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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2013



Creative Destruction and Library Services

Alvin Hutchinson
Information Services Librarian
Smithsonian Institution
Washington DC

Copyright 2013, Alvin Hutchinson. Used with permission.

The Internet tends to push everything toward a self-service model. It happened in retail, banking, government services, and of course libraries. If you've worked in or used libraries for more than twenty years, try to think of all the things patrons once needed personal assistance with but which is now self-service. For example, librarians once mediated the searching of bibliographic databases on behalf of patrons, but since the advent of institutional licensing and IP-based authentication, today's users jump right in and (for better or worse) do all their own searching.

Licensing online journal content has also pushed services directly into readers' hands. For a growing body of literature, finding and retrieving articles no longer requires a visit to the stacks or the interlibrary loan office.

Collection development is another library function that may move rapidly toward self-service. Acquisition budgets are increasingly under pressure and many libraries are experimenting with patron driven acquisition (PDA) so that money is used most efficiently, being spent on clearly articulated user needs. Buying books that no one has specifically requested is an increasingly unaffordable luxury in many places.

One could also imagine this happening with periodical literature. In addition to institutional licenses, many publishers also sell single articles. Terms of use vary, but often an electronic reprint can be made immediately available for somewhere between $20-$50. If scientists can't find a free copy by e-mailing the author directly, they may begin to purchase articles themselves and build these costs into research grant budgets. Just as FedEx and UPS build the cost of parking tickets into their cost of inner-city deliveries, grantees might come to consider journal articles a part of the cost of doing research.

Science librarians might understandably feel threatened when faced with patron self-service and librarian by-pass. But if the aim of librarians is to provide information to users, and the goal of their parent organization is to do it most efficiently (i.e., at lowest cost) then librarians should be elated that users no longer need to spend hours visiting the library. Personal employment interests aside, isn't that what we want?

The analogy with movies might be enlightening. Most of us have seen video rental shops largely disappear from our communities. More and more people get their films by mail (e.g., Netflix) or online. And while some of us still prefer the rental store experience, the majority would rather skip the driving, hasty decision-making and due dates that accompany obtaining and returning movies from a brick-and-mortar store.

This massive closing of video rental stores is known in economics as "creative destruction" and whether we like the phrase or not, we have to accept it as reality. Old things are destroyed while new ones are created. Libraries may not be subject to the same market forces as video rental stores, but it would be foolish to believe that we are immune to the forces of creative destruction.

Reduced library visitorship due to the more desirable digital delivery of services and collections means that science librarians (among others) have to change their way of operating. For example, the recent emphasis on the creation of inviting spaces to attract users is probably not an effective long-term survival strategy. Think about it: What if the Department of Motor Vehicles' stated objective was to get as many people into their brick-and-mortar office as possible? What if bank executives instructed their branch managers to induce as many people to come into the bank as they could? Would these strategies actually improve service or outcomes?

The digital delivery of information means that librarians have to develop more direct-to-reader services. And because publishing infrastructure and standards are so well developed in science, it will be the science librarians who are first in this area. If we can't deliver content and services to our users in their offices and labs, then it is likely that someone else (e.g. Google and Amazon) will.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ISTL, the Science and Technology Section, or the American Library Association.

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