Information Technologies and the Strategic Reconfiguration of Libraries
in Communication Networks
Center for Social Informatics
SLIS- Strategic Leadership in Information Science
Bloomington, IN 47405
Library Administration and Management Association (LAMA) National Institute
—“Vision, Mission, Reality: Creating Libraries for the 21st Century”—
More information at: http://www.ala.org/lama/vision/welcome.html
I was invited to speak about “The Social Impact of Technology in Libraries.” In the 1970s, many researchers and professionals who were interested in the social consequences of computerization used the term “social impacts.” In the 1980s and 1990s, we learned that the “impacts” metaphor was too deterministic and mechanical. Scholars in the field that studies the social consequences of computerization - the field of Social Informatics - began to understand that computerization is a complex socio-technical process that can be shaped by many groups, cultural expectations, and institutionalized forms of action (Kling, 2000). These processes, taken together with other socio-technical choices constitute computerization.
Different groups may computerize differently, and thus have different Consequences from what seems to be ‘the same IT equipment”. Since some of these computerization choices are strategic (even when they may simply be seen as tactical), I’d like to emphasize the kinds of strategic choices that libraries may make regarding computerization.
The strategic choices that organizations make about computerization are not just those of equipment - but may be much more wide ranging. For example, Charles Schwab (investments) developed an on-line brokerage (e-Schwab) and located it in a separate building in San Francisco from the headquarters (Kling and Lamb, 2000). E-Schwab’s pricing and trading policies differed from regular Schwab; and these differences confused and frustrated some customers. Schwab’s upper managers decided to integrate Schwab and e-Schwab with uniform trading and pricing policies and also by bring the e-Schwab staff into their headquarters.
The physical integration required more than space and equipment. Schwab’s
headquarters staff wore formal business clothes - a pin-stripe world. The
staff of e-Schwab dressed with a sneakers and jeans wardrobe.
Schwab’s managers had to create a new, less formal dress code if
they wanted to retain most of their e-staff. Normally, dress codes are
not related to computerization. But the Schwab case illustrates how some
mundane material matters can be important in computerization strategies.
This is an era in which librarians’ strategic abilities are being challenged in new ways. From the 1970s through the early 1990s, the influence of IT on libraries largely came through library automation. In some cases, there were surprising consequences, as with a strong rise in the amount of interlibrary loan supported by the organizations OCLC and RLIN. In contrast, today, libraries are being influenced by computerization that seems to take place elsewhere – for example public access to the Internet. While many libraries now provide Internet access to their patrons, there are serious concerns about the extent to which many people will see their local libraries as unimportant – whether these people are students searching for research materials and turning to the WWW or whether they are adults who seek medical information by readng short articles on WebMd, Dr. Koop and similar medical sites.
The Internet is one signifier of a technological challenge - since many people believe that they will soon be able to obtain whatever informational materials they want via the Internet. This challenge takes on somewhat different forms for different kinds of libraries. In academia, some physicists and computer scientists will publicly brag that they don’t use or need libraries. At home, some children may seek materials for reports and projects by conducting Internet searches rather than using school or public libraries. Librarians have been seeking interesting ways to respond to this challenge (Benton Foundation, 1 1996). But there is much uncertainty.
Barnes & Nobles+ Borders is another signifier of a shift in the communication networks of which public and academic libraries participate. There have been bookstores in the US for hundreds of years. But Barnes and Nobles and Borders signify more than bookstore chains (and the closure of many smaller independent bookstores). Borders mixes coffee, food, and musical performances with book sales. Barnes & Nobles (at least in Bloomington), offers comfortable easy chairs and study desks, as well as coffee, snacks and books. These kinds of bookstores (including Kepler’s in Menlo Park, Kraemerworks in Washington DC and others) transform the “bookstore as warehouse” into “bookstore as a lively social space.”
Both of these challenges come from outside the library. Libraries -
as institutions are located in various communication networks that are
slowly being reconfigured. Librarians have an opportunity and challenge
to ask (and answer) key strategic questions:
How can we configure libraries to heighten importance in these shifting communication & activity networks?
Your “future library” is not “out there” - waiting to be discovered. Whatever mix of services, materials, spaces & opportunities libraries create to be viable has to be envisioned by librarians sensitive to an array of possibilities - but also shaped by your own “contexts” - stakeholders, location in a resource ecology (including your resources and those of potential patrons).
In thinking strategically about IT, some key ideas from the field of
social informatics can be helpful (see Kling, 2000; Kling, Crawford, Rosenbaum,
Sawyer and Weisband, 2000):
2. “Good IT socio-technical network configurations” are contextual: “a socio-tech configuration that’s good for the Smiths may be awful for the Joneses”
3. IT is not inherently transformative; to transform social relationships in a major way takes some kinds of IT configurations & an array of socio-tech practices.
