"I Canít Find You Anywhere but Gone": Avoiding Marginalization
Several years ago, the "computer commons" came into prominence as a way of giving library users Internet access and other computer services. Arguably, the computer commons introduced libraries to what some are calling "information architecture", a blending of physical and cyber space caused by the narrowing of time and space on the Internet.
The timing of the computer commons was well near perfect. Just as demand for Internet applications and sites was skyrocketing, the University of Southern California library offered access to the WWW on the latest and fastest equipment, software and connections. The students "demands" for word processing and statistical tools, access to library data bases and Internet sites and, to the Internetís "killer-app": E-mail, were happily "supplied" by the computer commons.
In spite of a basement location, the commons had waiting lines for its terminals, its technology classes and group discussion rooms. Those queues were not there because of location or architecture or technology, but because of multiple real benefits for users.
The computer commons idea worked. How are other libraries planning for and meeting user needs in the unknowns of the "information era"?
Strategic planning seems to me our mechanism of choice - a veritable floodtide of plans inundated my library during a span of a year, the same time we started one.
Many of the strategic plans were uniform in their conclusions. All agreed that the Internet was revolutionizing information service. Often, a computer commons-like facility was recommended in renovation planning. Most of the plans recognized that unless the library could add value to the userís information seeking process we would risk further marginalization.
But, another widely held conclusion retarded any momentum for change. The "legacy" collections would (indeed, must) continue to be housed and grow at their usual pace. This conclusion, while providing comfort and consolation for some, stymied any essential funding for the "revolution".
Scenarios like that remind me of Johannes Trithemius. He was one of the first book publishers, but he also administered a large scriptorium and bemoaned the diminished importance of this form of communication. His book, In Praise of Scribes, published in 1492, speaks to those of us 500 years later in a similar transition from one technology to another. It took a mutiny of his monk-scribes to bring an end to the scriptorium.
I think we need a far bolder and faster track implementation of the new library model. Strategic planning, (which inevitably, as practiced in libraries, relies on looking backward into an era of incremental change) is not up to the task. While strategic plans can be visionary and display bold leadership, too many I have seen are formulaic and anchored in the past.
A modest proposal I have is to take the thousands of hours required by library strategic plans and put them into a "skunk works", encouraging alternative and contrarian views. Let the most inventive staff consider options and opportunities for experimentation. Then keep what works.
Hereís a real problem for a skunk works: many large libraries are in critical need for service and architectural solutions for the precipitous drop-off in reference questions. Many users are using the Internet to find resources that were only available in the library building from librarian intermediaries. The user still asks reference questions, but they are fewer and of a different kind Ė they take longer to answer and are richer, technologically. A skunk works could consider the opportunities in this shift away from the traditional reference service. They, in collaboration with architects, should re-design public service portal to engage the "new" type of questions.
Users and Information Architecture:
Iíve long suspected that our users are ahead of us - just like they were at USC prior to the implementation of the computer commons. I include public libraries in this claim. In several focus groups Iíve facilitated in the Fall of 1999 for a public library system, the participants have anticipated and exceeded library ideas about technology and its benefit for them and their children.
The good news is that the user keeps looking to us for information solutions. We still have an opportunity to be relevant.
My research adds another vote of confidence from the users: when asked to identify their most frequent uses of the Internet, users rated library-based guides and databases third, following e-mail and visiting favorite Web sites.
This finding confirms the considerable value placed by users on the libraryís selecting and providing electronic databases. Because of the many irrelevant sites that come up in general searches, users value portals that help them cut through to the good stuff.
Like one student put it: "A library based Web link is always OK".
Iíve asked over 600 library users, since 1997, a series of questions on the Internet and libraries. Their responses are noteworthy because these students make up the Internet generation Ė they are defining the Internetís development and their preferences will dominate. Born in the 80s, some have never used a card catalog or microfilm for back issues of journals! An electronic interface is taken for granted.
My Spring, 1999 survey of 146 second semester freshmen, asked about their future use of the Internet and libraries.
