Last Thursday (October 14th) I attended the Libraries in a Digital Age conference organised by the Association of Independent Libraries. It was held at the Royal Astronomical Society’s premises (which are well worth a visit in their own right), and I was expecting to come away all fired up with digital action points. As it happened, my subsequent thoughts have gone in a rather different direction, but one which I think is interesting and valuable nevertheless.
The most practically useful session of the day was the first, in which Gwyneth Price from the Institute of Education ran through a selection of web 2 tools, and looked at ways in which she has applied them or seen them applied, in order to illustrate some of their uses in the library environment. Michael Popham also gave a very interesting description of the Oxford Libraries experience of digitization with Google Books.
Between these two, we heard Tim Coates deliver a paper about his vision for the future of the public library service, in which he also announced the creation of a “Library Alliance” (on which more here). My first concern with this presentation was that Tim read the whole thing from a script. He did explain that the reason for this was that the text was already in the public domain, and he didn’t want to miss out anything important. Unfortunately what was clearly a very carefully-written piece did not translate so effectively into the spoken word, and I was left wondering why he chose not to prepare a version suitable for oral presentation when he could easily have provided a link to the original text as well.
That said, I was quite fascinated by his assertion that public libraries need to address matters of building suitability, cleanliness and decor, furnishings and stock before they can be in a position to think about digital projects. I have to say that from a user perspective, the physical environment of the library really does affect me, and when I go into a branch which is bright, airy and welcoming I do feel a lot more positive about public libraries in general than which visiting one which is grimy and old fashioned.
The afternoon found us learning about the huge changes in the commercial publishing world over the last few decades – a fascinating subject about which I knew very little beforehand. We also heard a call-to-arms of sorts in which we were exhorted to defend the position of libraries as “street-corner universities”, and to work at finding co-operative ways to stop copyright laws defining the digital age and reducing the power of libraries to provide information to their users.
All of which brings me, in a rather roundabout way, to the title of this post. It struck me that the digital age is also the age of austerity, the age of budget cuts and cost-saving measures. If libraries are to survive in any meaningful form it seems to me that librarians need to become not only skilled advocates but skilled business strategists too. We need to move away from any kind of well-meaning soft approach and get tough, get technical and get jargon.
More than ever before, we are going to have to justify our existence to the people who control the purse strings, and these are likely also to be people who are financially comfortable themselves and therefore not perhaps quite as likely to be natural supporters or users of library services. We need to learn how to produce cost-benefit analyses, to highlight ways in which libraries generate profit, as well as other less-tangible outcomes, and to communicate how librarians can support organisational goals and targets in appropriate business language.
I know there are libraries which do this already, I also know there are ones which don’t, and I’ve certainly had personal experience of the kind of mindset in which the library shouldn’t sully itself with anything as vulgar as a business plan.
There has been some debate recently about what kind of skills should be taught to prospective librarians (see Girl in the Moon’s blog post for a useful link to a selection of the commentary around this). My own LIS MA covered basic budgeting and management skills, but real-world experience has indicated that this was not sufficiently business-focussed, and I suspect that we ought to be campaigning for some explicitly MBA-style courses to be included in LIS qualifications.
(P.S. As usual, apologies if I’ve misrepresented anyone – the above is based solely on my own notes and impressions from the day – and I’m happy to publish amendments if you let me know in the comments.)
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