Saturday, 17 September 2016

Digital Library Futures

This blog post conveys some of the things I learnt and saw at the ALIA Online 2015 conference and the ALIA National 2016 Conference, about the future of libraries and librarians.

At the ALIA Online conference I concentrated on the vendor offerings, finding out what automated technologies are now being supplied to libraries. These included many things to aid self-service which is something our clients want, for example self-issue and return through use of RFID technology and self-access 24/7 to the library. Also augmented reality and virtual reality played a large part.  Librarians are still at the stage of trying to fully understand these realities so that we can understand how better to apply the technology in libraries.  In augmented reality the client is in a real environment and sees additional things overlaid on top of the reality.  For example Solus showed a library summer school gaming app where iPads with an app loaded were given to children for use in Glasgow Library.  When the children walked round the library and looked at the posters for the game pinned onto bookshelves through the app they came to life with mooing cows, and tokens floating in the air to be collected.  Since the worldwide phenomenon of Pokémon Go recently the concept of ‘augmented reality’ is now better understood.  Virtual reality means wearing a headset and seeing an environment so realistic you think you are actually there, rather than looking at it on a computer screen.  Usually real realities are used, either those giving excitement like roller-coasting, or those giving access to areas you can’t get to e.g. behind the scenes at a museum. Sometimes virtual reality may convince you that you want to go to a virtual location in real life e.g. a University campus or library. The price of the headsets is no longer an issue since you can make your own with a cardboard box and use your smartphone with an app loaded.  My 15 minute video of the digital technologies in the vendor’s hall sums up technologies that are changing the way that libraries engage with their clients.

At the ALIA National 2016 Conference in Adelaide I focused on listening to librarians presentations to get a feel from the wider profession for where libraries and librarians are going.

The changing environment means that what used to be the core business for libraries – supplying physical books and reference services no longer is.  It’s still there but the extent and depth of it is largely eroded by services such as e-books, Amazon and Google and the desire of clients to ‘self-serve’.  Because clients do not appear to need librarians to help them in the same way they used to, librarians are trying to work out how they can provide value in other ways and stay relevant.  This was one of the main themes of the conference. This theme has been almost done to death in the last 15 years, but this time I sensed a ground shift because the situation is now so serious and librarians realise it. If the profession does not adapt it will fade away.  The conference gave librarians the opportunity to explain to their peers what they have actually done to re-position and re-brand themselves in the last few years. My summary covers five highlights.

1. Lorcan Dempsey OCLC Keynote
Lorcan opened the conference with his keynote ‘Library Futures’. He is a brilliant speaker with great ideas and is highly regarded in the profession.  He opened by saying that he had nothing new to say on the topic, and indeed he has talked and blogged extensively on the future of libraries over the last ten years. This was more of a reminder of what we should be doing based on working examples in libraries internationally.
Shift our thinking from “how can we make the library better?” into “how can we make the life of the user, or the community we are in better?” Be client focused and work out how you can adapt and fit into their digital and physical lives and spaces, not the other way round. e.g. libraries on ferries and beaches.
Instead of being neutral and invisible, show your library expertise and personality.  Most library websites still do not have pictures of their staff, list their experience, or indicate what they are trying to achieve, or give the client a ‘vibe’ about them. Most people no longer understand what a librarian does, so you need to be explicit, show your value and explain what problems you can solve. You can configure your value around 5 themes: collections, places, story, symbols e.g. openness, and skills. e.g. Monash University Library
Form partnerships and use advocates for libraries e.g. University of Adelaide ‘Friends of the Library’.
Acknowledge and adapt to the fact that collections are no longer physical and owned (simple scenario), but facilitated and need to be curated (value added).  For example the continuum sees us moving from buying books, into licenced collections, demand driven orders, shared digital collections e.g. Trove, scholarly role, free e-books, creating new content, revising and re-using content.
Review library services with both client and staff involvement at all levels.  A good example of this is the University of Adelaide ‘Library of the Future Report 2015’.  This Library is in urgent need of re-configuration of space, collections and services after a very long period of no change.

For public libraries: ‘The Impact of Libraries as Creative Spaces’ commissioned by the State Library of Queensland in 2015.

2. Service Points rather than Reference Desks

Very few academic libraries still retain a reference desk, or have a reference librarian sitting on the desk all day just waiting to be asked a question.  The observation is that in the digital world clients want and need less face to face and deep reference help.  Clients are also able to find library areas e.g. books, photocopiers, themselves without needing to ask directional advice if effort is put into library design and flow and signage. Clients indicate a preference for self-help and guiding wherever possible.

Dr Diana Hodge's presentation from University of South Australia explained with photographs and examples, and later a physical tour how their new library building took these factors into account.  They now have ‘service points’, not reference desks.  A service point has a phone, webcam and pc with screen sharing software. It connects the client to a librarian or ICT staff.  This means that librarians can be working at their desks on other tasks, or in other locations and be ‘on call’ when needed, thus optimising the use of their time. The service points are located next to a pod which has directional advice and guiding.
Librarians also have a chat service, clients have use of a library app, and ‘pop up’ libraries (1 staff with laptop) are around campus in student areas on orientation week. The library does not want to ‘force’ students to have to come into the physical library building when they may otherwise not. After the move into the new Library building and the new service model, enquiries reduced by 80% which was largely due to a logical layout of the building.  Because of academic and library staff concerns about this drop in enquiries students were surveyed a number of times to see if the lack of a reference desk meant they weren’t asking for help. The answer was that they did not need more help, most things were intuitive to find, and if they needed help they knew how to get it at service points or online. Monitoring and evaluation is ongoing.  Every online engagement gets a thumbs up or down from the client. However the ex-reference librarians were finding it challenging losing the face to face contact with clients at front of house, and having a much more sedentary desk role.