4. While some organizational transformations may be anticipated (and planned), many are emergent and improvisational – they happen through a series of adaptation and alterations over time – but influenced by some overarching values beyond just “getting by.”
Some Illustrations of IT and Social Change
In many accounts, IT (and the Internet) are treated as inexorable revolutionary transformative forces. This is especially common amongst pundits such as George Gilder, Nicholas Negroponte and Don Tapscott. While these pundits differ in their specific claims, an underlying assumption is that IT is inherently transformative - because of its economic and technological properties relative to alternative means and media, such as paper and face to face. Social informatics researchers have found that the social changes that are based on the use of IT are neither inevitable, nor based only some special “logic of technology.” Social informatics researchers have learned to see IT not as an artifact (or set of them), but as socio-technical networks in some configuration.
This meeting provides a simple basis for illustrating the concept of a socio-technical network. This meeting seems to be mostly socio- a face to face gathering in one large room. However, there are over 300 participants and I am speaking through a microphone and many of you are hearing me through a sound system. The social conventions of a keynote talk are such that we will have some structured discussion in which some of you will ask me questions or make comments (through a microphone) for my response in a kind of serial order.
If our meeting took place in an on-line conferencing system - with a posted version of my talk and a threaded web board for discussion, our discussion could be more multivocal – including more people and points of view (Ekeblad, 1999). The social dynamics could be very different. However, on-line conferences could be structured in many different ways. Would posting be limited to those people who paid to attend? Would people who did not pay be able to read the conference comments (thus rendering all of our comments much more public)? How long could people continue to post comments? How long would the conference be archived (would others be able to quote our ad-hoc comments verbatim0 years from now)? Would postings be moderated (edited) in any way? Could participants remove their comments from the archival record, or modify them? Each of these questions identifies a “design choice” in the configuration of this on-line conference; and these choices could have important consequences for people’s willingness to participate.
IT is not inherently transformative because other related social actions are required as well. While some major changes may be anticipated, it is common for some to come as a byproduct of emergent processes that can take place at lower levels in an organization.
Some examples of non-transformations are intriguing. For example, many observers expected that computerization would lead the US to become a “paperless society.” There are interesting instances of moves away from paper – such as email, electronic airline tickets and the widespread use of electronic documents on the WWW. However, many people who use the email and the WWW print out some of their documents to read off-line. It is remarkable how higher-speed laser printers are a hot item in paperless offices. The American Forest and Paper Association reports that annual paper consumption rose from 86.8 million to 99 million tons between 1990 and 1998 as a result of morning newspapers and junk mail (citation=?).
A few years ago, there was some discussion of the Internet providing such rich documentary materials that authors would be directly connected with readers, and disintermediate institutions such as publishers and libraries. There certainly are numerous personal web sites, and an enormous number of informational sites whose materials are not published in paper or collected in traditional libraries. Doubtless, these connect more authors and readers. But the publishing industry is continuing to grow, albeit slowly. And most academic, special and public libraries have not seen a fall off in patronage.
Within these broad brush characterizations, there are important variations. For example, academic libraries often thrive because they have a relative monopoly on the teaching materials assigned by faculty, and of the expensive and specialized research materials desired by faculty and research students. In addition, some academic libraries serve as social centers for their students. However, the ways that libraries are used has changed: ILL has soared in the 1990s, but undergraduate reference librarians report a notable decrease in the number of walk-in inquires from patrons. Informally, faculty report that their students are more likely to use documents that they locate in WWW searches to support term papers and other assignments.
Some Strategic Options for Librarians and their Libraries
There are several books and numerous articles that examine IT and the future of libraries directly (e.g., Licklider,965; Buckland, 1994; Drabenstott, 1994; Benton Foundation, 1996.). Unfortunately, these books give little attention to the roles of librarians. Librarians hover at the side stage - implicitly developing their collections, negotiating for site licenses, providing reference services, and so on. In these accounts, and others, the strength of a library is related more to the size and character of its holdings than in the talents of its librarians. As the scope and variety of high quality public-access materials on the WWW grows, the relative importance of smaller academic and public libraries may decline. Of course, these declines would not be uniform. I suggested that academic libraries are likely to have a local monopoly on materials assigned by or used by faculty, and many of these are not and are not likely to be free to a wide public on the WWW. Some public libraries will continue to provide important services – such as homes for children’s collections, reading groups, public meeting spaces, and so on. And in some towns, they may also serve as important Internet access points.
