In my previous posting, I focused on what I believe to be dim prospects for the Encyclopedia Britannica as it transforms from a set of printed volumes into a networked online information portal. My skepticism stems from the fact that although the EB claims to offer “the breadth of the world’s knowledge,” its coverage of the world’s knowledge is actually severely limited; it offers scant information on many topics and none at all on many others. To me, the likelihood that it will find many paying customers — especially given the free availability of similar, easy-to-use, and far more comprehensive resources, such as Wikipedia — seems low.
Today, I’d like to suggest that the traditional research library faces a similar challenge. The library collection is simply a bigger version of the encyclopedia: a seemingly exhaustive but actually (in the great majority of cases) very limited information portal that invites increasingly-skeptical customers to “start your research here.”
It’s worth asking why a patron would (or should) want to start his or her research with the library collection. The answer will obviously depend on what kind of research is being done. If the patron is looking for a known item, then the question he is asking himself is Can I get quick and easy access to Document X? The library does a good job of answering that question for its patrons. Library catalogs are generally pretty effective tools for known-item searching, and academic libraries have gotten quite good at providing easy access to the items in their collections, many now going so far as to offer free on-campus delivery of books and personal electronic delivery of articles.
But known-item searching constitutes only a small part of the scholarly research process. A much larger and arguably more important part of that process is the one that involves the question Is there any such thing as a document dealing with Topic X? The traditional library is, and always has been, poorly positioned to answer that question. While the library catalog can tell you whether or not it holds a book or article on Topic X, it should be obvious that this question is more or less beside the point to a researcher, whose world is not defined by the boundaries of the library. Finding relevant documents or citations among the library’s offerings doesn’t answer the question fully (are there others?), and establishing a lack of them in the library doesn’t answer the question at all.
There was a time — not very long ago — when the boundaries of one’s local library collection did more or less define one’s functional information world, and therefore the functional difference between these two questions (“Does my library own . . .” and “Is there such a thing as . . .”) was much smaller. During that period it made more sense to conflate those questions, and it made sense for libraries to encourage their patrons to “start your research here” — not that such encouragement was really necessary, as patrons had few other options. The fact that the library’s collection was severely limited in coverage, and that it was difficult to navigate, reachable only by travel, and open only part of the day posed little threat to the library’s position as an information and research portal, because it had no real competitors for that position.
Obviously, the information environment now teems with such competitors. But much more importantly, it’s now very difficult for any new entrant to the portal marketplace to get a foothold. Those who want quick information on a particular topic and might once have turned to a traditional encyclopedia now have Wikipedia — which is free, very easy to use, much more comprehensive in its coverage than any traditional encyclopedia, and reasonably authoritative. And those who want to figure out whether there is such a thing as a document on Topic X now have Google — which is free, very easy to use, and searches an astronomically huge (though not absolutely comprehensive) array of documents, many of which can be directly accessed in their entirety right from the search result, and others of which are discoverable as citations. Taken together, Google and Wikipedia arguably do an awful lot of what the library once did, and they do it more effectively, more conveniently, and for a much, much larger population than any individual library can serve. And they never close.
One obvious response to this argument is that part of the library’s value lies in its selectiveness. Like an encyclopedia, it not only includes but also excludes. This means that the library’s value proposition is not just that it includes everything you’ll need, but also that you won’t have to waste a lot of time slogging through what you don’t need. The problem with this value proposition is that it constitutes a solution to a problem that many of us actually experience quite rarely these days: that of being overwhelmed by information. We don’t actually have to slog through irrelevancies very often. Yes, results of a Google search might number in the millions. But its sorting algorithms have gotten so good at intuiting what the searcher is looking for that it’s rarely necessary to look beyond the first page of results to find exactly what one is after. Even if you need a wider range of sources, you will often find as much as you need within the first few screens of the search result; the fact that the entirety of that result tails off into hundreds of thousands of other hits doesn’t usually impinge on one’s searching experience.
The simple (and slightly terrifying, to a professional discriminator) fact is that selectivity offers less value in an environment of networked online access and full-text searchability than it did when information was housed in printed documents. One purpose of selectivity is to keep the size of the document manageable—but if you don’t have to carry the document on a bike or store it on a shelf and can search its entire text without recourse to an index, then document size becomes much less of an issue. Another goal of selectivity is to save the neophyte the effort of trying to figure out what’s essential and what isn’t. This is an honorable endeavor, but it assumes that people only need access to what we librarians consider essential (or even of high quality). In reality, researchers’ needs vary widely from person to person and from project to project, and they may well need access to materials that we would not consider to be core, reliable resources.
A more encouraging fact for libraries is that while both Wikipedia and Google offer unprecedented coverage and ease of access, neither of them offers a staff of dedicated helpers ready and waiting to help researchers shape their projects and locate relevant and high-quality sources. This is significant, and it represents one of the traditional library’s stronger value propositions (although as a service model, it suffers from serious structural limitations). As long as students and researchers believe that they need help, librarians will likely have an important role to play.
But in its fight to retain a strong position in the marketplace of researchers’ time and attention, I think the library’s most powerful weapon is the type of material we usually refer to as “special collections.” Patrons can get commercially-published books and articles from any number of sources, but if your library owns a truly unique document (like a daguerrotype portrait of a 19th-century actor, or the handwritten diary of a Mormon pioneer, or a typescript transcription of an oral history) then access to that document constitutes a genuinely unique value proposition. Historically, we in research libraries have tended to consign special collections to something of a ghetto—a benign and beloved one to be sure, but one that is somewhat outside the mainstream of everyday library services.
That has to change. Greg Silvis, of the University of Delaware library, put it very well when he argued recently that “the future of libraries will not be found in commodity (catalog) records for commodity books.” Serving as a broker for resources that exist in many different copies in multiple formats and that can be found easily through Amazon or iTunes and purchased at reasonable prices is not an area of growing opportunity for libraries. Where we offer real and unique value, value that separates us from the competition, is in those areas in which we have no competition.
Is there enough demand for such resources to keep us in business? One problem with focusing on these materials is that (unlike our general collections) they’re likely to be of serious interest to a relatively small subset of our local client base. One solution to this problem is, of course, digitization, by which we can make much (if not all) of the relevant content accessible to an audience of billions. So then the next question is: can we convince our sponsoring institutions that supporting the provision of that kind of value to billions of people who are mostly outside of our service remit is the best way to invest institutional funds? That’s probably a good topic for a future post.