From Library to Intellectual Ecology

(Note: the following article appeared in the January-February 2014 issue of Computers in Libraries. It elaborates on the bellwether report on the University Library at UC Berkeley which I refer to in a previous post.)

 

Information professionals are trained to recognize patterns in how knowledge resources are used, and also to look at information seeking behavior to discern the ways users think. It’s no secret why usability testing (also known as “human factors”) is a now a standard element in library and I-School curricula: We do it all the time and we are going to do it more and more. We are immersed in a professional culture of recognizing patterns—and that is a very timely advantage. If you are at all like me, you practice pattern recognition wherever you may find yourself. This habit makes us good allies to have, because we often have our hand on the pulse what is new and good, or what is about to appear. In other industries, this skill goes by names such as market analysis, future-casting, trend-watching and more. For us, it just comes with the territory.

Every now and then we reap substantial “payback” for the patient, long-term cultivation of the knowledge based alliances we build. More than ever before, the key alliances we form are with our diverse user communities. Of any potential allies, our users are the quickest to see the value of our services, and if we give them half a chance, they’ll even go to bat for us. But for that to happen we need to set the stage, foster the dialogues, and make sure our allies know what we need.

I’ve been writing a lot about a 2013 report that appeared in October at UC – Berkeley, titled “Report of the Commission on the Future of the UC Berkeley Library.” The Commission that published the report was charged by the campus administration to deliver a thorough review of the University Library and its ongoing needs. Their charge followed a very successful self-study process the University Library itself conducted, and which I also have commented upon (see “Survey Says, What Our Users Really Want Is Us.” CIL, May 2013 33 (4), p23-25).

The Commission spent a full year studying The Library, but the total review process was really more like a three year project. In this case, the time investment produced powerful results, and the authors of the report can only be seen as “users” of The Library’s services. As stakeholders in its future, they delivered an uncommonly insightful document that works quite effectively as a blueprint for any research library’s strategic planning. But it also can serve as an example how librarians form alliances, influence institution- and global-level debates about information, and work to create excitement and “buy-in” for bold ideas from their own user communities. It is this ultimate “deliverable” –good PR, delivered at the right time—that I am going to focus in this column.

Beyond “Heliocentric”

Don’t take my word for the quality of the document; be sure to have a look at the document itself (see http://evcp.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/FINAL_CFUCBL_report_10.16.13.pdf).

As you read you will find a few key themes and sentiments that stand out.

First, the tone of the document is declarative and imperative. There is a pleasant surfeit of well-phrased prose throughout, but the principal sentiment this report conveys is certainty.

The authors leave no question as to the fact that the library is the heart of the university, to wit:

“The University and the Library cannot exist without each other. Because the Library—in both its physical and virtual forms—is ubiquitous in the everyday lives of faculty, students, administrative staff, scholarly researchers, and the general public worldwide, it is difficult to make a case for its role in sustaining the academic preeminence of the University except by imagining our University and world without it. The Library is the heart and circulatory system of our research mission…it makes research happen; it makes learning possible….”

Well. Certainly the authors have concluded that they, as faculty members, cannot function competitively without the help of the Library, and they are sufficiently convinced that they are clearly advocating for major new institutional support. But they also did their homework before going out on a limb. UC Berkeley’s collections funding was ranked 4th by the Association of Research Libraries in 2004; in 2011, it was ranked 14th. Yet in 2012, the Library provided 2.7M physical items and 33 million article downloads during 2012. Its “human touch” is deep, with millions of in-persons visits, online exchanges and phone conversations. One of the authors spent many weeks analyzing financial reports with the senior business officers of the Library as well, and so the level of understanding about operations among Commission members was substantial.

The second theme is the necessity of change, and the readiness of the Library to embrace that change. At no place in this report do the authors find any significant complaint with the Library’s level of resolve to make bold changes and to do so proactively. They rightly point out that a “heliocentric” model, which depends on branch locations and services that encircle a vast central library edifice is no longer big enough to respond to changing needs. Instead, the Library must embrace a new service and collection-building model.