But one important strategic idea is for libraries to configure their services and activities about IT so as to emphasize some of librarians’ distinctive expertise rather than simply the size and character of the documentary collection at hand.
Libraries as Sources of Epistemic Expertise
The Internet is widely used and at a growing rate as a kind of library - even though it is not well organized like a library. Many people search for health information on sites such as WebMd and Dr. Koop, but wonder whether other sites may be more informative. Students are often searching the WWW for materials for term papers.
It is common for many people - from children for adults - to refer to something that they “found on the Internet.” Someone who says that they found a document “on the Internet” as “a place” is comparably lucid who says that they found a document “in California.” California is a major source of documents - from the books of the University of California Press to leaflets of various political groups; from the City Lights Press in San Francisco to numerous self-help bulletins, flyers and booklets available throughout the state.
Sorting out the reliability and value of documents - all of the kinds of documents published in California, for example, has been one kind of distinctive expertise of librarians. Librarians know how to evaluate some of the differences between a book that is edited and published by the University of California Press from one that is self-published.
This kind of knowledge is epistemological. Epistemology refers to the study of the nature, sources, and limits of knowledge. Librarians epistemic expertise focuses on sources of knowledge, especially knowledge about the trustworthiness of published documents.
This knowledge about sources is taught in various information service and reference courses that are routine in LS schools. Reference librarians and bibliographers have been trained and through their professional work to evaluate the quality of sources, using traditional criteria such as Accuracy, Authority, Objectivity, Currency and Coverage. Some LIS schools now include examining the integrity of WWW-based sources as part of their curricula - although these topics are unevenly taught . A few librarians have published guidelines in articles and books (Alexander and Tate, 1999). These should be expanded to go beyond traditional library criteria to include a site’s privacy policies and practices and its business models (ie., public service, sponsored, advertising). Others have added criteria, such as the stability of information (can I rely on it staying there?) (Tillman, 2000).
This epistemic expertise may sound like “information literacy,” (Adler, 1999; Shapiro & Hughes, 1996) but it differs in an important way. Information literacy refers to the skills/capabilities that librarians may teach or that they want their clients to develop. But the label “information literate” significantly understates the complexity and depth of librarians epistemic expertise about the value and trustworthiness of various documentary sources.
Librarians can provide a useful service that brings people into libraries by teaching these skills and capabilities to their patrons. Of course, a number of libraries, primarily college and university libraries, offer such courses today . These kinds of courses -- and services -- emphasize the distinctive epistemic skills of librarians (Atkinson and Dowling, 2000). Unfortunately, few of these courses are so high profile -- or so well advertised -- that they help a sufficient number of people to rethink libraries as services with distinctive epistemic expertise
In contrast, many public libraries, seem to emphasize links a less costly alternative – one that can be viewed as an extension of collection development for reference services. These sets of linked references can be very useful. But they leave librarians’ collection development skills and epistemic expertise in compiling them as invisible – and thus under-appreciated -- work. Further, the link-sets, while often very useful, don’t help patrons to develop more refined epistemic skills. And they don’t bring people into libraries that develop the linked resource sets.
The complexity and sophistication of the “hidden work” that is required to make high quality WWW link-sets leads to “the librarians’ paradox.” – the more effectively librarians work to develop a set of services that is easy and effective for their patrons, the less their patrons are likely to appreciate the sophistication of the professional expertise to develop those services. A separate article could be devoted to this topic. But one relatively easy way for librarians to make their expertise more public and more appreciated is to add documentation to any major link page that describes their collection development strategies, some explanation of the way that they sift and select sources, the ways that they examine potential updates, their efforts to maintain broken links (link-rot) and so on.
Teaching the skillful use of Internet search engines is more complex that teaching information search skills in more traditional libraries, because search engine companies, such as Alta Vista or Excite, hide what many people want to know beyond how to use them: which ones excel for which kinds of searches, what kinds of sites are indexed and how are sites ranked. Of course, there are numerous tutorials that help one to learn and to stay abreast of search engines (ie., Grossen, 2000). There is a small body of research. And there are services, such as “Search Engine Watch” that help one to keep track of search engine companies changing business practices – such as enabling commercial firms to have their sites reindexed more frequently or to have their rankings boosted for a fee (see for example, Sullivan 2000).
These search engine business practices are relatively experimental and can change within a year or two. Their appreciation requires a kind of vigilance that is not needed for appreciating the use of traditional bibliographic sources or online search services (such as DIALOG). This focus pushes Internet-savvy librarians to work at Internet speeds rather than at the much more leisurely speed of paper publishing in reference. I am not suggesting that this speed up is a good thing for librarians. However, much of the public is likely to be rather puzzled by the changing landscape of search engines and their practices. This is one area where librarians can offer a distinctive epistemic expertise that can bring patrons into libraries and to appreciate librarians’ skills.
