Libraries in the self-publishing millenium
I don't know how many of my fellow librarians have read OCLC’s most recent report on the Library "brand" and it is perceived by the general public:
Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources (2005)
In a sentence, libraries are seen as primarily a source for books; that the content we have is not really any better than what they can get from the open Internet and since libraries are generally seen as difficult to use and not readily accessible most users are satified with what they find through Google search.
Each of us can respond, "That's not my library and those aren't my patrons."
Well, it is all of our libraries and all of our patrons to a certain degree.
The message of this study intersects with another trend that isn't directly discussed in the report but will increasingly challenge libraries. I am speaking of how libraries have had a nearly complete focus and dependence on published content at a time when user-produced content is exploding. I am not talking about just book publishers, but other media as well. Magazine, journals, reference databases, video and music are also being challenged by blogs, wikis, and popular media content sites such as youtube.com. It is not just newspapers that are scared; it is the broadcast and cable networks and all forms of media libraries have aligned themselves with for decades. When published content was the only game in town, the roles and boundaries of libraries were well defined and secure. Our future roles and opportunities to add value in this new environment are much less clear.
Wired Magazine has an interesting article on crowdsourcing in its last issue. Crowdsourcing is a phenomenon where content is getting cheaper but more importantly it is generated on demand because of the increasing ease to directly connect to masses of individuals as content producers; bypassing the traditional publishers of content. If there is a message in the OCLC perceptions study and this Wired Magazine article, people are increasingly willing and increasingly able to find the information that satisfies their perceived needs through content that is not reviewed, selected, purchased, stored, recommended or used by libraries and librarians.
We are letting our traditions and biases limit us. Here is a clear case in point. OPLIN: The Ohio Public Library Information Network and the largest thirty or so public libraries in Ohio have been trying to buy statewide licenses for content from the usual suspects in the publishing world. World Book online is a popular title that many of us buy in print and online. We add it to our catalogs and our federated search tools. But we don't offer the same access to Wikipedia.com, now the most popular reference site on the Internet. Few libraries promote it and I suspect many many librarians don't use it.
Clearly our bias is aimed at what we perceive as "authoritative" content and librarians find comfort in what is being created by the traditonal publishers as these traditionally published materials are far easier to evaluate for accuracy, timeliness and other criteria we teach in our library instruction classes and which we use in pruchasing mateirals.
But where will our comfort come from when the majority of mateirals no longer come from traditional publishers?