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 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.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


35 Thoughts on "My Name Is Ozymandias, King of Kings"

Excellent article, thanks Rick, lots of food for thought here.

I have a couple of answers to your (rhetorical?) question “I can’t think of a single innovation—technological or otherwise—that we have actively embraced at the time that it appeared.” The first is OpenURL, which was developed by a librarian, but that of course is a technology designed to ameliorate the difficulties of negotiating paywalled literature, a problem that (arguably, perhaps, in time) will disappear with the increased prevalence of OA.

The second is open access repository technologies- the very thing that (arguably, perhaps, in time, and in combination with OA publishing) will open up scholarly literature and contribute to academic libraries’ obsolescence. Ironic, no?

As usual Rick what you say is highly relevant and beautifully expressed but let me make a counter suggestion. We now know that OA is about the ability to reuse as much if not more than boring old access. Publishers can build indexed content on top of free material and they are doing so, (Elsevier, Wiley, WK in the van). They can devise tools for all parts of the research process plus (Digital Science, Elsevier). They can prepare huge scholarly databases based on digital materials (ProQuest, Alexander Street Press etc.). From where I sit (sometimes) on the editorial board of The Charleston Advisor) I am amazed by the plethora of (sometimes)very expensive publications (under two of these headings) which apparently are bought. I love the word “solutions”. I think they will continue to increase. Librarians still sit there as an intermediary selecting materials for researchers and of course students too more and more.

I enjoyed your piece, Rick, as always. I think the ‘let it go’ scenario – whether anyone is letting it go or not – is already here. The University of Michigan closed its Business Library and many others are struggling:
To continue to be funded, as say a certain football team that’s paying tens of millions for a new football coach, value to the community needs to be demonstrated to administrators. From the hub-bub at Harvard about faculty paying for a larger portion of their health care, came the cry of the ‘corporatization of the university’… ‘Value’ and ‘costs’ are being redefined across the “global north”.
You do ask the key questions: are we solving a problem, or what is our mission? In seeking answers, I also think it’s of very high importance to bear in mind the reasons for distinctions between the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors when evaluating ‘value’.

The Kresge Business Administration Library at the University of Michigan is closed during construction, but I’m not aware that it has been permanently closed.

A really great piece Rick and a provocative thought experiment in the closing that is well-worth pondering!

I’ve become really interested in how libraries engaged past technology disruptions and so was particularly struck by this: “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.” Maybe it is just because I’m reading the articles from the past from a future point when this is not hard to take seriously at all but I’m not sure that the only voices predicting this future were “fevered futurists”? It seems to me that it was taken seriously enough that there was mainstream debate about competition, implications for library work, and a resistance movement as well. I agree that change has indeed occurred but wonder if it was really all that radical or unpredictable?

Related – I think you might find this piece interesting: The Power of Enduring Companies ( Though I suppose one could argue they just haven’t begun the decline yet, I’m intrigued by endurance as a concept to think with.

I’m not sure that the only voices predicting this future were “fevered futurists”? It seems to me that it was taken seriously enough that there was mainstream debate about competition, implications for library work, and a resistance movement as well.

Do you think that was the case prior to 1990? Maybe it was; the fact that I don’t remember it that way is not necessarily a very reliable index of what was really happening.

Thanks for sharing that, Lisa, and those really are choice quotes — I especially loved the one from Sandy Berman! But it looks to me like the ones from the pre-WWW era were mostly (with one exception) about how technology will change what happens inside the library, rather than predicting a world in which most people would bypass the library in their search for information. I’ll look forward to seeing the whole paper when it’s posted, though.

I think there are two quotes (slides 12 and 13). But, actually, that sort of goes to my point – there was a debate. Some of those advocating adoption of technologies and changes within libraries weren’t predicting bypassing the library because they envisioned the automated library as a completely different thing (which was abhorrent to others). [Side note – we have about 10 pages of fantastic quotes … it was hard to choose which to include! The Mason piece is particularly worthwhile for its wit.]

Hi Rick – Key to this will obviously be those who ultimately decide library budgets (not librarians) and their views of a library’s mission.

I remember explaining open access publishing to the dean of a US medical school many years ago. He immediately said “That’s great! I’ll be able to knock down the library and build new labs”, seeing subscription management/journal archiving as his library’s only important role. Do you think this is a view widely held by those who hold the purse strings? If so, convincing them you can make a difference to your sponsoring institution may be the biggest challenge.

Richard, from my own experience it doesn’t seem like most of those who hold the university purse strings are thinking very much about OA at all. But you’ve identified a key challenge for OA advocacy: promoting a program that seeks to marginalize what was once a centrally-important library function (paying for access) without marginalizing the library. It’s a very difficult issue.

