Saturday, May 02, 2009

Will Libraries Survive?

Following my post on Library Collaboration, Anders Jangbrand commented

"Book available on net do not have same limitation. No phys copies. Will libraries survive?"

That's an excellent question for two reasons. Anders always asks good questions, but another reason I like this one is because I am already working on an answer. But first a little history.

In the dim and distant past when I first learned data modelling, one of the standard exercises in books and training courses was to model a library. These were of course models of the library as an information processing system. Before computing, libraries were managed with cabinets full of hand-written cards. There would be one or more cabinets containing the library catalog, there would be cabinets for members' names and addresses, outstanding loans, reservations, books awaiting repair, and so on.

So it was an apparently straightforward task to model this lot; but there are some hidden traps for the beginner. For example, BOOK sometimes means the book title (as when you reserve a book) and sometimes means the physical copy (which is what you borrow and return). When I teach data modelling, I generally give students the freedom to fall into these traps so I can show them how to get out again.

(Some libraries identify each physical copy individually, while other libraries merely count the physical copies of a given book title. The physical copies are distinct in the real world, but may be indistinguishable in the library's card or computer systems. Information strategy includes making this kind of choice. See Business Concepts and Business Types to see how this is handled in the CBDI SAE method.)

The great advantage of using a library as a teaching example was that most people had used libraries and had some idea how they operate. However, some people started to think that the example was a bit old-fashioned, so they developed a Video Rental example instead. Video rental has pretty much the same information processing structure as a library, so all they needed to do was take the library example and change some of the words on the diagrams. And nothing much changed when video tapes were replaced by DVDs, although there were some minor complications if you wanted to handle both tapes and discs during the transition period.

The traditional library is indeed threatened, but it will probably outlive video rental, which is threatened by much the same forces to an even greater extent. If we want to manage these forces, we need to move away from an information processing model onto a different kind of model.

Libraries and video rental operate a very similar information processing model. But if we want to think about the survival of libraries and video rental, we need a model that shows how libraries and video rental are different from one another, and to what extent libraries or video rental can play a valuable role in the service economy of the future.

The first point to note here is that the book plays a much more varied role in people's lives than the video, even today. The vast majority of DVDs are either feature films or collections of TV programmes, consumed as entertainment, and video rental essentially caters for this market. Books are also consumed for entertainment, but they are also used for reference, study, research and other purposes, and most libraries support a broad range of purposes. If we want to forge a sustainable role for the library of the future, we need to engage with these purposes, and possibly explore some newly emerging purposes as well.

Some people may argue that the business model should be technologically neutral. Anything you can do with a book, you can do with a DVD as well. For example, if you want to learn Spanish, it shouldn't matter whether you borrow a book from the library or rent a DVD. But until video rental gears itself up to support this kind of market, there will continue to be a real difference in the business model between books and DVDs.

The next point to note is that we can open up the idea of the consumer. A lot of people like to read books in groups. The whole group reads the same book (see ambiguity of BOOK above), and then the members meet once a month to discuss the books. This represents an interesting opportunity for the librarian - to provide services to the whole reading group rather than to individual readers. For example, if the library has a dozen copies of a recent novel, then this novel can be offered to the local reading group for next month's meeting.

Now suppose we have a network of a couple hundred libraries around the region, supporting a thousand reading groups between them. Recent novels can circulate around the libraries in sets, to support the needs and interests of the reading groups.

See what we've done here. All sorts of interesting business opportunities emerge by these two conceptual shifts. Firstly changing the concept of READER from individual to reading group (and creating a new composite service for the whole group). Secondly changing the concept of LIBRARY from single library to a network of libraries (and creating new kinds of collaborative process).

Once we've identified these conceptual shifts, we can go back into the information processing model to work out the practical logistics. But the point I'm making here is that conceptual shifts of this kind (and the business opportunities that are associated with them) don't appear unless you step outside the information processing perspective and look at the business through a different lens.

Of course I haven't quite answered Anders' question yet. But I'm working towards an answer ...

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