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

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.

The Never Ending Quest for Relevance

I enjoyed viewing Brian Kelly’s slides for his recent presentation titled “What Next for Libraries? Making Sense of the Future!”  The presentation was given at the Emerging Technologies in Academic Libraries conference, which was held in Trondheim October 1-3, 2012. Brian synthesizes our perceptions and beliefs about what is to come and how things don’t always work out quite as we think they will. He uses the monorail—a “bleeding edge” technology some 50 years ago—as an example of a promising technology that reached a dead end.

Brian’s UKWebFocus post about his presentation at EMTAC also “reblogged” Lukas Koster’s post title about the event: “Change or Be Irrelevant.”  This is a topic I always warm to, having been engaged in this debate, mission, or aspiration about library futures as long as I’ve been in the profession.

Librarians are rightly concerned about their future, as new technologies influence how people use information. But our recent history is one of continuous change, with many smart moves paying off in big ways. One example is our early move into Web-based database aggregation, and becoming content creators is my current favorite. But for now, I want to respond to the risk of irrelevance that seems to stalk us, and add one thought based on some reading I have done over the years.

We’re not alone.

Virtually every profession that styles itself the guarantor of quality service, advice or judgment is facing the same uncertainty that librarians do. The shrillness of the alarm that other professionals articulate can make librarians seem like calm, unruffled masters of the universe.

Some of the most august professions are confronting bigger challenges than librarians, with varied degrees of success. For example, law is currently the site of high anxiety about partner profits, new models for providing legal services more cheaply, what young lawyers ought to be doing once they leave law school, and even the demise of the practice of law as we know it. The prime culprit is once again technology, with a boost from the economic downturn.

Further afield, health care professionals of many stripes struggle to increase their status, sometimes engaging in fierce debate their fellow care givers. Nurses have seen their status grow, while doctors openly complain about the growing burdens they face in the administrative and bureaucratic arenas. Psychologists clamor for the right to prescribe medicines for mental health issues, while psychiatrists man the battlements and will not give an inch. My sense is that the entire system of professions is being upended by new technologies, new ideas, new players taking on the establishment and so on.

This is a good thing.

But technology along is not the sole driver of professional distress—which is being voiced in the trade journals of every field in one form or another. Competition between professions is another new and revitalized factor in the batter for relevance. Technology speeds up the impact of competition between people, and it challenges professions to respond. In a way, the “marketplace of ideas” that is at the heart of intellectual inquiry is joined by a marketplace of “skill,” which is marked by fierce competition and innovation. This process affects all professions.

The Battling Professions, and their “Treatments”

It is also not a new process. Any serious student of the future and of the information professions in particular has some required reading to do in the discipline of sociology. Andrew Abbott, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, penned a book in 1988 titled The System of Professions (University of Chicago Press, 1988). In this book he outlines the dynamic process by which all professions compete to gain special status, and then organize to hold onto it. One group can gain leverage over another by offering a better solution—for example, paralegals could offer in-depth services that step onto the turf of attorneys. This process is known as “treatment substitution.” Essentially new groups rise and offer a better “treatment” than the traditional players, and gain ground as a result. Abbott devotes an entire chapter to the information professions—of which librarianship, even in 1988, was just one among many.

Abbott returned to his study of librarians and the challenges they face in 1998, in his article titled “Professionalism and the Future of Librarianship”  (Library Trends, Vol. 46 (no. 3), Winter 1998, 430-443). This article gained some attention in its day, and both his book and the article have passed the test of time quite well.

A Basis for a Relevancy Strategy

The core of Abbott’s thinking is compelling, and holds many lessons for the library professions. If we can understand challenges to our status as professionals and in particular our ability to master new technologies as based in “treatment substitution”—that is, others moving into our turf—we are more likely to develop survival strategies that advance our own “unique skill.”  Essentially, we would be telling the professional world, “Our solution is the best solution. Here’s why.” –and take it from there.

Consider the idea of an organization’s mission statement. It should outline the core beliefs of the organization in ways that keep it on course and enable it to thrive. Likewise, a strategy that is based on the belief that all professions are certain to compete—especially in this present era of disruptive technology—is more likely to facilitate action-oriented thinking that looks to the future, rather than the past, for inspiration.

And so in the quest for relevance, I look not only to examples of dead-end technologies or the emergence of mobile and app-based computing; I look also to see what strategies new players in the information sphere are trying out to create a niche themselves.  We have solid data that tells us that people are not effective searchers when it comes to finding articles via Google or the Library Web site. Maybe that’s one issue that could inform a fresh strategy to make ourselves not only relevant, but indispensable….