I offer these comments as a modest strategic suggestion for the ways that some libraries can enhance their vitality in an era where many people are seeking materials on the Internet that are not part of a libraries formal collection – paper, electronic or other media. It emphasizes the distinctive epistemic skills of librarians, rather than the sheer size and quality of a libraries’ collections in various media.
This kind of specific strategy will not be sensible for many – or even most libraries. In some cases, such as law libraries, the critical materials are in books or in specialized online services, such as Lexis. In the case of engineering or sci-tech libraries, many patrons may feel that they already have sufficient expertise to select materials available through the Internet when they need them. My main point about IT for these other libraries is more general – to think strategically about show to use librarians skills and diverse library resources to keep libraries well positioned in your patrons communication networks.
Libraries as Reflective and Lively Spaces
I’d like to briefly discuss the strategic use of library resources broadly conceived – in particular, the use of physical space. Traditionally, libraries provide materials that are organized in reflective spaces.
Boullee’ 1785. Duxieme projet pour la Bibliotheque du Rois. Reprinted in Chartier’s The Order of Books. Chartier notes ”Boullee imagines the King’s library as a giant basilica containing the entire memory of the world.”
The landscape of public reading in the U.S. has been reconfigured over the last 250 years. The rise of public libraries in the late 19th century enabled people to find new materials in shared spaces. The deployment of electricity and electric lighting in the early 20th century enabled more people to read at home late into the night. Of course, people read in many places, public and private, from quiet private offices to more bustling restaurants and cafes, and even noisy airplanes and subways. The image of the library has been one of reflective space. Even images of future libraries emphasized reflection (Chartier, 1994). In an era in which popular books with titles like Blur (Davis, et. al., 1999) and Faster (Gleick, 1999) romanticize speedup, it’s important to find places where we can slow down and reflect. Even so, the uniform quiescence of most libraries across all of their spaces may not be a strategic virtue for the 21st century.
Public reading in the U.S. has been somewhat reconfigured in the last decades with the rapid expansion of huge bookstore chains such as Barnes and Nobles and Borders that configure their stores as lively spaces. They have modeled some of their practices upon those of smaller independent bookstores, such as Kramer Books in Washington DC, which organize their spaces with cafes and displays for lively browsing. In Bloomington Indiana, the local Barnes & Nobles includes a small cafe, several sections with easy chairs (some facing each other in groups of four) and study tables, as well as numerous shelves of books. The local Borders offers a cafe, but no easy chairs or work tables scattered through the store. On the other hand, its cafe hosts musical performances – usually folk, jazz or world music. Both Borders and Barnes & Nobles are lively places and spaces.
Of course, many public libraries offer children’s reading circles and host public meetings. Many academic libraries are lively because they have study desks for students – and today numerous busy workstations that connect to library sources, such as the OPAC and online collections, as well as to the campus network and the Internet. Even so, libraries still privilege quiet and drink-free spaces.
One additional way that some libraries can resymbolize themselves as contemporary places is to open up some of their spaces as cafes and as concert performance spaces. This makes most sense in the larger libraries where multiple rooms and multiple floors make it easier to physically segment activities. Libraries can enrich these kinds of spatial uses in ways with library resources – with books about drinks and food for reading in the cafe; with books about the kind of music being performed available in the performance space. The performance space need be little more than the entry way or it could be one of the meeting rooms.
There is some possible synergy between the strategic restructuring of space that I’m suggesting here and my previous suggestions about a new emphasis upon emphasizing the epistemic expertise of librarians. Patrons who drop in to sip some coffee and read a newspaper or magazine may also ask a reference librarian for help with finding information on the Internet that is personally important. If their library also serves as an informal meeting place, they may gossip with friends, and connect with other kinds of communication networks that are not part of the library’s formal collections.
Spatial strategies like these may make most sense and be most workable for only a fraction of the nation’s libraries. But the idea of strategically rethinking the role of library space so as to help people connect local activities as well as library collections is one that could be applicable to many libraries.
The Internet as a Communication Medium for Librarians
There is some empirical evidence that computer nets help foster a sense of community among geographically or organizationally isolated professionals, including certain kinds of librarians. In the early 1990’s Sharyn Ladner and Hope Tillman (1992) examined the use of the Internet by university and corporate librarians. While many of them found data access through databases and file transfer to be important services, they also reported that electronic mail was perhaps the most critical Internet feature for them.
