Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Parallel Universe

I am speaking in two weeks at the annual supply chain meeting at the Frankfurt bookfair. The following is a draft of the first part of my presentation.

There’s a lot going on in the library world of books, serials and eContent. Just like every business connected to the publishing industry today, libraries are experiencing change and dealing with complexity to an extent that most publishers neither understand nor appreciate. As the relationship between book publishers and libraries changes – and it is - both sides would be well advised to understand more about the circumstances and experiences of the other.

We always associate books with libraries yet, books have not been the pillars that support the library mission for many decades. Based on some of the data I will share with you, some might even argue that books are not a success story in the library environment. Perhaps an odd observation but actual data and experience suggests that as a group they are expensive to manage, under-utilized, hard to navigate and of declining importance to scholarship. There is also the element of ‘lost opportunity’ in that decisions to purchase specific books are rarely optimized with demand and so books that will have supported a need or demand are not purchased and books that were purchased more often than not sit on shelves rarely used.

I believe our collective challenge will be to not replicate the limited publisher/library model of decades past but to build a better model. We need to think differently about the monograph.

Despite remaining critically important to many communities, the public library in the US is under constant threat. If not from actual dwindling revenue sources which have universally caused layoffs, closings and reduced services, then from the passive aggressive stance of publishers who propose not to make electronic versions of their books available to library patrons.

This bleak outlook obscures the fact that academic libraries and some larger public libraries are embarked on a radical redesign and reevaluation of their activities which will impact all libraries in the short term. Many of these changes are almost completely hidden to publishers. That is not to say that the same couldn't be said of the library community about the circumstances and strategic questions facing book publishing companies as they make their transition from print to electronic.

Regrettably, at a critical juncture in the transformation of the relationship between publishing and libraries neither side seems to know or appreciate enough about the circumstances of other. This should be troubling to all those – like me - who believe libraries and publishers should share a desire to expand knowledge and community around books.

I see an unavoidable situation developing where sharp disagreement over the provision of eContent will fracture the historically uneasy alliance between book publishers and libraries as more content migrates to electronic form and consumers make electronic delivery their format of choice.

My comments take the library perspective and I would like to examine three areas. Firstly, an overview of where libraries are today. Secondly, a look at some of the most important strategic library initiatives under way and thirdly, some thoughts on the way forward for libraries and publishers.

The primary focus of this presentation will be on the academic library environment; however, let me make some brief notes about the situation with public libraries in the US. I do this because I will include public libraries in my concluding comments. The purpose and mission of public versus academic libraries are similar but the execution of their goals is often quite different.

Many of us are familiar with the steady stream of headlines regarding closures and layoffs. In the US and in some cases Europe, public libraries are facing the immediate threat of reduced funding as well as the more strategic question about their role in the fabric of their community. Hard economic times are the precise reason why public library use in the US is trending up.

Academic libraries are not immune to macro economic changes either; although seem to have more flexibility to devise new methods of dealing with some of the economic challenges they face.

For example, can you envision an academic library remodeling its space that results in the permanent removal of all its books? That sounds absurd – even crazy - yet during a recent renovation Ohio State removed all their books from the library and placed them in off site storage. Service for students and faculty was impacted only minimally and once the space was remodeled not all the books returned. Books in the Ohio State library now look more like display items than accessible resources. NYU removed 30% of their collection during a similar renovation. A library at the University of Texas recently gained a lot of attention as a new library without any “books”.

There are more and more examples and what it strongly suggests is that academic library’s physical monograph collections may be more likely to be found today in a warehouse than on a library shelf.

More to follow from my presentation next week.

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