For me, the answer might be to have libraries become involved in OA journal publishing. The other thing that gives me hope from my perspective here in London: students always need study space (in fact they need it more than ever), and they always need the pastoral and educational support services libraries can offer.

What do you make of these two facts? 1) The presses at Cambridge and Oxford have existed for over 500 years. Can you envision a future where they are not needed? 2) The first to develop an online book catalogue for selling books was not Amazon but the Association of American University Presses. But that innovation could not be sustained once Amazon, with lots of venture capital, arrived on the scene. (And, of course, Amazon was interested in selling lots more than books also.)

1) Can I envision a future where they’re not needed? Not really. Two caveats, though: first, my lack of vision is hardly a good index of what the future will look like; second, “needed” and “sustainable” aren’t the same thing. We lose things every day that you and I might agree are “needed,” but which are nevertheless not sustainable in the marketplace. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, just that it’s true.

2) These facts are noted, but I’m not sure I get the point you’re making.

Regarding the second point, it was in response to your comment that libraries are change-averse and have not shown themselves to be ready to adopt new technologies early. I was trying to point out that technological innovation can occur within universities and be embraced early, yet can still fail to succeed in the face of much better funded competition.

Nice article. Swimming against the riptide of change is exhausting and will not likely save us. Our best strategy is to continue to adapt and attempt to understand and meet our unique constituent’s needs. There is nothing wrong with occupying a niche – we just need to work to ensure that we occupy a niche that serves a useful function as opposed to a quaint amenity.

One niche might be helping develop and publishing textbooks “open access” written by faculty for local and potentially much wider use, in order to combat the textbook pricing problems that students face. SUNY-Geneseo’s library publishing program is the model here.

I think that Neil Stewart’s suggestion that libraries become more involved in OA journal publishing could be expanded upon to include all sorts of hyper-local publications, including eTextbooks developed by and for a specific course on campus, scholarly works written by both faculty and students and so on. The storing and retrieval of information could be usefully joined by the re-purposing of those holdings and other transformative activities.

I don’t know Rick. The history of industry and other institutions is awash with examples of longevity and continued relevance. There isn’t necessarily a downward spiral marking the end of relevance. In the case of libraries, I think there is a tremendously important and relevant future ahead if they can continue to innovate and respond to the needs of their audiences. Just because the whole world is becoming more and more digital doesn’t mean that information is becoming more and more accessible, as we know. Libraries hold the keys to access, and going forward, maybe they might also be the centers of research—the one place where all this information can be identified, sifted, organized, analyzed, compared, and fed back out to their clients—for example. No single university department has the budget or expertise for this kind of sustained effort. What if it was up to our research libraries to run this enterprise, where research data and information from everywhere was diligently collected in ways that made more research and discovery possible everywhere, networking their efforts across the globe? Identifying the needs of tomorrow and responding to the needs of today are key. So from this future possibilities perspective, I think taking a laissez faire approach to the future of research libraries means admitting that we don’t need a central advocate in the effort to organize and preserve scholarship. And I think this is wrong. Letting this cause spiral down into oblivion—at the very moment when such new and enormous potential exists—would be a mistake for research and for society.

Hi, Glenn —

I think you and I agree on all (or at least most) of these points. My goal with this posting wasn’t to suggest that we should let librarianship spiral down into oblivion, but rather that, if we want to remain centrally important, we’d better be asking ourselves the question in my final paragraph and responding strategically to the answer(s) we come up with.

Correct me if I am wrong (and I know you will), wasn’t it libraries that allowed Google to digitize and disseminate their old content so that people could access it without…having to go to the library? Likewise, was is not librarians that pushed (are pushing) the OA agenda so that people don’t need the library to access scholarship? I know that providing access to information is a moral imperative to many librarians but its a bit late to now worry that people won’t need a library when the libraries insist on making itself obsolete.

Correct me if I am wrong (and I know you will), wasn’t it libraries that allowed Google to digitize and disseminate their old content so that people could access it without…having to go to the library?

Absolutely, and it was an initiative of which I’ve always been a huge fan. You’re right that it makes it less necessary for patrons to come to the library, and that’s a big reason it’s so great — though secondary to the much more important fact that it provides access to so much more than almost anyone could have gotten at their local library, even at most research universities. The general trend is that the library is less and less necessary as an access portal to information, which is one reason I think it’s essential that we find new and better ways to make ourselves useful.

Likewise, was is not librarians that pushed (are pushing) the OA agenda so that people don’t need the library to access scholarship?

