This one is from October 2005. Someone please explain to me why I’ve been sitting on these posts for this long?
I was looking recently at the slides from the presentation Realities of Virtual Reference, by Kathy Dabbour, Doris Helfer, & Lynn Lampert, from the 2004 Internet Librarian conference. Before I start this little rant, let me just say that this is a good presentation. Nothing earth-shatteringly novel perhaps, but a good case study of the launch & evaluation of a new service. This rant isn’t about the presentation, but about one comment by a librarian that they quote in the presentation. On slide #41:
“It’s a necessary evil in today’s technologically based time. I think we would lose patrons if we didn’t have an electronic reference service.”
Necessary evil? It’s a necessary evil to provide the kind of service that our patrons want, and use? Ok, so not all services that patrons want are necessarily going to be within the scope of the library’s mission (enough said about that). But if libraries aren’t offering services that are both within the scope of the library’s mission & that patrons actually use, then tell me, exactly why will patrons want to use the library?
What was the librarian who made this comment saying, really? That technology has no place in libraries? That we should train our patrons to do only what we tell them to do and use only the resources that we tell them to use? So much for the educational mission of libraries. So much for libraries being in a position to teach information literacy, or god forbid, technology literacy.
Chuck McClure, in his wrap-up speech at the 2001 VRD conference, said that we as a profession need to rethink what reference is and how to deliver it, and if you don’t like it, well, get over it. Of course he was preaching to the choir; it was the Virtual Reference Desk conference after all. But his “get over it” pissed off a lot of librarians who heard about it later. And now, sadly, fully 4 years later [note: 6Â½ years later now], a lot of people still haven’t gotten over it. I thought Chuck was just being his typically curmudgeonly self, and he was, but he was also pretty darn prescient. I guess he’s been working with librarians long enough to know just how change-resistant they are.
Trish commented on a previous post of mine that:
“After 10-20 of library automation, an upstart from 1997 trumped library systems in two years. There’s a lot to be said for fearless innovation.”
She was talking about SIRSI & Google, but the same applies in other arenas of library work. Let me make this as clear as I possibly can: We are getting spanked.
Exhibit A: Joe Janes found that digital reference services worldwide received 8,106 questions over a 3 day period. Ok, so I question the methodology for that study. But still, compare that with what Spink et al. found, that between 1996-99, Excite processed over 30 million queries per day. And that’s old data. Lesson: search engines are receiving more than 3 orders of magnitude more use than library reference services. And that’s even if you include desk reference stats.
Exhibit B: The ACRL reports about 5 million items circulated annually by member libraries. I quickly glanced through Amazon’s SEC filings to see if they say what percentage of their total sales are made up by books, & they don’t, at least not that I could tell. But I’ll bet it’s a hell of a lot more than 5 million items annually.
Need I go on?
The moral(s) of the story:
One, learn to love technology.
Two, marketing. We seem to have a professional aversion to marketing & PR. We seem to have this attitude that libraries are absolute social goods, & isn’t that obvious? Of course the taxpayers and the legislature will continue funding libraries. We love all and serve all. Well, get over it.
I suspect the reason I never finished this post is that I had some ideas for more morals of the story, and never got them down on paper, so to speak. Oh well; they’re lost to time now. Also, as an aside, there’s a reason I named this blog PomeRantz.
Exhibit B: Where did you get five million from that link? I see just under five million “Participants in group presentations,” but 72.3 million initial circulation transactions, and 128 million total circulation transactions. And circulation figures don’t include the vast usage of ejournals and other licensed resources in academic libraries, probably way outnumbering book circulation.
And, of course, public libraries circulate one heck of a lot more items than academic libraries do–about 2 billion, as I remember.
Amazon might have sold 72 million books. (They might not. I’m guessing they wouldn’t say.) It’s a sure bet they didn’t sell 2 billion, since that’s more than total book sales in the U.S.
In answer to Walt’s question, let me just reiterate that I wrote this post originally in October 2005, so I actually have very little idea what I was thinking at the time. I’m just doing spring cleaning here, folks, airing my old rants because I don’t have the heart to just delete them after I spent so much time on them, even if that time was spent 2 years ago.
But looking into it, I see that this report gives 5 million items circulated annually by ACRL member libraries. Actually, 5,028,325: http://www.ala.org/ala/acrlbucket/statisticssummaries/2003a/B12.pdf
See p. 2, Total Circulation Transactions. And let me just point out that 5,028,325 is the high value; the median is 22,983.
Oh wait, now that I’m thinking about it, I see that Walt looked at the figure for all circ transactions summed across ACRL libraries, while I was looking at the figure for individual libraries. So moral of the story: data can be spun.
I do not doubt that Walt has his figures right, that public libraries circulate about 2 billion items… I assume he means all total, annually. Still, I still think my point stands: libraries collectively are getting beaten in the arena of “mindshare” (for lack of a better word) by services such as Amazon and Google. We risk becoming perceived as — or worse, actually becoming — boutique information services, while online services serve the bulk of users’ information needs.
As one of the converted, and books aside, I don’t think libraries’ “mindshare” (I think I know what you mean) has changed all that much. Sure sure, we most often choose non-library sources for information, but that’s been true as long as libraries have been in the public consciousness. If Google is beating us now, what was beating us 15 years ago? 50?
The difference now is that libraries exist in the some of the same space as other information providers, ie on the internet. Libraries trumpet search engines as a excellent resources, but search engines hardly return the favor. Part of learning to love “technology” means making library resources findable in regular-old search engines. Ghettoizing library resources in places like “Google Scholar” does not cut it.
For marketing virtual reference, how about a publicly-accessible, search-engine-indexable, mashable knowledgebase? Even if few patrons will find answers to their questions, many more will find out that the service exists.