response to my request that you tell us what your essential web sites are for your particular field of specialization, but I'm still soliciting more. Next week I'll start runing your answers.
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When choosing what path to take to the future, remember the most important factor is not to choose the future that you, advertisers, politicians or technologists would like to see, but what will make a difference in the lives of those you serve. Beware of technolust, which is especially rampant in our society. Never choose a future just because it is technologically alluring. It is easy to choose any future, but the best ones will be useful, solve a need, and be marketable.
John Guscott. "Rules for Imagining the Future of Your Library." Library Futures Quarterly, Spring, 2001. (available by subscription at http://www.libraryfutures.com/)
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.
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