Thursday, July 19, 2007

The future of libraries or getting them what they want

Of all the technology initiatives that go through, the only ones that are noticed are those that are most dear to the users.

Libraries, overall, are still centers for books, information, and internet access points. The top reasons someone doesn't use a library is lack of time, money, or interest.

The first is having the library open at convenient hours. 24 hours sounds great, but not feasible.

The second relates to fines, once accrued, blocks users. The last relates to those who simply don't want to use the library. It could mean that they are not big readers, or that they prefer to buy their books. It is usually the former.

Therefore, there will always be a set population that won't enter the library even with free incentives. I liked the Unshelved strip that stated going after non-readers is like trying to turn someone into a sports fan.

So for the others, just extend hours and get the stuff they want. Isn't that simple enough?

Let's look at several reports and news clips talking about the future of libraries and the future of the book. The first is one already mentioned at Jessmyn's, Do Users Care about our New Initiatives. In it she provides an excellent examination of a new study by the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium
and examines the conclusion that states it is not the technology that fails, but lack of marketing.

"Do they realy think that the solution to getting more people to perceive value from the libraries technology initiatives is to just find a more effective way to market them? Aren’t there questions they could have asked about the services that would have helped nail this down more effectively such as “Are you aare that the library offers downloadable audio books?” “Do you use this service, why or why not?”

As I’ve said before, I think that before we can fully immerse ourselves in a 2.0 initiative as librarians, we have to make sure we’re counting the right things. If you only collect internal statistics on reference interactions that happen in-person or on the phone, it’s no wonder that IM reference seems like a “flavor of the month” thing for the library to do. And, after the fact, if you can’t show that people are really using the new techie things that you do provide it’s harder to stress that those things that should be part of what your library is and does. Many of these things are countable — website stats, flickr photostream views, IM interactions — the question is: are we counting them?


I provided a review of my library's 2.0 stats here. They are certainly not off the charts for technology usage. I could incorporate these stats into my monthly report, but it would just be another stat that my funders would ignore. Impact is from action, not necessarily from usage of technology. Performance based budgeting is all the rage and if it doesn't show up in a strategic plan, then no one cares.

I would say this report confirms that many of these technology tricks are not going anywhere. Even marketing won't work. I have had a twitter feed from the library for some time, but I only have one user that is actually from the city. There is no way to hit this crowd or go to them since online, they are invisible. Too often, a library puts out a great website that uses social networking sites, only to have other librarians say how great and progressive it is. However, most people who are resistant to 2.0 say, "Does this initiative help check-out a book, or increase a core stat?" Usually, the answer is no. I have had more success in getting non-users by expanding the print sources of the library's news. The best way to get users in the library is word of mouth. They can come once to find bad service and never come back. If you have fantastic service, enough for people to talk about, then you don't need any marketing for that.

Here is a snippet from the Report:


P. 16
Section Four: New Initiatives
In the 2003 survey, the new initiatives targeted very specific technology projects (i.e. netLibrary), and had a very low response rate. The goal of the current new initiatives section is to examine more general ideas or potential initiatives of interest to public libraries. The following table examines these new initiatives in terms of library users and non-users.
p 17
Section Five: What Would Increase Library Use?
The previous section of the report suggests that technology may not be a way to increase library use, but is there anything else that could?

What is particularly interesting about this table is that non-library users more readily agree that they would use the library more if it were easier to get to than users do. This item is the only one where non-users agreed more than users did, though both groups still somewhat disagree with the statement.

The general trend is that no item appears to be a strong indicator to increase use among users or non-users. The means for all cases are tending negatively, suggesting little interest from both users and non-users in the proposed initiatives. The only initiative with a positive reaction is wireless Internet access, and even this response is effectively neutral for library users. Library users are more moderate in their degree of disinterest with the proposed initiatives, but are still disinterested in most initiatives.


In my community, a recent study showed the two of the top three things our citizens love is the library's collection and hours of availability. So in reality, I can create a myspace page for the library, but ordering the right books, being open the right hours are the real key to get users and non-users. That's it, no magic bullet.

The funny thing about 2.0 is that it reinvents the wheel. Libraries have always been focused on getting what the users want. We listen to recommendations for books and services and adjust. It isn't totally user controlled, but in most libraries, it practically is. Users build the collection, if a library is paying attention, it is totally in the hands of users since they vote with their library card. Watch the stats and react.

But long term, what's in store?

In the future, the library may no longer house books, they may create access points. In the O'reilly blog, it talks states If Libraries had shareholders, would they be making an about face much like the newspaper industry. Here is an example from that:

Undergraduates entering universities in the United States use the library as a study space, a socializing space, but to a shocking and frightening extent, they do not use library services or library materials. [...] We're losing clientele; students may come in the library to study, to socialize, to hit the newly installed cafe designed to lure them in, but they're not using library materials, or library services, at anything like the rate they did even ten years ago.

So the library is being used, but not in its traditional way. It is a space issue and the future of libraries are two fold, a space to be that is non-directed, and advanced information and collections that can go to the user whenever they want them. Ironically, one could see a library that is used for its public space, but its collections used from home. Interesting phenomenon.

As books become more digital, their access online can mimic a book. As mentioned in If:Book:

Imagine a library that collected all the world's information about all the world's books and made it available for everyone to view and update. We're building that library.

The official opening of Open Library isn't scheduled till October, but they've put out the demo now to prove this is more than vaporware and to solicit feedback and rally support. If all goes well, it's conceivable that this could become the main destination on the Web for people looking for information in and about books: a Wikipedia for libraries. On presentation of public domain texts, they already have Google beat, even with recent upgrades to the GBS system including a plain text viewing option. The Open Library provides TXT, PDF, DjVu (a high-res visual document browser), and its own custom-built Book Viewer tool, a digital page-flip interface that presents scanned public domain books in facing pages that the reader can leaf through, search and (eventually) magnify.

Page turning interfaces have been something of a fad recently, appearing first in the British Library's Turning the Pages manuscript preservation program (specifically cited as inspiration for the OL Book Viewer) and later proliferating across all manner of digital magazines, comics and brochures (often through companies that you can pay to convert a PDF into a sexy virtual object complete with drag-able page corners that writhe when tickled with a mouse, and a paper-like rustling sound every time a page is turned).

This sort of reenactment of paper functionality is perhaps too literal, opting for imitation rather than innovation, but it does offer some advantages.

The last paper book will probably die in a library. People will still have their private collections, but libraries will be the last to hold them. Over time, libraries will become access points to basic services such as the internet, information, and reading, but these will be available online. The users will use the library for its space, but also use it at home for its access. The dual nature of libraries.

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