The authors offer a long list of imperative recommendations, some of which we might expect, while others imply deep awareness of the potential of the future. Revitalize the Moffitt Undergraduate Library and open it 27/7; enhance existing collaborations with IT departments; create a second-generation Web portal that is responsive to the changing world of discovery—all great ideas, but no big surprises. Yet also: embed the Library in “virtual carrels” so faculty have better access to resources. Ensure that student-based “e-portfolios” that follow them from admission to graduation and beyond enjoy a robust library presence with the potential for human touch. Further still, embed the Library in online classroom platforms and in MOOCs—and not least, keep up live presentations in physical classrooms.

Hey: where these guys get all these great ideas? Answer: from talking not only to us, but to every user community that uses the Library.

“The Intellectual Ecology”

I have discovered my favorite new library appellation from the dearly departed year of 2013 in this report, too. It is called the “intellectual ecology.” Readers might have noticed that I often favor the phrase “diverse, information ecology,” in describing our enabling roles, but this group has raised the bar, declaring that library spaces (physical and virtual) comprise an intellectual commons that fosters all kinds of scholarship. This affirmative view of library space shows awareness that libraries carry authority and influence that is equal to any learned society or discipline of knowledge. Moreover, library space in all its forms and improves productivity and quality in learning.

Take note, all you who have gone through “library space wars” with competitors who want our learning spaces: you are custodians of a vital resource and should not back down an inch. Yet even though the authors give a strong vote for library space, they also affirm the idea of repurposing this valuable space to change with the times. The 20t century research library, they point out, has “…housed physical collections of textual inscriptions for the purposes of preserving human learning…since Bablyonian times.” In this century we must do that and so much more. This is where the importance of friends—especially among our own users—becomes crystal clear.

The Value of User Awareness

It’s worth noting that even as of this writing it still remains to be seen how the University will respond to the Commission’s report. But whatever fiscal outcomes may yet appear, I think it is safe to say that faculty and campus support for its University Library may be at an all-time high.

The reservoir of good will that flows from a clear understanding of the Library’s potential has incalculable value. Good will among allies makes it easier to explain our goals at the highest level, but it can also be quite handy in clearing the way for less lofty needs, such as entrée to physical classrooms, being at the table for institution-level strategic planning, or just getting the janitorial support you need. Further still, such good will among “high value” user community members, such as the faculty who served on the Commission, keeps on giving back in many forms: doors are more likely to be opened, dialogues can build shared outcomes, and perhaps even foster the hope of a broader role for the library in the digital future.

Perhaps that may be a lot to hope for. Perhaps I am once again the optimist I am continually accused of being. But early evidence, in the form of excitement and interest in this report, back up my upbeat sentiment. And important public institutions such as UC – Berkeley are often bellwethers for broader change in society, so what happens here is not parochial, but well worth following. More than anything, the Commission’s report is proof positive that our very long-range goal of cultivating allies is paying off—and that our users may be the best allies of all.

UC Berkeley Report: Revitalize the Library and Empower the People Who Operate It

In 2010, The University of California, Berkeley Libraries started a “self review” process, which led to a much more comprehensive review that was endorsed by the campus, and led by a “blue ribbon” faculty committee. The working group is called The Commission on the Future of the UC Berkeley Library. The commission studied the library, the profession, scholarly communications, and the many opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for a full year. It delivered its report to the campus administration on October 14, and the report is now available online.

Many eyes will be drawn to the financial recommendations, which are broad in scope: five million dollars in one-time funding to make up for lost time, and new funding each year at that same level. This proposal is not unprecedented; in the late 1990s, Chancellor Robert Berdahl made a similarly-sized investment in revitalizing the campus libraries. Now, newly inaugurated Chancellor Nicholas Dirks will have an opportunity to once again revitalize a great institution. Moreover, the recommendations of the report—read the executive summary—are audaciously forward-looking and paint a picture of an academic enterprise that is lean, innovative, creative, assertive, and not least, keenly interested in empowering people.

