The other day I read a kind of fascinating dissection of the performance of Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer during the first two years of her tenure. The analysis of her decisions (both good and bad) was interesting to me in and of itself, but as usual when reading an article about organizations dealing with radical change in their environments, I was also looking for lessons I could derive for leadership in libraries. Also as usual, I was getting the incredibly frustrating but very familiar feeling that those lessons were there to be seen, but that I was failing to see them. Then came the final two paragraphs, which I will discuss separately:
In many ways, Yahoo’s decline from a $128 billion company to one worth virtually nothing is entirely natural. Yahoo grew into a colossus by solving a problem that no longer exists. And while Yahoo’s products have undeniably improved, and its culture has become more innovative, it’s unlikely that Mayer can reverse an inevitability unless she creates the next iPod. All breakthrough companies, after all, will eventually plateau and then decline. U.S. Steel was the first billion-dollar company in 1901, but it was worth about the same in 1991. Kodak, which once employed nearly 80,000 people, now has a market value below $1 billion. Packard and Hudson ruled the roads for more than 40 years before disappearing. These companies matured and receded over the course of generations, in some cases even a century. Yahoo went through the process in 20 years. In the technology industry, things move fast.
Three things struck me immediately about these observations: first and most obviously, the fact that even mighty corporate entities will eventually fall, no matter how invincible they seem today. (In Percy Shelley’s famous poem, two monumental carved legs stand alone in the Egyptian desert, surrounded by sand, “boundless and bare.” By their feet is inscribed “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”)
Second, the irrelevance of past performance to future performance when everything about the context in which you’re performing has changed. Being the best in the world at something that hardly anyone wants you to do any longer is a losing strategy, regardless of how much everyone in the world wanted you to do it 20 or 10 years ago—or two years ago, or one—and regardless of whether or not we all agree that the thing you’re doing is good, right, and admirable. Sometimes people don’t care about you doing that thing anymore because they no longer care (rightly or wrongly) about the thing itself; sometimes they no longer care about you doing it because someone else is doing that thing decisively better.
And here, of course, is a cautionary lesson for research libraries: for at least a century, the library was the Ozymandias that bestrode the world of information-seeking; in 1950 (or 1990, for that matter), despite the warnings of fevered futurists, it was hard to take seriously the idea of a world in which most people would bypass the library, consistently and systematically, in their search for information. Then everything changed, very suddenly and very radically, and it is now difficult to take seriously the idea of most people beginning their research process within the walls (either physical or virtual) of a library. Most—virtually all, I suspect—information searching begins with the open Web, as of course it should in order to be effective. For people regularly in search of information, this represents an enormous advance in quality of life. For research libraries, this represents a crisis. Maybe a relatively slow-moving one (I wrote with some alarm about it back in 2011, and many others did so before me), but a decisive, fundamental, and systemic one.
The third thing that struck me about the paragraph above was more disturbing than the first two, however, perhaps because it’s a longstanding problem that only came into focus for me when I read this article: it’s the ease with which we, in libraries, have been able to convince ourselves that we’re operating in anything but a technology industry. I think it’s fair to say that we librarians don’t much like either of those words: “technology” or “industry.” “Industry” implies that we’re trying to make money, which of course we really aren’t; we exist to spend it. As for “technology”: sure, we talk a good game about being early adopters and about embracing technological change, but when we talk like that we’re kidding ourselves–and deep down, we know it.
Librarianship (almost as much as scholarly publishing) has always been change-averse, and I can’t think of a single innovation—technological or otherwise—that we have actively embraced at the time that it appeared. I think it would be more accurate to say that the world has, in a number of ways, successfully dragged us, kicking and screaming, out of the 19th century and into the 20th. Unfortunately, of course, we’re now well into the 21st century. Consider this: at the beginning of 2015, we are only just adopting a new machine-readable cataloging standard—the current one having been created in the mid-1960s. I’m not sure this fact alarms us as much as it should.
