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Redesigning Library Services: A Manifesto

9: The Challenge

Technological Change
Beyond Substitution

The mission of library service is to support the purposes of the group to be served. The role of library service is to provide access to documents. We could, if we wished, choose to define documents generously to include a range of informative objects that can be stored and retrieve, not only writings and not only published writings.

Library service may be concerned with knowledge, but it is so in a fashion that is doubly indirect. Firstly, library services are concerned with texts and images that are representations of knowledge. Secondly, library services are, in practice, often concerned less with the texts and images themselves than with physical objects that are text-bearing and image-bearing, such as books, journals, manuscripts, and photographs. Libraries deal with text-bearing and image-bearing objects in vast quantities. Much of libraries' operating budgets and space is devoted not to the use of these materials, but to the assembling, organizing, and describing these materials so that it would become possible to use them. Hence, any significant change in the technology of text-bearing objects or of handling them could have very profound consequences, not on the purpose and mission of library services, but on the means for achieving them.

TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE

There is overwhelming consensus concerning trends in unit costs in information technology:

the cost of computing power will continue to decrease rapidly;
data storage costs will continue to decrease steadily; and
the technology of telecommunications indicates strong long-term reductions.

Software, being labor-intensive to develop and maintain, should not be assumed to share in the dramatic improvements in hardware costs. Nevertheless the overall trend is very clear: Computer-based operations are becoming steadily and substantially more affordable. The practical conclusion is easily drawn. To the extent that computer-based procedures can be substituted for pre-computer procedures, they will be. Overall, the amount of computer-based activity will increase.

Information technology may only be a means and not an end, but that does not make it unimportant. We have just noted that in the provision of library service a very large proportion of present budgets is devoted to arranging the means to enable service to be provided. The substitution of computing power, electronic data storage, and use of telecommunications holds considerable potential, not least because of the expectation that they will continue to become more attractive on cost grounds. The important questions become how and when the substitution of procedures based on new information technology should be adopted. The constraints include our limited ability to determine how to achieve that substitution, when that substitution will become cost-effective, and, at least as important, how to discriminate between substitutions that support improved library service and substitutions that subvert the mission and role of library service.

BEYOND SUBSTITUTION

The initial task can reasonably be to find out how and when to substitute techniques using new information technology in the place of more traditional methods. This, in itself, misjudges the real options. Each technology offers a different set of constraints. Each technology is suited for doing different things. The automating of manual procedures may well be worthwhile, but, in the longer term, misses the point of technological change. The initial question may be: How could library services be advantageously automated? This is a matter of doing the same things better. The longer term, more interesting question is: How could library service be re-designed with a change in technology? This is a matter of how to do better, different things.

Critical for addressing the second question--which better, different things should be done--is an understanding of past constraints upon library services that are attributable to the constraints of the technology of paper, card, and microform. However, constraints that are familiar tend to be transparent and not easy to recognize.

In Chapter 2, we noted the constraints of paper. Paper is a strictly localized medium; a paper document is generally suited for use by only one person at a time; paper copies of paper documents have the same constraints as do the original; paper records are rather inflexible and can become expensively bulky. These constraints, in turn, determine the major limitations of the library service based on paper and paper-like technology:

  1. Only documents that are local are usable. In all other cases the document must be fetched or the user must travel. The contents, scale, and suitability of the local collection dominates the quality of library service in the Paper Library and in the Automated Library.

  2. Space for storing large local collections can become a significant practical problem.

  3. Paper documents can be copied but are otherwise inflexible.

  4. Catalogs on card are more flexible (but less moveable) than catalogs in printed book form. In both cases adding points of access becomes very cumbersome. Traditional U.S. practice has been to maintain access by author, by subject heading, and by title. Each requires an additional sequence of cards. Adding sequences to provide access by date, for example, or by language becomes prohibitively expensive. Economical subject access is at the price of using a highly complex pre-coordinate subject heading system, such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings.

