The library of the future ...

A recurrent theme of this blog has been that networking changes the way we think about organizational boundaries. That said, there is generally not very much discussion of this issue in libraries, where the focus tends to be on individual services or applications, or on changing user behaviors. For this reason, I was interested to read Mark Dahl's presentation on cloud computing and libraries (full disclosure: I and OCLC get hat-tips).

Think of the more general case. We have seen a major shift to webscale which has reconfigured whole industries as well as individual organizations. Some obvious examples are the influence of Expedia/Orbitz/Travelocity on travel, Amazon on retail, Netflix on movie distribution, and the Web generally on newspapers and TV. Discovery is now largely a webscale activity.

At the same time the web has accelerated the vertical disintegration of firms and the sourcing of capacity with specialist providers. Think historically of payroll, or more recently of customer relationship management and A wide range of capacities may be sourced externally: think of anything from data centers, to the provision and care of plants, to education and counselling services. Companies make decisions about what their distinctive capacities are, and externalise other capacities to networks of providers and partners. And, in fact, effective supply chain management has become an important competitive factor.

These types of questions are becoming more important for libraries, even if they don't pose them in quite these terms. And they are not especially new. Historically, for example, think of two major shifts: shared cataloging/resource sharing and the move to licensed access to A&I databases and e-journals. In the former case, activity was externalised to consortial activity or to national-scale organizations, and today many organizations provide such services around the world, including OCLC. In the latter case, libraries gave up the institution-scale management of the A&I and journal resources they had collected in print form. They externalized this activity to, often commercial, third parties.

What Dahl does in this presentation is to look at the future of the library in the context of the reconfiguring potential of network services. He talks in general terms and then offers specific examples. He suggests that the library may become smaller, may shift to new service areas, and may become more creative in the work it does. What I especially like about it is that he acknowledges that organizational change is an appropriate response and then works through what this might mean in practice.

Comments: 2

May 21, 2009
Chris Brew

There are obviously plenty of things that never will migrate to the cloud. The materials that many research libraries are now contemplating throwing away, because someone has a WorldCat record or two somewhere, are likely not the type of thing people
are going to scan or OCR. Cloud-like cheap PHYSICAL storage
for unindexed or badly indexed materials would be a good thing to invent. What is to the library stacks as the cloud is to the centralized IT department?

May 26, 2009
Lorcan Dempsey

Chris, this is quite a topical point actually. There is a big discussion about off-site storage, and consortial approaches to this. Every now and again this threatens to break into more widely collaborative action as institutions recognize the need to share costs and consolidate redundant collections. That said, there is also strong resistance in certain cases to dispersing or distancing large print collections.