On the book front hard copy borrowing had dropped by 80% in 10 years and there was a 785% increase of use in e-books in the last 5 years. Currently 95% of books bought are e. The hard copy collection is being reduced by 45% based on usage figures. Although students preferred using e-books online, this was not shared by many academics who still wanted hard copy. The most used e-book had 60,000 downloads which speaks for itself. University of South Australia established their Digital Strategy in 2011 and carefully monitor against it. They also have a Digital Learning Strategy 2015-2020.

3. Research Data Managers rather than Reference Librarians

Several speakers addressed the suggestion that with reference librarianship becoming a little needed skill these librarians could metamorphose into research data managers instead.  However several universities seemed to have found that because the skill set is different it is often practical and effective to recruit new people into the role of research data managers, who may not be professional librarians. This seemed to illustrate that libraries can re-position and re-shape themselves but perhaps librarians cannot.  I gathered a sense of confusion from conference delegates of what a research data manager may actually be doing and why they wouldn’t call themselves a librarian.  The presentation and paper from Vanessa Johnson the librarian/data manager at Shell Australia was a really good illustration of what a big data manager would do in their role. This small library manages more petabytes of data than the National Library of Australia and has a regular flow of data both in and out to assist in creating more data of value for the company. Vanessa explained the velocity, volume, variety and complexity of managing big data with great clarity.

Other pointers to what a hybrid or research data manager role should do included ideas on how to help researchers manage their online presence and profile, including annual 'health checks'. Pimp my profile from QUT explained the workshop they instigated and how they moved researchers through bronze, silver and gold levels of online presence.

4. Demonstrating value by using visualisation and infographics
Debi Howarth and Masami Yamaguchi from Griffith University explained how using single page visualisation reporting and infographics can really influence your key stakeholders in their understanding of your value and the services you offer.

They showed the ‘Love My Library’ concept created by the Client services/librarian team, which used powerful quotes from clients in combination with statistics on posters, coasters, bags and booklets to convey client focused library value and expertise. Key messages were that the Library is the heart of the University and positively impacts student success and retention. Before the infographics senior University staff had little understanding of what the librarians did or what value they provided.

Another example of use of info-graphics is the one produced for Friends of the University of Adelaide Library.

5. Kate Torney, State Library of Victoria

The last speaker of the conference eclipsed all the other speakers, and made me forget everything I knew as a practicing librarian of 30 years.  She catapulted me back to my first job as a naïve library assistant age 17, when my role was to wash book covers clean and I thought what a great place the public library was to work. Kate Torney ex ABC News, now head of State Library of Victoria explained with the freshness of a newcomer combined with great  passion, love, and naivety how she hoped to transform the State Library of Victoria, including the building and services over the next 5 years with an approved $85 million refurbishment, including expansion of space by 40%. She clearly explained the impact it would have on people’s lives and the community, by using her own epiphany experience in the reading room 12 months before, which ‘converted her to libraries’ with an almost religious zeal.  Her vision was brought to life by skillful use of video stories featuring clients, including children and illiterate immigrants, no doubt drawing on her ABC news story experience and contacts.

She gave an extremely convincing case for why she may be able to do more for libraries in an advocacy role than anyone has before her, and I believed her. Her ‘why not?’ attitude and naivety is an asset and will stand her in good stead to achieve great things. Her amazement at what the library is and does, and the opportunities before her was tangible, positive and refreshing. She seemed like such a lovely person, but also well able to use the media to the library’s advantage. In comparing the library to a business she said any business would be thrilled to have the market reach the library does, which is potentially the whole population from birth to death, all ages, all sectors.  She had a particular interest in asking children what they want from the library, since they are the clients of now and the future.  They all seemed to agree on quiet space, being something they don’t get at home, and one boy said a rock-climbing wall inside the library would be cool for taking action breaks from studying. The first hand video account by a library user (illiterate immigrant, now a prize winning poet) was extremely moving.  I would strongly recommend watching her presentation (such a shame the video's are missing!)  or recorded version (without her videos!) which was like drinking two espresso martini’s in quick succession, it woke you up and got you excited and drunkenly optimistic about life and libraries. Discovering that Adelaide specialises in serving espresso martini’s all over the city was another epiphany journey for some librarians, but that’s another story!

I was enthused by digital technologies as I always am, because they generally enable us to respond better and quicker to our clients expectations. But overall I found it quite dispiriting at both the ALIA conferences that we as a profession have to keep reminding ourselves to be client focused, and that understanding and finding out what the client wants and responding in a timely way has still not become second nature to librarians or library managers.  It is still often viewed as something that only happens once a year in the form of a survey or only needed when things reach a crisis situation e.g. cuts in staff, or changes to library buildings. There were no convincingly good presentations about libraries being constantly in-tune with our client’s visions of libraries, or being predominanatly driven by client expectations and feedback, though the State Library of Victoria seemed to be on a road towards this.  Many of the leading lights in the library profession I have worked with or looked towards over the last 30 years are now retired and fresh blood is needed. I missed the presence of the old stalwarts of the profession, many of who had the most radical and forward thinking views of the library profession. My conclusion is that libraries can re-position and remain relevant and central to their communities with some effort and planned thinking, but I was not so convinced that librarians themselves will be able to, or will want to make the transitions required of them and morph their roles away from their traditional tasks into new areas and styles of librarianship.