Yes, and this fact makes some aspects of the OA advocacy agenda very touchy subjects. For example, try suggesting in public that unembargoed Green OA is likely to lead to libraries canceling subscriptions, and watch the reaction from the OA community. Personally, I think that we can’t make good decisions about scholcomm reform unless we’re willing to look in a very clear-eyed way at all likely downstream implications (including unintended consequences), but if you’re an advocate for one particular solution, you may not want to do that.

For me, the bottom line is not what’s good for libraries as such, but what’s good for scholarship. Our job in the library isn’t to keep people coming in, it’s to ensure that what we’re offering is worth coming in for. That means that we need to be more ready to change than we traditionally have been.

It’s not quite accurate to say that the Google Library Project enabled the dissemination of whole texts everywhere unless by “old” content you specifically mean public-domain works. What Google provides are “snippets” of text. Efforts by the University of Michigan Library to identify “orphan works” and make them OA were challenged by the Authors Guild and have been suspended.

Yes, I’m referring specifically to public-domain works — almost 5 million of them now, far more books than are held in all but the largest research libraries.

Thanks for this thoughtful and provocative post–we need more critical thinking of this type in the profession. I oversee a combined Library & Learning Support unit and my focus is on supporting student learning–at my institution, the library is the writing center. Libraries have an important teaching role that appears to be better understood in the ACRL Standards revisions and attention to the concept of critical information literacy. Libraries as silos is one tradition that we must end.

As one recently retired from the outlying world of a virtual library in a fully online university, I heartedly endorse your comments on “swimming upstream”; yet also wonder about an underlying precept. The research library is a by-product invented as part of the 19th-century rise of the research university. The former helped bring order to the burgeoning scholarship of “publish or perish” and the communication revolution with the Mass Press in addition to acting as bibliographic research laboratories.
Times have changed with the newest communication revolution, and perhaps we should abandon the research trope as the main identity factor. As we found to great success at APUS, the online library can be recast with emphasis on classroom engagement. That includes Information Literacy and copyright/ADA 508 compliance, but also librarian-centric financial and concentration on populating the classroom. Ironically, such focus has also raised the university’s database usage to the highest echelons with some 80 million annual searches. In other words, isn’t it time to discuss a paradigm shift for sustainability in the a Web Age?

I agree in general about the need change in order to stay relevant, but this part: “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” simply is not true itself. There are more innovations in all those activities than can be named in a dozen books. The book itself has always been bound up with new and emerging technologies. The way libraries store materials is vastly different now (or even in 1990) than it was in 1200. The card catalog was a technological innovation that is scarcely over 150 years old. So, it is likely that without embracing technological change libraries will become obsolete, but the threat of that is not indicated by looking (closely) at library history. It’s always been a history of change.

Steven, I agree with you that the card catalog represented an important innovation, but I don’t think we can call it a technological one. The technology involved was ink on paper (or card stock), which had been in use for a millennium. Can you name a significant _technological_ innovation in which the “creating, gathering, sorting, etc.” of scholarly information was “inextricably bound up” during the period between the invention of movable type and the creation of the Web? It seems to me that in 1990 the technology still consisted of putting ink on paper and then sending it around to people physically, just as it had for the 700 years previous.

Yes. Offset printing addresses the “creating” part of the scenario. It is doubtful that academic libraries as we know them would exist without offset printing. I guess by technology, you mean requiring electric current, which I don’t think is what I mean by technology. Maybe we disagree about “inextricably” as well. But I would also put shelving in the technological change category. Steal shelving, compact shelving, etc. Unrecognizable from the manuscript era of scholarly information–and not possible for the modern academic library to exist without them.

I think this argument is analogous to “splitters” vs “joiners.” We probably won’t convince each other. Yes, I’ll think paradigm-shifting change is probably in order. I just don’t think library history suggests that we have comfortably had our heads buried in the sand for 800 years–well, not ALL of us–or that it was possible throughout that time period to have our heads buried in the sand with no serious professional ramifications.

I think you may be misreading what I said. I didn’t say that libraries have had their heads in the sand for 800 years — I said that the creating, gathering, sorting, etc. of scholarly information was not “inextricably bound up with new and emerging technologies” during that period; those activities were all about putting ink on paper and distributing the resulting documents physically. With that point I was talking about the dissemination and organization of scholarship generally speaking, not about library practices in particular. That said, you do make a good point about offset printing. I have to disagree about the shelving, though. Shelving was hardly a “new or emerging technology” after 1200 — it’s existed for as long as people have been storing small to medium-sized objects of any kind. And, of course, libraries existed long before either shelving or printing did.

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