Friday, May 01, 2009

Library Collaboration

University libraries typically have a major resource scheduling problem, as I mentioned in my post on Collaboration and Context.

"Let's suppose that in the first week of February, sixty students suddenly want to read Kant. The university library possesses twenty copies of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, so most of the students will have to wait or share. By the end of February, nobody wants to read Kant any more, and the twenty copies sit idle on the shelf until the same time the following year."

My first impractical idea for solving this problem was to get collaboration between the library and the teaching staff. Would it be possible to coordinate the teaching, so the students don't all need the same books at the same time? (Anyone who has worked in a university will know why I reckon this is impractical.)

My second idea might be a little more practical: to get collaboration between university libraries. Perhaps fifteen universities can share two hundred copies of Kant and ship them around as required. Possibly not as much scope for efficiency as my first idea, but it may be easier to implement, as it only involves librarians cooperating with other librarians rather than with professors.

However, the most plausible idea for solving the problem is to involve the paying customers - the students. In many countries higher education is subsidized by the state, but students and their parents are now being asked to pay a much higher contribution, and this makes them stakeholders in the economics of the university and the quality of its services.

So instead of thinking of this kind of business improvement purely as an optimization problem based on a series of information transactions, we need to think of it as a problem of power and influence - how can the interests of the students be mobilized to achieve better distribution of scarce resources.

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