Five years out, 70 percent of the students see an increase in their dependence on the Web for information resources. This will add more weight to the already heavy, Internet end of the print vs. electronic teeter-totter - more than half of the freshmen students used traditional library resources equally to information found on the Internet. Of that group, a quarter reported a ratio of over 60% use of the Internet.
Over half of these freshmen students think their use of print resources will remain at current levels, but over a quarter believe their reliance on print will diminish.
Importantly, forty percent of the students in this study have a personal web page. Equal numbers of men and women own Web pages.
Is the computer commons the one best design?
My question to the second semester freshmen users was "What set up (for Internet access) works best for you?" I asked them to rate these options on a five point scale with 5 = best.
Terminals spread throughout the library building, including stack study areas: 4.0
36% chose this as best (5) and 36% ranked it a "4".
Many terminals clustered together: 3.8
32% chose this as best, a 5, while 30% marked it a "4"
A cluster type installation staffed with Web savvy librarians: 3.4
A third ranked this a "4".
"Floating" staff who approach users anywhere in building to see if they can help: 2.9
Hook ups provided Ė Bring Your Own computer: 2.8
Over 25% said this was the worst idea.
This is strong evidence that users relish choice and independence (just as they want a variety of study spaces in traditional library buildings) and yet are aware that they may need expert help and print resources nearby.
Information architecture and libraries:
I asked the students to rate our efforts in helping them find and use high quality web sites.
Portal site: 4.0
40% of women and 29% of the men ranked this "best".
Integrated/One stop shopping: 3.8
44% of men and women ranked this "4".
A subject librarianís home page list of whatís best: 3.7
31% of the men and 39% of women ranked this a "4".
Library produced Directory of Web sites: 3.7
41% of men and 39% of women gave this a "four"; 30% of women ranked it "best".
None of the above are just an in-building service Ė all are accessible from anywhere, anytime outside the library building. These results present real design implications for library web sites. The user, because of their experience with the Web could help us in making our pages increasingly relevant and easy to use Ė their involvement in design is an important part of the information architecture concept.
I asked students to identify what they want from us. My question was "What can the library do to facilitate your use of the WEB?" Here are the results based on a five point scale with 5 = "I need!"
Provide reliable, live links between the libraryís catalog
and selected WEB resources: 4.1
37% of men and 53% of the women marked this a 5.
Develop finding aids: 4.0
40% rated it a "4".
Rate the various search engines, noting strengths and weaknesses for each: 3.8
A third said, "I need!"
Offer Classes on making the most of the Web: 2.9
Notify me via E-mail re new links: 2.8
Offer one-on-one sessions for making the most of the Web: 2.6
We will eventually have, incredible as it may be, a surplus of library space. Why? Because use will continue to shift away from print to electronic versions. As a result there will be less attachment to print volumes. This will lead to far less contentiousness around storing library materials. As libraries reduce on-site holdings, there will be a surplus of prime space.
Also, I think Internet use will lead to a sizable drop in in-building use of many libraries. But, that decline may well be offset, if not overtaken, by a surge in out-of-building use by way of interactive library "portal sites" or gateways.
This is our greatest challenge and opportunity.
Trithemius, Johannes (1462-1516), In praise of scribes: De laude scriptorum (1492), translated by Elizabeth Bryson Bongie; edited with an introd. by Michael S. Batts. Vancouver: Alcuin Society, 1977.
This column is based, in part, on my most recent study of student Internet use at Duke University ("Study 3"). Two hundred and one students shared how they use the Internet for academic purposes during the 1999 Spring semester in Duke Universityís Lilly Library.
The majority (146) of these students were freshmen at Duke University. Fifty-five older students presented a slightly more mature, but strongly similar, response to this study.
School Library Journal carried a summary of this study in their September, 1999 back-to-school issue: www.slj.com/articles/articles/articlesindex.asp
"Study 1" on the Internet phenomenon was conducted during the Fall 1997 semester, reaching 235 college freshmen at Duke.
"Study 2" was of 226 seventh - tenth grade school children who spent the 1998 summer on the Duke campus.
The author, John Lubans, of Duke University, consults and teaches on organizational issues for middle managers. Some of his workshops are offered through SOLINET. Visit his web site at www.lubans.org for more information about his Internet use studies.