Thursday, April 07, 2011

Collections 2021: The Future of the Collection Is Not a Collection

Rick Anderson invites us to think back to the 1980s and ponder how we answered questions that arose - say you wanted to know the population of a certain small country, or the migratory pattern of a certain type of whale. In the 80's you had a couple of choices: either you wouldn't try to answer it, or if you were lucky you would go to a good library and look in a relevant book. However, access to a good library was an elite opportunity, and most people in the world didn't have access to one.

Anderson calls this pre-internet age the "Gutenberg Terror". Print, he says, is a terrible medium for distributing information. During the Gutenberg Terror the library was an information temple with the librarian as high priest to grant the sacred knowledge. Now the library is a store front - one of many store fronts offering access to information at a price.

As such, many traditional librarian roles have been undermined. Reference services are largely bypassed (although Anderson points out that with a reference desk staffed at various times by one or more of just 25 librarians serving over 30,000 students at the University of Utah, the chances of even a small percentage of students getting constructive help were always small. "It works by failing").

Library catalogues are all incomplete. An OCLC survey of the general public showed just 1% of electronic information searches begin at the library catalogue. Perhaps not surprising, but when college students were surveyed the number rose to just 2%. Initial circulations per student have also decreased dramatically at Utah.

The traditional library collection is a "bad guess at patron needs", but it was all that could be done in the print era. With recent budget cuts even electronic collection development is becoming hard to defend. The wrong e-book, even at a deep discount, is still the wrong book, and Anderson doesn't want unused books in his library. If 80% of an e-book package is used and only 20% not, that's still a number of books that he could have replaced with something his patrons would use.

And so to Patron Driven Acquisition, the purpose of which is to avoid wasting money by buying books no one wants. Anderson sees PDA as the alternative to building collections, and makes some predictions about how things will be in ten years time:

  • PDA is the new assumption, although it's not the only way. The collection service will be mainly a conduit service, building only limited permanent collections.
  • The smart phone is the killer delivery app. While few people want to sit down for two hours and read a novel on a small device, many of us have lots of blocks of 10-15 minutes in which we will happily read something that's conveniently available.
  • Most academic print acquisition is print on demand, this avoiding the major waste of print runs based on guesswork.
  • Most search is done on primary documents rather than proxies such as the library catalogue.
  • It is difficult to distinguish library services from other educational services.
Different types of library will build different types of collection:
  • Big collecting libraries such as Oxford, Harvard, LoC will maintain "monuments to Western civilisation"
  • Local research institutions will have smaller and more specialist collections based on curricula
  • Less well funded liberal arts and community colleges will be conduits and will rely heavily on Google Book Search and just-in-time delivery.

The stumbling blocks to this will be
  • Sclerotic librarians. There are difficult conversations to be had about change.
  • Traditional accreditation structures - counting books on shelf to assess the worth of the library.
  • Fainthearted publishers - justifiably so. PDA will put some publishers out of business. You can't make as much money selling just what people want as you can by selling them content they don't want bundled with that which they do.
  • Customer-focused competitors for patrons time such as Google and Amazon. These competitors aren't interested in helping people find good information in the way that libraries are, but they're quick and convenient.

Q: What about undergrads who don't know what they need?
A: PDA doesn't mean no holds barred access to anything at all - the library needs to put some constraints in place. Librarians have traditionally overestimated the influence they can have on teaching students how to be good researchers - professors have this responsibility and it should be taught in the classroom with support from librarians.


Blogger Steve said...

One other stumbling block Rick mentioned was "fainthearted library managers" (which, as a library manager, resonated somewhat)

9:32 pm  

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