What happens to the mid-major library?

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I was listening to the latest Digital Campus podcast on my way home yesterday when the discussion began to hit close to home…

Talking about a day in the maybe not-so-distant future when most books are available in one e-form or another:

Dan Cohen: “I wonder what will happen to libraries of the size we have here at Mason, you know, the one to two million volumes, pretty much recent collection (the past 100 years), doesn’t have a deep catalog of rare books? What happens in a world of all digital book content to that kind of library?

I still get the Library of Congress or Harvard or the University of Michigan, but it’s hard to give a rationale for why a library like Fenwick here at Mason sticks around. It’s a lot of heating, a lot of physical plant…and it’s a lot of people. And I love libraries, but aside from that fact, the sort of Upstairs/Downstairs ‘Well this is where the poor people go to get their sad, old printed books’ …you know, what happens to it? Even now it’s not a place where people start their research…”

Dan, I’ve been asking myself some form of that question for at least ten years.

While I surely have a salary-driven bias, I’ve always assumed there will still be something we’ll call a library when the e-future arrives. But I sometimes wonder–will it have evolved from today’s library or have been created as a replacement for it?  Thinking about how we get from here to there, I worry:

  • Will we, as a profession, spend too much energy chasing improvement in the transactional metrics of success (items circulated, reference questions asked, gatecount, etc.)? Once tried-and-true measures of library utility, they’re in irrevocable and ever-accelerating decline. Shouldn’t we accept that and begin redeploying resources in pursuit of new opportunities?
  • Will we recognize and be able to exploit transformational moments as they appear? Or will we pass on them as “not something libraries traditionally do?” Put another way, how far is it from “heart of the university” to “vestigial organ?”

Today one ‘mid-major’ library has roughly the same collection as the next one on the list.  That sameness, combined with the trend toward outsourcing what were once considered core enterprise-level services  (e.g., campus email systems moving to a vendor-supplied cloud), seems a dangerous mix for the library. Let me share my own “worst case” scenario:

The world has gotten past the friction that limits universal satisfaction with today’s e-readers and e-content and into that environment, a large ‘web-scale‘ vendor appears…offering the university a subscription that provides e-access to all e-content along with a strategically-priced bundle of e-reference services.

Think it can’t happen? The ears of that cat are already peeking out of the bag. Consider a product like Summon. The ProQuest business model for Summon is surely based on two facts:

  • the leased (or licensed if you prefer) e-content of each library is roughly the same
  • it actually resides on the servers of vendors outside the library

Why not engage in a bit of corporate cooperation and then sell access to a cloud-based index of that content over and over to each and every one of those libraries?  To the degree that you can vertically integrate content leases with the search mechanism–well, that’s what they call “lock-in” gravy.

So, back to Dan’s question. What does ‘the library’ do for a second act? I’m guessing:

  • Our footprint (buildings and staff) will be much, much smaller
  • We’ll offer very fast and ubiquitous networking on site and focus on high-end equipment/tools for manipulating and reworking digital content
  • We’ll offer on-demand services like “find and print” or “find and import” so users can build their own libraries
  • We’ll develop special tools and services to aggregate e-content in locally relevant ways (a 21st century analog to the old “finding aid”)
  • We’ll put much more emphasis on supporting teaching and learning
  • We’ll focus as much energy on data-driven research as we do today on the bibliographic-driven counterpart
  • We’ll offer more service and financial support for the front-end of the scholarly communication process (e.g., paying fees for campus authors in OA journals, helping authors secure their rights and protect the value of their intellectual investment, etc.)
  • We’ll still be doing the “special collections and archives” thing as that will be a large part of what differentiates libraries

We’ll surely still find that students are starting their research elseweb…