  5. Users, catalog, documents, and bibliographies are each physically separate from each other. There is inconvenience in getting from any one to any other.

  6. Paper Libraries are closed much of the time and are invariably at some distance from the user.

  7. Sought documents are commonly unavailable because they are already being used (or, more likely, not actually being used but borrowed) by someone else.

  8. Time and patience is often needed to use Paper Libraries.

  9. The problems of Paper Libraries are sensitive to size. Small libraries are limited in what they can provide. In large libraries there are diseconomies of scale because unit costs of filing, finding, and re-shelving increase as collections become larger.

Computer-based processing and electronic document storage have been found to have its own distinctive characteristics. The constraints include a greater need for standardization, increased technical complexity, and greater dependence on equipment that is much fragile and much more prone to obsolescence than that of a Paper Library.

Advantages of the new technology are that repetitive, mechanical tasks can be delegated to the machinery; the rate of increase in labor costs can thereby be moderated; electronic records can be modified, rearranged,and combined with each other; and, with telecommunications, distance becomes substantially irrelevant. These factors transform those aspects of library service that derive from the constraints of paper and cardboard. The location of the user, the catalog record, the bibliography, and of the document cease to be dominating considerations. The user, the catalog, the bibliography, and the document can now be connected in ways that, hitherto, could only be dreamed about. As these changed constraints come to be appreciated it becomes clear that these new circumstances offer the possibility--indeed the inevitability--of new designs for library service.

Several major changes are indicated:

  1. Since library materials in electronic form lend themselves to remote access and shared use, the assembling of local collections becomes less important. Coordinated collection development and cooperative, shared access to collections become more important.

  2. With materials on paper, having copies stored locally is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for convenient access. With electronic materials, local storage may be desirable but is no longer necessary. Therefore, a catalog defined as a guide to what is locally stored becomes progressively less complete as a guide to what is conveniently accessible. One might as well catalog books published in odd years but not those published in even years. The answer is to shift from catalogs to union catalogs or linked catalogs and to holdings data linked to bibliographies, reversing our usual perspective on catalogs as bibliographic descriptions attached to a holdings records. Arguably the present day catalog, online or on cards, is a more a product of the limitations of nineteenth century library technology than of present day opportunities.

  3. In the meanwhile, those to be served are changing their information-handling habits. Paper and pen are being supplemented by desk-top workstations, capable of using a multiplicity of remote sources. This leads to an entirely different perspective: from a library-centered world view to one that is user-centered.

  4. These technological changes also invite reconsideration of the professional orthodoxy of consolidating academic library services. The view that a multiplicity of branch and departmental libraries is inefficient might well change. Under different conditions the decentralization of library service might well be regarded as an effective strategy by administrators as well by as users.

  5. The trend is to digitize everything for storage and manipulation: sound, image, moving images, text, and numeric data. Documents of all kinds are becoming more homogeneous in their physical medium. Limiting libraries to printed documents, or, indeed, written documents, makes less and less sense. If that demarcation dissolves, there is a blurring of boundaries. The functions of the library, the computer center, and the telecommunications office are converging, overlapping, or, at least, more closely related. New patterns are evolving in the relationships between libraries, publishers, and others in the information industry. The roles of archives, libraries, museums, and other information stores seem likely to become less clearly differentiated.

  6. There is much greater opportunity to bring service to wherever potential users of library service happen to be.

Catalogs, collections, buildings, and library staff are the familiar means for providing library services. Computers, networks, and electronic documents provide additional means with interesting possibilities.

Hitherto library services have been dominated by local catalogs, local collections, and great inequalities in the geographical distribution of services. The constraints on library service are changing right now. None of this is a argument for abandoning paper and local collections. All of this requires us to think again about the mission of the library, the role of library, and the means of providing service. For the first time in one hundred years we face the grand and difficult challenge of redesigning library services.

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Copyright © 1997 Michael K. Buckland.
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Last update September 29, 1998. SunSITE Manager: manager@sunsite.berkeley.edu