Point of disclosure: I manage an Affiliated Library, which is outside the reporting structure of the University Librarian. Affiliated Libraries report to deans, directors and department heads, but their collections data and other metrics are reported to the Association of Research Libraries as part of campus totals. The Affiliated Libraries work in close cooperation with The University Library.

A Key Finding: Librarians are GREAT

It’s heartening to see a group of faculty members state, in unanimity, that the human beings that run research libraries are a vital resource. Moreover, in an era of digital information (and misinformation), they have become more important to scholars, not less, in the business of helping people find, analyze and interpret what they need to know. In my view this is the most exciting of the many proactive recommendations that are made in the report. I urge anyone who reads my blog to check it out.

The press has also taken note.  Steve F. Brown, writing in the San Francisco Business Times, offers a very good “Cliff Notes” summary of the report and the issues.

Read the SF Business Times article: 

http://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/blog/2013/10/librarians-vs-search-engines-uc-berkeley.html

Read the Report:

http://evcp.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/FINAL_CFUCBL_report_10.16.13.pdf

Notes from a 2012 User Survey

(This article appeared in the May issue of Computers in Libraries magazine.)

By now nearly every large research library is deeply involved in user surveys, and we depend on the data they produce as we craft flexible goals for changing times. Survey data is even more important when external review committees are charged to review the library’s mission, because evidence-based metrics provide a crucial basis for understanding and rating performance and service goals. Indeed, the data often fall out in our favor, as local history has often shown. In 1997 UC – Berkeley charged a “blue ribbon committee” to review The University Library in an era of state budget shortfalls. The University Library engaged its community quite effectively, relying on survey data as part of the process. In 2012, another blue ribbon committee was formed for the same reasons. The 1997 venture garnered strong support for building the staff and collections budgets, and raised consciousness levels in general. The current committee, hard at work as we go to press, has an updated charge to identify the most important objectives for all library services. Intensive survey work preceded the formation of the blue ribbon committee and definitely influenced its charge.

Although research libraries vary quite a bit in their operational structure, there are commonalities among peer institutions, and so survey work is always broadly interesting. With that in mind, I will leave aside my thoughts about the “destacked” library, and focus on the survey responses that were gathered on the Berkeley campus during fall 2012.

“Central to the University’s Mission”

After years of tight budgets, the University Library at UC – Berkeley found itself once again facing many hard decisions about its near and long-term future. Library leaders responded proactively in 2012, launching an internal “re-envisioning” process. Once they had data in hand, they took their findings to the faculty and campus administration. The survey reached more than 4,000 faculty, students, and staff. Read all about it on the Library’s web site (see Attitudes toward Re-Envisioning the UC Berkeley Library, an Online Survey of the UC Campus Community, http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/AboutLibrary/re_envision.html ).

The re-envisioning process and accompanying survey data attracted favorable attention, and a blue ribbon committee was charged to study the situation and make strategic recommendations. Survey data were influential from the get-go. The survey produced one of those “keystone” metrics we always to hope to achieve: seven in 10 users said they used the library a “great deal” or a “fair amount.” The data suggest that the library is central to the University’s mission, to be sure, but another intriguing mindset was revealed. It turns out that “liking” the library inevitably means liking librarians, and the majority of survey respondents hold them in high esteem. Indeed, the survey also confirmed that the interactions we have with patrons leave them better off than they were before. This finding is a crucial value point that we need to return to over and over again, especially since debates about library space and budgets often tilt toward self-service and self-directed research models as a solution to staffing challenges.

The value of “high touch” services is confirmed elsewhere in the survey, too. At its core, the surveyors wanted to discover whether patrons preferred “stand alone, full service” subject libraries (of which there are many on campus), or whether they would accept “hub and cluster” services points. The latter would allow a much-reduced staff to pool their efforts—a big savings, as it would give the University a basis for permanently reducing of the total FTE in the library. But graduates and undergraduates expressed greater comfort with the full-service approach, which was welcome news. The faculty split 50-50 on this point, but a 50 percent favorable rating for stand alone, full service locations is nonetheless a compelling number.

