Carving new roles in the library

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Many discussions at the Online Information 2013 conference focused on the changes and opportunities for information professionals, writes Sian Harris

How important are libraries, and how important will they be in the future? These were key questions asked at the Online Information conference held in London in November. Those worried by these questions may be somewhat reassured by some of the answers.

Ellyssa Kroski, director of information technology at The New York Law Institute, for example, noted that in the USA there are more public libraries than McDonalds or Starbucks. And Heini Oikkonen of Helsinki City Library reported that a survey recently put her library as one of most well-known brands in Finland.

However, there are plenty of changes and challenges, according to Kroski. ‘Much of the perception that libraries are not needed so much these days comes from changes in information consumption. Libraries are not the only players.’ She pointed out that the costs to consumers are about the same to buy from things like Netflix and Amazon as to support their local library. ‘Competition is fierce,’ she observed.

So how can libraries compete? By innovating, according to Kroski. Her response is to urge libraries to take risks. Drawing on the example of the risks taken to launch the Hubble telescope and the resulting insight this gave into space that this provided, she urged libraries to ‘look for your own deep fields.

‘We can’t afford to just wait and see with things like social media,’ she explained. ‘Libraries are looking at other revenue models such as renting air space above their building and new trends in things like access versus ownership, shared ownership and patron-driven acquisition.’

There are technology trends that can help too, such as using the cloud with applications like Dropbox, Amazon web services and library-specific cloud tools. She also noted that library users want ‘recommendations that get smarter with feedback’. She added that responsive web design enables libraries to just maintain one website and, for example, to include a library card within mobile wallet technology.

The possibilities with use of mobile devices were echoed in other sessions at the conference. As David Nicholas, founder and director of Ciber Research, UK, argued, ‘mobile phones used to be banned in libraries. Now they ARE the libraries.’

Other trends that Kroski said we should watch include the emergence of wearable technology such as Google Glass and the use of big data. She gave the example of a Seattle public library that has chosen to display its circulation data in interesting ways to library patrons.

There are also opportunities for libraries to show innovation and leadership in their communities, she continued. These include providing Makerspaces, where people can gather to create, invent, and learn, and the use of green and sustainable technology. She gave the example of a library in Taipai, Taiwan that incorporates solar cells, recycled materials and rainwater capture.

And then there is the importance of libraries showing their value. ‘Users want libraries to fulfil new roles and services but they have to prove their value to funders too,’ she noted. She gave the example of one library that has started printing the purchase price of materials on borrowing receipts. She also suggests looking for – and talking about – ways to reduce costs with, for example, choice of software. ‘If your library does something new then send out a press release, write an article or blog post or speak about it at a conference,’ she urged.

Heini Oikkonen, planner and project coordinator at Helsinki City Library, Finland, gave a good example of doing just this in her talk. About a year ago, her library launched a mobile app that now has around 10,000 users in the Helsinki area.

‘We began developing the app when smartphones were just starting in the market and had not seen big uptake yet. Users at the time did not have many expectations so there was a role for us as the expert librarians,’ she said. ‘We wanted to do a service that engaged users. We are very keen on doing many new things but we also needed to know our key strengths, which are information and loaning books.’

She noted that smartphones can interact with the physical world, for example by taking photos, but that most apps do not really take advantage of these capabilities. ‘Users know that libraries use catalogues so we did the same with our app but did it a bit differently,’ she said. This included using the camera function of smartphones to take pictures of bar codes so that users can use the app as a library card.

One big idea that the team had was to use this approach of taking photos of bar codes to enable users to loan items user to user rather than items needing to be returned to the library and then reborrowed. This possibility, said Oikkonen, ‘makes physical materials more mobile than digital’. However, she added that this functionality has not actually been very well used by patrons. ‘People prefer to interact with their phone than with other users.’

Similarly, the idea of asking questions that any library user can respond to was popular in development but, in practice, most users leave answering questions to the library staff.  
Oikkonen also shared some lessons learned from the development of the project. ‘You need both users and experts to make good products. Users tend to talk about practical things that they want today; for a long-term perspective you need to ask experts. It was also useful getting user feedback in the middle of the project rather than just at the end.’

Despite the huge adoption of the app there are still challenges for libraries. ‘In Helsinki only 40 per cent of the population is using the library’s loaning service,’ she said. ‘It is one of best percentages in world but still not very good.’

There are challenges in corporate libraries too, a situation that was revealed by research presented by Henry Stiller, CEO of Histen Riller and associated professor at Lille 3 University, France, based on field surveys carried out between 1995 and 2010 of informational professionals in large companies in France.

A particularly striking finding from the study was that a significant number of companies choose to run their businesses without information professionals; almost 36 per cent of the 200 largest French companies do not have an information department.

‘They usually rely on tools and systems such as massively-adopted intranet,’ said Stiller. ‘Even where there an information department, the trend is to train experts in information searching rather than to recruit information professionals.’

He went on to say that companies favour development of technical solutions for accessing and sharing information while maintaining their workforce of information professionals at a low level. ‘Users’ autonomy becomes increasingly strong,’ he said.

This extends to information monitoring and competitive intelligence, a function that might seem key for large research and development-heavy industries like pharmaceuticals or aerospace.
‘This is a function that is not always at the strategic level you might expect, even in large businesses,’ said Stiller. And staff that are not information professionals but are, for example, scientists are also increasingly involved in the information monitoring and competitive intelligence process.

Nonetheless, there are still roles for information professionals in industry, according to the study. ‘Functions performed by information professionals move towards production of more added value – although the bad news is that this doesn’t result in job creation,’ he said.
He also sees more opportunities in new positioning of information professionals. These include, for example, an increasing role in the development of new internet technologies, project management and document management.  
In words that echo the theme of other speakers at the conference, he explained: ‘We are moving towards the added value of information professionals.’