When we talk publicly about technological change in libraries, it seems to me that it’s too often in one of two ways: either we’re patting ourselves on the back for being so ready to embrace it, or we’re talking about how a particular change is just a fad and really doesn’t really apply to us. But the information world has become, decisively and whether we like it or not, a technology industry. Certainly in the global north (and across large swaths of the global south as well, including many of the most impoverished areas), digital networks are the primary means by which information is shared. Books are still read in print and likely will be, in varying degrees, for a very long time; but in the developed world a relatively small and shrinking number of people turn to ink on paper in order to gather information. Creating, gathering, sorting, storing, organizing, preserving, indexing, and distributing scholarly information are all processes that are, today, inextricably bound up with new and emerging technologies. That simply was not true between 1200 and 1990.
Here, of course, is where I issue my standard disclaimer: doing new things in new ways isn’t the point, and it’s true that some of the real value libraries have always offered, and that we continue to offer, lies in the fact that we preserve old things—notably documents, in a variety of formats and manifestations. The problem, I think, is that we have come to confuse the importance of our role as conservators of documents with a mandate to conserve library practices and culture. There is indeed, I think, something sacred about making documents permanently available; however, there’s nothing whatsoever sacred about any particular workflow or technology we use in pursuit of that goal. Confusing the sacredness of ends with the sacredness of means is one symptom of a disease that could easily kill us.
All of that being said, consider this final paragraph from the NYT article on Marissa Mayer and Yahoo!:
“Sometimes,” Damodaran told me, “companies have to act their age.” For Yahoo, embracing its maturity means settling for a business that earns close to $1 billion in profit every year. It has outlasted other formerly iconic Internet portals, from AltaVista to Excite, and even dwarfs more recent web sensations like Myspace and Ask.com. For a company that started out as “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web,” that’s not a bad way to grow old.
I have to confess that sometimes, the following dangerous and unwelcome thoughts pop into my mind: Instead of trying to turn into something radically different from what we once were in order to stay big and well-funded and centrally relevant, maybe we in libraries should simply let time and the tide of change have their way with us. If our traditional services are no longer centrally important, maybe we should be content with retaining marginal relevance and making the most of it. There are worse things than being a niche player, if you’re a good one. Maybe the faculty librarians that retire will be replaced by technical staff, or not replaced at all. Maybe, as the usage of our physical collections continues to decline, more and more of the shelves that contain those collections will be removed to make space for academic advising offices, or group study spaces, or maker spaces or multimedia production labs. Certainly if open access becomes the predominant model of scholarly publishing, as its advocates hope and anticipate it will (and sometimes claim it already has), it will become much more difficult to justify multimillion-dollar collections budgets—but if we lose collections budgets because high-quality scholarly information has become freely accessible, in what sense could that possibly be called a bad thing for scholarship? Should the library “industry” simply “embrace its maturity” and “act (its) age”?
Let me be clear, because I fully expect that the provocative things I just said in the above paragraph will be quoted out of the context of their qualifying bracketing statements: I try not to entertain the thoughts I just summarized above, because I don’t think they’re constructive. And I’m certainly not advocating an erosion in the importance and centrality of research libraries, nor by any means am I calling on myself and my colleagues to sit back and enjoy the ride out to the margins of academic life. I would much prefer that we find ways to remain centrally important to our institutions and to the world of scholarship generally.
But here’s a thought experiment that I do think is useful: suppose the research library were, in fact, to move to the margins of academic life on my campus – its budget massively cut, its spaces substantially taken over by other campus entities, its faculty and staff drastically reduced (probably by attrition). How would the negative impact of that change be felt in the day-to-day lives of my university’s students and faculty? The answer to that question, it seems to me, is the answer to the question “How is my library making a difference to our sponsoring institution?,” and that seems to me to be about as existentially important a question as can be asked of us (and by us) at this point in our history.