My good friend and colleague, Erik Duval has a blog that I recommend you read regularly, as I do. Erik is a professor in the research unit of the Hypermedia and Databases Group, in the computer science department at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, located between Brussels and Antwerp.
In his recent posting “Learning and Libraries”, Erik tells the story of the wonderful new library that has recently been built on his otherwise quite old (founded in 1425) campus, but notes that he and his students never use it! As he puts it:
“I never go there. Neither do my colleagues. Nor my students. Why would we? All our material is available on-line. If it isn’t, it kind of doesn’t exist.”
He continues by asking why libraries don’t do some things that he would value highly, such as:
“Why don’t they inform me when someone is downloading my papers? Referring to my papers? Why don’t they alert me to papers I will probably want to know about?”
I could not agree more with Erik. Here is an important role that libraries lack. I suspect that their failure to take on this role comes, in part, from the fact that they have confused their value proposition—delivering the services that library users need—with what a library is and does on a day-to-day basis. Erik points out:
“This is an area that is very much in flux: the conservative reflex with many librarians is easy to understand but they really risk “perfecting the irrelevant”, as my friend Wayne Hodgins would say.”
As his example so clearly illustrates, many libraries seem to believe that they are there to be a physical repository for very physical objects, such as books, journals, and periodicals, and to provide a great place to read, study, find books and other materials—all of which, of course, still has some value.
However, as Erik so rightly points out, their real value proposition is the SERVICE they can and sometimes do provide. Most of us have had a least one experience with a great librarian who was able to help us find just what we needed—to help us solve a problem, to research an assignment, or write a paper. This service is an invaluable asset—one that I desperately need many times every day!
Erik’s questions highlight several other good examples of the kinds of services that would endear a library to most of us, yet are ones that very few seem to be considering. Hopefully his post and others will stimulate more awareness of this situation and we’ll see more librarians addressing these issues and offering these services.
My other concern is the prevailing assumption that Erik mentions at the opening of his posting about information and materials: “If it isn’t [online], it doesn't exist.“ Although I very much want this to be true, and believe that we are on a path toward this end, I also believe that we are far from attaining it. For example, although I don't have the exact statistics, I believe the vast majority of the world's books, and even their metadata, is not online. So those who assume that an online search will find "everything" that exists on a topic are probably missing out on a lot, perhaps even the majority of relevant resources.
Less than 10% of the world’s population has access to the web. Therefore, the majority of the world’s population, as well as their content, books, customs, etc., are missing. You quickly can see that what we can currently find on the web is a very small percentage of who and what we can discover by other means and benefit from.
I agree that this situation is improving and that the more interactive and social nature of networks forming on the web help to resolve some of this. For example, another person can point you towards something you formerly missed. But it is dangerous for us to assume that when we search, we have the majority of resources available to us.
I touched on this topic in a previous Off Course – On Target posting called “Books – the NEW old medium” To some extent, this is a known problem and enormous efforts are being made to remedy it. Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” project, Google Book Search and Microsoft’s “book search” project, to name but a few, are scanning and digitizing more of the world’s books and printed content to make it available online to all.
More projects are being added all the time. Techshout.com just announced that around 800,000 books and manuscripts from Mysore University in Karnataka, India will soon be digitized by Google.
However, for the foreseeable future, I hope that we remain very aware of just how limited online searching is and that we continue to check our assumptions that “everyone and everything is available online, otherwise they don’t exist. “ Let’s work on this as a goal and understand that until we get much closer to realizing this, we will need to supplement our online searching with more finding through other means.