Thinking online first

One of the biggest challenges to libraries these days is the lack of holistic thinking when it comes to our resources and services, and how our users seek information. We spend a lot of time and energy talking about providing our users with online resources and content, but when we look at our organizations, what I see still is an intent focus on traditional collections and collection building, and on the physical including library space and in person services. It seems incontrovertible to me to state that users, by and large, prefer and want online information sources first. We need to be thinking online first.

Now, if anyone ever reads this post, I can anticipate in some readers the sense of indignation and argument against what I've just written. I've heard it all before, and lots of times over. Libraries as physical collections and space are incredibly vital, you say. You are focusing on one side of the overall equation (online) at the expense of the other (offline), you say. You are just spouting tech gadfly nonsense because you like that stuff, I hear you say.

Let me try to explain my perspective. First and foremost, I am not saying nor have ever believed, that the issue I'm raising is an either/or type of issue. It's not about online or offline (as I tend to call print and other collections and services that are more traditional library things). I believe ideally there should be a balance, a "both/and" type of scenario for libraries where users can be served with information equally, without bias or restrictions in terms of the format or carrier of that information.

What I am arguing, though, is that users first tend to look for online information sources, whereas our processes, staff, and resources are largely still devoted to offline things. Therein lies a huge disconnect.

I bolster that perspective by looking holistically at most library operations with which I am familiar. Just about everything in them is geared toward offline stuff and the processing and care of it. Online or electronic resources are routinely handled by a small number of people in most library organizations, often by one person alone. This should by no means be a revelation to anyone who's been paying attention to professional literature and debate for the past twenty or so years. There is a weird inverse relationship by which online stuff is increasingly in demand by users, yet libraries do not reorient their perspectives to this fact and persist in a dangerous adherence to emphasizing offline stuff only. They tend to treat online stuff as an afterthought, a plaything. As a result, ready, sensible access to expensive online content becomes a nightmare for many of our users. I know of many examples where libraries have spent lots of money on e-book collections, for example, yet they remain largely invisible to users due to the sheer size and scope of the e-book collections. It takes a lot of time and energy to adequately provide access to these online resources, even when relying on batch processes.

What really boggles my mind about this is not only the clear user preference to first look for online resources by and large, but also the fact that the proportion of money that libraries spend on acquiring or providing access to online stuff has grown astronomically, such that most of us are spending most of our money on online content, not offline content. In spite of that, we cling desperately to our offline emphasis in terms of staffing and other resources. Again, I am not arguing an either/or construct here (either offline or online). I am arguing that if we truly take a step back and look at things holistically, it should be clear that realignment of our attention, and our staff resources, is needed in order to better meet user needs. We need to be thinking online first.

One example of this that comes immediately to mind is the relative stature or importance in libraries of their web presence vs. its physical facilities. Of course there are many facets of this to consider, and a library's website is only one part of its online presence, but I argue that a library's online presence is just as important a gateway for users as any efforts it puts into configuring its physical spaces. My experience is that it is too often an afterthought in our minds, and our websites show this to users all too clearly.

There are close parallels in the world of IT. Take mobile computing as an example. All of the trends clearly point to a massive shift in attention and use away from desktop computing and toward mobile. It is doubtful (and I am not positing) that desktop-based computing will go away. But it is very clear that IT folks as well as information providers and services (including libraries) ignore this major trend at their peril. I would argue that in light of this trend, IT folks (and libraries) need to be thinking mobile first, rather than as an afterthought, because this is where our users are going. It doesn't mean we drop everything related to desktop computing and no longer consider it. But it does mean that we pay very careful attention to, and devote resources for, mobile computing first. This is a drastic reorientation that is already well underway.

I guess what I'm trying to articulate here, and probably not doing a great job of it, is the need for a completely reoriented way of thinking. Understand where our users are going first. In the case of libraries, I am confident they are going online first. Therefore, let us keep this in the forefront of our thoughts as we carefully try to balance all of our resources and efforts. To me, this is one of the key issues upon which the fate of many libraries rests. If we don't reorient our thinking, we increase our risk of irrelevance in the minds of our users. That is something none of us wants.

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