“High Quality Collections?”

The responses on collection issues are particularly intriguing. The need to maintain high quality collections was a clear priority among all segments of the respondents. Moreover, they agreed that keeping collection funding levels robust was more important that trying to keep every service location open. This implies that in order to preserve collections and help them grow, the campus user community accepts—on some level—that service locations may need to be consolidated.

However, it is hard for library patrons to grasp that collections require a substantial amount of working hours to develop, maintain and preserve. It is easier to view collections as complete artifacts that are just waiting to be tapped, whether in digital or print form, and to miss the fact that they are the work of collection developers. But that belief may be changing. Another metric shows that even though “collections” stand as a distinct priority for the library, librarians were once again highly valued. When queried, users ranked the tasks of selection, cataloging and archiving, reference, and (interestingly) instruction as important.

These kinds of responses cannot help but direct the attention of external committees to the value of the library staff. This was timely information in fall 2012, as the University Library had lost a significant number of librarians—including many selectors—to emeritus status. Ultimately the data show that library users are beginning to perceive that “high quality collections” cannot be achieved without a high quality academic staff.

“Space” and “Place” Still Matter

If everybody can study and access information resources online, who needs library space? Well, it turns out that a lot of people surveyed value that space a lot. One out of four undergraduates stated that 24 hour access at least five days a week was a top priority. At the same time, one out of four respondents also said that they prefer to access information solely by digital means.

It would appear that student study habits are by no means homogeneous, and it is vital to remember this. Indeed, the optics of library space “in action” are glaringly clear. In any library on the central UC – Berkeley campus, many if not most seats are taken by students who are studying—online. Even as digital scholarship advances, there is continued value to the premise of the library commons. It may be that libraries are a bellwether of the limits of just how “digital” students wish to be; congregating together to study, whether in quiet or social space remains a priority and key aspect of student life.

We’re Still Digital-Plus-Print

There’s another question that arises from the experience and preferences of the 25 percent group of digital-only users: what does this low (but significant) percentage imply about the habits of the other 75 percent? Evidence from this survey and from other sources indicates that students continue to read textbooks and course readers, even if their e-readers are more lightweight. This is a datum worth paying attention to, as it confirms that individual preferences still dictate media choices.

I was particularly struck by a scene I recently encountered at the campus gym during a lunch break. In the stretching area, one student was doing “core strengthening” exercises (holding herself rigid in the form of a push-up) while studying a course reader, on the floor below. This double duty workout lasted as long as I was in the stretching room, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, out in the aerobics atrium, every cardio machine user had either a book or a smartphone to study with or listen to music. But the hardware did not outnumber the print books—quite the opposite.

So: it would seem that libraries still need to plan for costly digital services while maintaining equally costly print acquisition programs. In order to do that, there is simply no way around the fact that funds are needed, and that cutting them means cutting something that is valued. Tough decisions abound, but this one is among the toughest, because administrators would like to save funds by going digital. What they need to hear—whether from survey data or from us –is that we are still in a hybrid environment, and we should be cautious in our conclusions about the right mix of print-plus-digital media.

Willingness to Compromise

My sense is that this particular survey uncovered a widely held set of beliefs among a diverse survey population, which included a balance of faculty, students, and staff. The users demonstrated broad awareness that years of budget cuts and staff reductions have had far-reaching consequences all over campus, and they are concerned. But they also perceive that it may no longer be possible to recreate the perhaps “elysian” dream of a fully staffed and fully funded research library. Instead, they are signaling acceptance of the idea that a new library service model might pose challenges, but that it might also bring new benefits to the campus.

This openness to change implies brings at least one major challenge, but also two opportunities, in my opinion. The challenge lies in how to frame a vision for the library’s future that folds negotiation and compromise by all stakeholders into a transparent process. That is never easy but is always worth the effort.