The participants in our study tell us something that we may have forgotten in our infatuation with the new forms of information made available through the Internet. And that is their need for community. To be sure, our respondents use the Internet to obtain information not available in any other format, to access databases ... that provide new efficiencies in their work, new ways of working. But their primary use is for communication. Special librarians tend to be isolated in the workplace -- the only one in their subject specialty (in the case of academe), or the only librarian in their organization (in the case of a corporate library). Time and time again our respondents expressed this need to talk to someone -- to learn what is going on in their profession, to bounce ideas off others, to obtain information from people, not machines.
There are tremendous implications from the Internet technology in community formation -- the Internet may indeed provide a way to increase community among scholars, including librarians. The danger we face at this juncture in time, as we attach library resources to the Internet, is to focus all of our energies on the machine-based resources at the expense of our human-based resources, i.e., ourselves (Ladner and Tillman, 1992).
In the 10 years since Ladner and Tillman conducted their research, librarians have organized dozens of electronic discussion forums (LISTSERVs) for librarians – ranging from architectural librarians to Z39.50 implementers (Wu, 2000). Some of these lists may serve more as a medium for announcements, while others, such as STUMPERS-L (for difficult reference questions), may help specific librarians to answer immediate vexing questions. Remarkably, there seems to have been no subsequent systematic research about the role of these discussion forums in strengthening professional ties or fostering innovations among librarians. In fact, overall, there has been little systematic research about the role of electronic forums in supporting the development of professional communities.
I participate in a project at Indiana University, the Inquiry Learning Forum (ILF, http://ilf.crlt.indiana.edu/),
which has the ambitious goal of providing resources and discussion spaces to support the professional development of middle school and high school science and math teachers (Moore and Barab, in press). Medicine, in which there is institutionalized support for continuing in-service professional education. For example, many school districts reward teachers with larger salaries for taking additional courses. Even under these conditions, it takes significant work for the ILF research team and some of the enthusiastic participating teachers to maintain a set of lively discussion forums.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that these kinds of purposive background efforts are not unusual to keep professional electronic forums humming. The dynamics of professional electronic forums varies – but like many voluntary associations – their dynamism depends upon a slowly changing core group of highly active participants. In principle, such electronic discussion forums could be attractive to many professionals. In practice they require time and attention that competes with other workplace and lifeworld demands. Further, as many professionals become saturated with email and interesting electronic lists, the attentional resources for any one list can decline rapidly.
One strategic challenge for librarians is to be to create and structure their electronic forums so that they are viable media for strengthening professional ties or fostering innovations. Clearly, these opportunities and challenges cannot effectively be met by the librarians of any single library – they are best engaged by groups within the profession, such as LAMA members.
The libraries of your future are not “out there” waiting to be discovered. They will develop as they are envisioned and developed by librarians and others. These visions and developments are likely to be local, incremental and opportunistic rather than a brilliant grand plan such as Boulee’s “Bibliotheque du Rois” envisioned for the King of France as a basilica to contain all of the world’s books.
In discussing IT, I have avoided focussing upon elaborate digital libraries, even though digital collection are important. All too often. The discussions of digital libraries ignores the pivotal roles played by librarians. Instead, I’ve focussed on strategies that emphasize some of librarians’ distinctive expertise – epistemic expertise – and the values of library spaces. An underlying agenda has been one to emphasize strategies that highlight the strengths of librarians and libraries.
This way of thinking about IT and organizational change – strategically, human-centered, local, and incremental – is based on a larger body of research in the field of social informatics. My approach has been to locate libraries in more complex communication networks – some local and some more national (or loosely, global). Different libraries are located in different ways in these socio-technical communication networks – and the specific strategies to reposition them to be important in these networks will differ from library to another. Appropriate strategies will depend upon more than these networked analyses – but also upon the kinds of resources that library managers can mobilize, their staffs skills, patrons’ interests and so on.
As the scale of publicly available documentary resources on the Internet grows larger, it will be harder for many smaller public and academic libraries to maintain strong locations in their patrons’ communication networks based on the size of their collections. Consequently, the ingenious use of other resources, such as librarians’ epistemic expertise and physical space, is a promising approach strategic reconfiguration of libraries in the next decades.
Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Danny Callison, Nancy Kronick, Alice Robbin and Suzanne Thorin for discussing some of these ideas when they were in an early stage of formation and to Pamela Bluh, Blaise Cronin, and Ralf Shaw for comments on the manuscript. Funding was provided in part by NSF Grant #SBR-9872961 and with support from SLIS at Indiana University
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