Working together at the tipping point

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Securing a bright future for libraries and their users, by Fiona Leslie, EMEA marketing manager at OCLC

An astonishing 48 per cent of American online adults (aged 16 and older) have taken an online course, and 10 per cent of them have taken an online degree class in a public or academic library.

These findings come from At a Tipping Point, just one of the research reports that OCLC publishes in areas as wide-ranging as user behaviour, education, and library trends.

This article takes a closer look at three OCLC reports, all published this year:

  • At a Tipping Point: Education, Learning and Libraries argues that education is about to undergo a fundamental transformation, and explores the consequences for libraries;
  • Reordering Ranganathan: Shifting User Behaviors, Shifting Priorities examines how Ranganathan’s five principles of librarianship apply to the networked era; and
  • Meeting the Challenge: Optimising your Library’s Return on Technology Investment is a collection of six case studies, demonstrating the value that libraries deliver today.

Together, the reports showcase the role that OCLC plays as thought leader in collaboration with and on behalf of libraries, exploring the landscape, charting its features, mining insights and good practice, and disseminating its findings, to help libraries magnify their presence in today’s online world.

Exploring the landscape – what has changed?

Ranganathan was writing in the 1930s, when information scarcity meant that safeguarding collections was imperative. Today’s information abundance, however, presents librarians with a different set of problems. In the age of abundance, At a Tipping Point says, people spend almost as much time online as they do sleeping. How can the world of learning remain immune from the dominance of the internet in all areas of life?

It cannot, of course, and neither can information-seeking practices.

At this stage, we can still find evidence to support the status quo. At a Tipping Point points out that 'the percentage of Americans who visit a public library in-person annually (63 per cent) continues to significantly outpace the percent who visit a public library website (48 per cent).' The reassurance of loyal library patrons, however, can obscure more ominous signs. One uncomfortable reality, surfaced in At a Tipping Point, is that across that growing community of online learners, only 27 per cent use library services to support their work. That should be enough to alert us that something fundamental is changing.

Returning to that killer statistic – the 48 per cent of online adults who have enrolled in online degree classes, taken non-degree classes or watched tutorials online – At a Tipping Point makes clear that the web-fuelled transformation of education is imminent. User satisfaction rates are high: 87 per cent of those who had taken an online degree class indicated that their top goals were met. And although MOOCs (massive open online courses) are 'still relatively unknown and unexplored by the majority of online users,' of those who have participated, 81 per cent indicated that their goals were met.
The authors conclude: 'We are tipping toward an educational era of choice over tradition, convenience over perfection, self-service over predefined options. Ratings, recommendations, just-in-time delivery – every facet of digital life – will come to bear on education. We will change how we learn, where we learn and who guides our path.'

To gain an in-depth understanding of the potential that libraries continue to offer, we need to dissect the notion of ‘convenience.’ All three OCLC reports identify convenience as a key driver of user choices today. Why are so many online learners eschewing the library?

At a Tipping Point states:'The most frequently cited reason for not considering or not choosing to use a library to assist with degree classes: ‘the library just didn’t come to mind.’ Others felt the library would not be helpful to them, that it would be too inconvenient or thought it would take too long.'

Reordering Ranganathan quotes a 2012 Pew Research Center report, which contends that digital technologies 'encourage students to assume all tasks can be finished quickly and at the last minute'.

The good news is that libraries are strongly associated with being convenient and reliable, and a safe haven for students, according to research reported in At a Tipping Point. They are distinctly associated with providing the space, tools and information to get work done.
Sharing insights and contributing to local decision-making

How do libraries distinguish between a momentary blip and a long-range trend? How do they see below the surface? After all, no individual library has the resources to identify and research every emerging trend in detail.  

The role of research provider and thought leader is something that OCLC takes very seriously. The OCLC Market Research team has been studying the ‘information consumer’ for over a decade. Since 2003, it has tracked user behaviours, perceptions, and attitudes – how they feel about and use online information, search engines, Amazon, Google, libraries and library websites – to give reports such as At the Tipping Point and Reordering Ranganathan real depth at a time of seismic change.

John MacColl at the University of St Andrews articulates the value that OCLC’s thought leadership brings to his own decision-making in Meeting the Challenge: 'The collective collection is one of a number of areas that OCLC Research has been exploring in its ongoing mission to share insights into emerging issues across the library profession. Thought leadership can be a valuable vendor attribute. By scanning the horizon and disseminating findings, thought leaders help libraries plan and act in a timely fashion.'

But libraries cannot rely on global research alone, when running localised services for their own communities. OCLC makes frequent reference to the idea of rightscaling – the optimal balancing of in-house resourcing, collaboration, and outsourcing. Reports such as Reordering Ranganathan blend broad insights with recommendations for local practice in areas including traditional outreach, user studies, and collaborative projects, based on best practice across the global OCLC library community.

Magnifying the value that libraries deliver

To magnify the library implies growth. But what does growth mean in today’s abundant environment, ask the authors of Reordering Ranganathan. OCLC proposes a new growth metric – share of attention. Because no matter how rich library collections are, no matter how helpful staff and services are, if people don’t know what libraries offer, they won’t use them.

To reach as many people as possible, libraries must strengthen their presence, making improvements to the user workflow, plugging into online services, and creating pathways to library materials from any location.

Reordering Ranganathan reports on the success of The Hague Sheet Music Collection. One year after linking 40 of its digital assets, the number of page-views referred from Wikipedia increased five-fold.

The report suggests: 'The increases may be attributed to not only drawing in new audiences but also to shortening the path that connects existing audiences to the resources. The short story is to create options that allow users to craft personal workflows that are flexible and efficient for how they want to work.'

The report makes a series of valuable recommendations to libraries wishing to make their content and services more discoverable in more workflows. These include partnerships with technology companies to expose library metadata in diverse user workflows, and with logistics companies to improve transportation and delivery of physical materials.

In Meeting the Challenge, Anja Smit outlines the response of Utrecht University to this imperative: 'At Utrecht University, we make our collections available through popular and robust services, such as Google Scholar, Scopus, and Web of Science – using OCLC’s syndication capabilities to open up the resources we’ve added to

'We also surface licensed resources in the university’s learning management system. We are always looking out for new environments where we can make library collections even more visible.'

In the same report, Rene Erlandson relates how the University of Nebraska Omaha redeploys the $150,000 savings it makes from its implementation of OCLC’s WorldShare Management Services: 'With the cost savings, we’ve added more than 36,000 e-book titles to our collection. We’ve also extended our creative production lab to offer video editing and some 3-D printing. By assigning more staff to the institutional repository, we’re getting a higher participation level among faculty.'

Meeting the challenge

The future is loaded with challenges. But all three reports present change as opportunity. As At a Tipping Point argues: 'When large numbers of consumers are adopting new services, changing their behaviours and setting new expectations, a window of opportunity is created for those organisations that see the change – that see an opportunity – and act.'

Gwenda Thomas, from the University of Cape Town says, in Meeting the Challenge, that: 'Technology changes the user, and the user changes us. The new mission of libraries, or librarians, is to facilitate knowledge creation, for the user communities, in their communities. We’ve got to be far more innovative, far more proactive, in response to user needs and expectations.'

With OCLC’s research and thought leadership, libraries can plot the new directions that users are taking, and meet them halfway, both within library services themselves, and in the wider web environment. Reordering Ranganathan leaves us on an upbeat note: 'Individuals will be inspired when the high-quality, authoritative and unique materials and services librarians have spent time collecting and making available are easily found in a variety of workflows. They will experience “A-ha!” moments without expressly asking for help.'