The opportunities are surely worth that effort. First, open minds create space for dialogue and learning, and if we emphasize communication and openness, a new library service model could integrate what is important both for users and for the profession. Second, if we are going to launch a new library service model, we had better make sure that it provides ample opportunity for “high touch” experiences. It is through meeting the library staff that users gain an appreciation for what they do, and the survey data bear this out. Whether the new service model deploys hubs and clusters, or full service branch libraries, success will hinge on building the model around the people who work in libraries because they are the agents who build loyalty, offer information counsel, and can help to interpret the digital future.

Marketing Help for the Self-Publishing E-Author: Enter “Kbuuk”

While many authors are trying their luck at e-publishing, either completely on their own or with the help of a Web-based publishing service, fewer of these intrepid souls may be skilled in what it means to market their work. Indeed, the same dilemma faces consultants and independent contractors, who must 1) do the work they are paid for and 2) market and promote their consulting business. What is more, successful marketing requires special knowledge of the target audience to gain traction and garner attention. My favorite example of this comes not from the trenches of capitalism but from Broadway. The celebrated musical The Music Man begins with a group of sales people on a train, chanting their market tips in time with the clicking rails. Keeping perfect time, one of the sales guys calls out, “But ya gotta know the territory!” more than once.

The territory of self-publishing authors is a tough one to learn. Even now, several years into the era of the e-book, it often seems like the best marketing coup an author can hope for is to be discovered by a mainline publisher and to pick up a contract. Several popular authors have made their fame and fortune from just this sort of process.

Enter “Kbuuk?”

Authors, take note: entrepreneurs have you in their marketing gun-sights.  On April 9, 2013 The San Francisco Chronicle profile a new Houston-based startup called Kbuuk (don’t ask…OK. “K” is for cloud and “buuk” is for…well, Fritz Lanham at the Chronicle figured it out from there; see SFC, April 9, 2013, p. D1).

Kbuuk can convert a Word manuscript into a e-book, and host it on its own distinctive web site within the Amazon Cloud ecosystem, in Amazon itself, and on Kobo’s and Barnes and Noble’s platforms. This reduces costs (and gives Kbuuk a 20 percent margin). Kbuuk creates marketing “value” by crafting a Web presence that will grab the attention of readers.

Sounds great! But–in addition to “knowing the territory” you must have a quality product to bring in the sheaves of fame and fortune. No shortcuts there.

New Terrain: “The Lowest Publishable Denominator”

In addition to discussing the merits of a comprehensive marketing plan Lanham points out that there is something new about how pricing works in the self-publishing e-book market. He quotes Ed Nawotka, editor in chief of Publishing Perspectives, on the new dynamics of pricing. Apparently, “less is more:  authors are pricing lower for smaller bits of information.  New and good idea, yes?  Except academics will quickly recognize the tried-and-true vehicle of the “lowest publishable denominator,” i.e., stretching out your research into as many articles as possible. But then, many famous authors have also shown their skill in the LPD derby (Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones, anyone?)

Anyway, it works like this. If you, the reader are being charged $1.99, your expectations are lower, and you might be more willing to buy something. Amazon’s Kindle store (as well as The New York Times) give ample proof of this new e-sub-market. Famous authors are now publishing novellas, short stories and excerpts at very low prices. This low-cost come-on, in my opinion, may be deepening the e-book market by giving readers affordable options, using the hook-power of name recognition.

For those without name recognition in place, the marketing work must continue. Perhaps startups like Kbuuk will make that work a bit easier for aspiring authors.

Barbara Quint: These are “Opportunity Times”

Information Today, Inc.’s newly minted Online Searcher magazine appears to combining the best of both its predecessors, ONLINE and Searcher.  (Full Disclosure: I have written for ONLINE over the years and hope to continue to do so.).  Part of me felt some concern about this merger when it was “coming soon,” for a simple reason:  both of the predecessors had a number of columnists and commentators I genuinely believe we cannot do without. We need voices.  Fortunately, they are still sounding out, loud and clear.

I could go on at length about the March/April issue, which has many good articles (disclosure: none by me!). But I really want to focus on senior editor Barbara Quint’s (“bq”)column, appropriately titled “Gimme! Gimme!”  Here are a few thoughts and ideas of my own in response.

Reinventing in Place, not “Aging in Place”

bq devotes her column space to the counter-intuitive but powerful belief that the more change, the more chaos, the more new technology we confront, the better the odds are for breakthroughs. In other words, “hard times” can become “opportunity times.”  This really resonates with me. I’ve been lucky to be associated with UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment for a long time (let’s just say, decades). The conventional wisdom would make me out to be a long-term hanger-on, obsessing on OPACs and circulation statistics and other thrilling issues of yesteryear: but no. Working in one location has not felt like “aging in place:” it feel more like “innovate or die.” And I’m not the only one: I do not see any “dead wood” in this joint.

I might have moved around to experience other workplaces and challenges, but heck, I didn’t need to. In the past 18 years, my core assignment and professional activities have been completely revolutionized and reinvented at least five times.

Ghosts of Librarianship Past

First there were those were those good ol’ “online” days, dominated by mediated searches on Lexis-Nexis and charging a hefty premium for mediated research. Next came the ubiquitous email and “digital conversations era, managed by the library, along with Gopher and the notion that networked information had, perhaps, just a bit of potential.

Boom, it’s the Web next, and I volunteered to be the Webmaster for this place (go ahead, ask me anything about 1990s Web best practices!). Nowadays I supervise two programmers and act as the digital publisher for IRLE.

More recently, the “online classroom” and MOOCs (massively open online courses) have created an urgency to make sure that research skills that were once taught in the library get taught online, in class, everywhere. And then there’s social media. Guess what: my staff are the folks who have taught a lot of the staff and graduate students how to use it.

A Band of Paradigm-Busting Sisters and Brothers

This is a not brag-list at all. I can think of at least 20 people who have taken similar risks, and reaped greater rewards in vastly different circumstances, so much so that I am humbled by what they have achieved.

It’s the unrelenting process of digital convergence that has switched out “aging” and pasted in “reinvention.” The digital era has had a way of making librarianship a cutting-edge field. And the caliber of new entrants into the field—who arrive with their social media and “disruptive” thought patterns fully honed—guarantee that we are not going to be a dull bunch in the coming years.

“Horrors! Open Access!”  Or, Does Opportunity Strike Again?

The “Gimme…” column that bq writes is a typical, bq-trademarked piece that challenges her readers to think up some good ideas and run with them. She lists many, but my favorite is the “specter” of open access. She cites OA as a key example of how a potentially “scary” concept is in fact an opportunity-from-thin-air. To quote:

“Open access needs editoring, stratification, categorization, ranking and anything else that can enable users to use it in a curriculum of learning.”

–That is, look at all the cool things we can contribute, instead of viewing open access as a threat to established revenue streams, a risk to the peer review process, and a force that will put publishers out of work.

I’m right with her on this one. I am surrounded by a distinguished cohort of faculty and students who are only now beginning to think about open access seriously. But mention “Gold OA” or “Green OA” and eyes begin glaze over. Opportunity time strikes again: just make your exegesis colorful and distinctive, and you shall win the hearts and minds of your audience. Tell a story that makes sense, and people pay attention. Indeed, my director will often ask me, “Do I need to be concerned about this?” when some new digital or data curation initiative is announced. Acting as the “interpreter” of new technology for very busy, very smart folks is not a bad place to be in an organization devoted to cross-disciplinary research.

The point is that the questions that open access raises, and the challenges it presents to the key players in the “information lifecycle” are in fact evidence that we have a very serious role to play in defining what education, universities, and online learning will look like in ten years. We are not on the sidelines; indeed, we know more about scholars and their habits and most other stakeholders. So bq’s ideas about what we could contribute seem very obvious, very relevant, and perhaps as evident to other folks as they are to us. There’s a reason for that: we were trained in library school to understand the dynamics of “pattern recognition.”

Let’s All Do A Little “Pattern Recognition”

In the struggle to reframe “tough times” as “opportunity times” we already possess the necessary tools: the ability to discern patterns in society and technology, and the tenacity to push forward based on what we perceive. At the consortial level, there would never have a SPARC or a Mellon Foundation-funded initiative to study digital libraries, if we had kept thinking “inside the box” of what information services are supposed to be. Ditto working with Google to launch a more far-seeing digital initiative, and thus giving birth to HathiTrust. Their commercial dream has a second life as our scholarly oasis, and everybody wins (including the attorneys).

At the institutional level, our boldest administrators allow their newly-hired net-gen librarians to get a little crazy and try new things, like—wow—online course reserves! And at the individual level, each of us has developed the mettle to face down non-library administrators who look quizzically at you and say, “What exactly do you do?”

So I do see some patterns at work. The first: technological change has disrupted everybody, and those who thrive are the ones who can separate useful, transferable tasks from existing modes of organization. The second: even though there are thousands of really smart people running around places like UC Berkeley or other great universities, far fewer people are gifted with the skill of framing what we are experiencing in coherent “stories,” and then telling those stories. Do that, and you are halfway to your own personal brave new world.

Third: “Pay attention, show up, speak the truth, and let go of the consequences.”

I know: that can to quite difficult do in academic committee meeting, but do it we must. Thankfully, it’s less difficult when we mix it up with a gang of like-minded digital citizens, who care about what our digital future will look like.

Competition in the Health Care Professions: A Distant Mirror?

I’ve written at length about sociologist Andrew Abbott’s 1988 book, The System of Professions (Chicago, 1998), and his very astute analysis about how the information professions—all of them, ranging from librarians to MBA consultants—compete with each other, obstruct competing groups when they reach for more power, and so on. He describes what professionals do as offering a “treatment,” which requires special training and knowledge, and the exercise of independent judgment. When a particular group wants to gain the upper hand, moving into an emerging market, for example, they practice “treatment substitution.” Essentially they are saying “I know a lot too, and my strategy is a better one.”

Since we all work together in the information professions, the actual dynamics of treatment substitution can be obscured by good vibrations, collaborative spirit and so on—or at least, we can hope so. However, oftentimes the easiest way to perceive the current of competition in our own field of expertise is to look to other fields and see what is happening there.  With respect to treatment substitution, there is no better example than the medical professions, and Andrew Abbott devoted many pages of his book to the medical fields along with the information professions.

Well, unsurprisingly, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is stirring up controversy and also creating opportunity. When opportunities abound, professional competition can heat up fast. And next comes treatment substitution!

Nurse Practitioners: Exercising New Muscle

On March 24, 2013, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the current struggle of nurse practitioners to exercise more independent judgment in health care delivery. NPs already can diagnose acute and chronic illness, are trained in pharmacology and health care ethics, and they have become essential partners in care. They are regulated at the state level, and so what they can actually do varies by region. Chronicle Reporter Shannon Pettypiece describes the overall status of their struggle, which increasingly is playing out in the courts.

Physicians have always seen themselves as the “captain of the ship,” and they and their associations vigorously guard their primacy in the practice of medicine. Yet at the same time, there is a shortage of 13,000 doctors right now, and this shortage is forecast to grow to 130,000 in the coming years. Nurse practitioners argue that they could fill a crucial gap, if they are afforded the privileges needed to diagnose and treat patients. This is particularly true in rural regions.

Closer to Home: Opportunity from Atomization

In the information professions, there has been splintering of major concepts and established roles–you could even say atomization of “skill sets,” as the digital era unfolds. MIS managers, consultants, CIOs, information specialists and librarians all compete to offer the best information “treatments,” but new technology and ideas about social interaction are rewriting the rules. Treatments on offer include digital curation, digital publishing, preservation, digital conversations, reference consultations, and more. As digital convergence pushes us all closer together, we face more moments when we must choose to collaborate or compete.

In the journals marketplace, the emergence of SPARC and new strategies to promote open access scholarship are swiftly changing our expectations and assumptions about the future of information management and delivery. At the same time, technical skills can be learned readily by just about any enterprising person with a dream. These enterprising people can create apps and other tools that become “must-have” functionalities on our smartphones.

In other words:  competition, and treatment substitution, are alive and well in the information professions. We even have litigation over publishing markets and journal pricing, although our version seems a lot less personal than physicians’ assertion that they simply “know more” than nurses.

“A Finch Sang in Berkeley Square….”

I don’t think we have a single issue that defines current competition among the various information handling professions; rather we have a great many, and they are diverse. But for the moment, with the release of the “Finch Report” in the United Kingdom and its mandate to build “Gold Open Access” models to make research available to all, I’d say open access is a illuminating issue that defines what competition looks like. At what point does a publisher need the library, or for that matter, at what point does the library actually “become” the publisher? Or further: at what point do authors become the “agents of change” in an all-new style of writers’ guild, given that technology makes this possible, right now?

These and many other questions will not be answered soon, although the nature of competition may reveal some of the strategies that many of us will surely test. Meanwhile, while we continue to work together, we continue to hone our skill at monitoring the digital environment we work in, and the new opportunities that arise to extend our reach.

Hari Seldon Lives: Revenge of the Original ‘Psychohistorians’

The February 23rd, 2013 issue of The Economist a brief but provocative article on the rapid development of massive data analysis by means of social media, and the potential to develop much better models to discover patterns of predictability—in other word, Isaac Asimov’s concept of psychohistory, as conceived in his Foundation novels.

Sci-Fi junkies nearly to a person would rank Asimov’s Foundation trilogy as one of the seminal works of science fiction. With a flair for “space opera” on a galactic level, Asimov sculpts a story in which science meets social sciences, and the resulting “Seldon Plan” would enable “psychohistory”—the forecast of society’s ups and downs—to steer humanity through and beyond a collapse of galactic civilization. In the course of the story he fleshes out the idea of the “scientist as hero,” later popularized by Kim Stanley Robinson in his Mars trilogy. This brand of hero essentially saves us from ourselves—whether the crisis at hand is a collapse in galactic civilization, or a mere well-organized expansion of human beings to Mars.

Well, if The Economist has captured an emerging scientific process, and if what is past is prologue, we may soon get a version of psychohistory in real time, although it might be a tad more primitive than Hari Seldon’s Plan.

The Economist profiles a number of projects underway that use Big Data to predict social outcomes, ranging from using cell phone records to chart “where” we are at any given time, to using epidemiology to forecast future vectors.

Politics—and we could some serious, big-time help in that arena—is the next frontier for the data crunchers. Boleslaw Szymanski of the Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute is analyzing the role of “catalytic minorities,” which are groups of only about ten percent of a given population, but can suddenly swing public opinion in their direction.

The authors go on to speculate whether ultimately it might be possible to develop a theory of Society, much in the same manner that physicists are exploring a theory of everything.”  Now we are truly getting in Seldon territory, as our correspondent at The Economist call it. But modeling something as complex as society will not be easy. Our correspondent says:  “Small errors can quickly snowball to produce wildly different outcomes.”

In the Foundation series, the little glitch in the Seldon Plan appears in the form of an individual who has the extrasensory ability to influence peoples’ actions and minds—known as The Mule. He tipped the Seldon Plan off course, driving the story forward into unknown territory. The heroic psychohistorians labor to control for The Mule’s impact on their complex, formula-driven plan for humanity.  In the end (Whew!) they pull it off, and galactic civilization does not fall into a long dark age.

I think research along these lines is quite worthwhile, and in light of the 2012 election season, I can’t help wondering if we are seeing some baby steps in the direction that the Hari Seldons of the future might dare to tread. In the meantime, I’m left with the real-world record of social scientists in the here and now, and how they must “control” for every known factor as they set up models. Perhaps a theory of society is possible to some degree, but it would better overall if we would just behave as told to keep the models.  Somehow I think we will as recalcitrant as ever, to the dismay and disappointment of our current posse of scientific heroes….