Receivership, or Irrelevance, or Radicalization – J. Neal

From the 2012 NFAIS conference in Philadelphia. This session’s description:

What do librarians consider to be the “new normal?” What technologies have had the most impact on their organization and how have they responded? What new staff skills are required, if any? Have they had to restructure? Develop new business models? Are they covering new types of content, offering new services or changing collection development practices?

The library speaker was James G. Neal, Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian, Columbia University.

We have 3 choices in the New Normal:

Declare bankruptcy …
…  accept extinction …
…  or redefine our value to our communities.

(OK, I like his sense of urgency!)

I salute anyone who quotes one of my favorite guys:

Neal referred to Clayton Christensen’s work on disruptive technologies – disruptive tech allows less skilled people to do the things that previously only expert people could do.  This is one of my favorite alarums. If we’re visiting classes to essentially be a walking, talking web page or holding a workshop when an online tutorial might be better and available 24/7, we might want to ask ourselves how long we can keep that up.

Neal also talked a lot about our outdated modes of organization in academic libraries, paraphrasing a useful observation from Marshall McLuhan – One big source of our anxiety is trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools.

Neal definitely has a sense of urgency – in fact, he talked so fast and whipped thru some pretty text-heavy slides so I missed a fair amount of what he was saying unless the thought was already familiar to me.  So this is a fairly sketchy set of notes on his remarks, which is too bad because I think he has a lot of really great things to say.

4 critical concepts for redefining our mission:

  • Primal Innovation
  • Radical collaboration – not just kumbaya
  • Deconstruction –
  • Survival – how relevant are we, how much impact do we have (not just be there)

Users are bringing very different expectations from the rest of their lives than our previous users–they’re looking for customization of the library experience.  Are we doing that?  This is a big issue with me – the brain dump research guides, the hand-waving over big topics, workshops that teach to the middle.  If we can’t figure out how to use technology to customize for users, create for them very specific learning experiences that are just in time, then someone else will.  These thoughts come from my reading of Christensen.

We have redundant inefficient library operations – shallow expertise.  [This bears thinking about.  We have deep expertise in some areas and shallow in other – do we have deep expertise in the wrong places?  There’s only so many staff and so much time, so doing anything is an opportunity cost for not doing something else.]

This remark of Neal’s will sound familiar to people who work with me– that we have aging and ineffective service paradigms like the “sage at the desk.”

Neal raised the way we assess our role–

  • Are we advancing institutional goals
  • Supporting user objectives?
  • Serving national interests

He characterized the misguided ROI approach many libraries attempt as madness – he spoke on this topic at ACRL in Philly last Spring and the gist, I think, is that we don’t really have the precision to measure ROI the way businesses do, so we tread uneasy ground with a potentially specious “measurement.”  What we should be caring about is not all the money we are “saving” students by providing books, technology, etc., but what they are getting for their investment of time and effort in trying to use the library.  And this requires qualitative research.  Neal makes a point of mentioning the importance of iterative design (services, products) with users.

I really agree with qualitative research as the key way to understand our users better – in my class at GSE, we’ve studied research design, and emerging phenomena is one instance that lends itself to using qualitative study methods.  Everything is changing, including the type of students we encounter – as Neal pointed out, they are more episodic, more directed, more career focused.

I also  think we are wrongly focused to worry too much about getting “a question or two” on to the semesterly student survey  (e.g., “Have you ever asked a librarian for help?”).  There is a wealth of untapped information from students about ways they could be learning better that will only be elicited from them via qualitative research.  Everything from how articles have been poorly written to the way content is dumped into courseware to the kinds of assignment they have been given as a way to master a subject.  Think about the tasks users come into the library to do and don’t even know they could be doing differently and better – this requires qualitative, ethnographic research to uncover.

One of the innovations Neal highlighted was Geo-everything.  Smart objects and smart spaces.  I have in the past conceived of this as connecting the digital world we have (our crazy, sometimes byzantine web sites) with our physical world.  And going even further, to use digital “augmented reality” to help students get the most out of our informal learning spaces.

Neal believes we are in the golden age of special collections – but special collections can’t just be the old stuff.

And we need to recognize the deformalism and destructuring of scholarship.  I don’t know (remember) exactly what he meant by this, but one of my previous posts about an article by Plutchak alludes to the fact that scholarlship is now sometimes interactive.  Anyone can blog about the scholarship that’s posted on the web, and this kind of democratic access can potentially have a growing impact.

For users, says Neal, the point of the Digital Library is not only what they can get (content) but also what they can do with the content (functionality).  I guess I would add, how transparent the tool functionality is for users, how well do they know what their research tools are finding (and not finding.)

According to Neal, we’re creating all kinds of repositories  – repository chaos.  Where will the cited, official copy of a work reside? If I write a paper and cite e-stuff, and you can’t find that stuff, integrity of my scholarship is called into questions.

Schizophrenic organizational models  (Sigh, I wish I had better info here…)

Feral professionals – we need more professionals who are not the born and bred library science people we’re used to.  At Columbia, Neal says, deep subject knowledge is not what they hire for – you can invest in employees to develop that.  [This thought is echoed by almost all the CEO interviews I read in the NYT – that you need to hire for good dispositions like initiative and creativity, good work ethic, lifelong learners etc.  How often we see instead that hiring practices are structured around finding a person with a static set of competencies.  Is this person’s “teaching ability” credentialed in the way I am used to seeing it?  etc.]

Neal says that in academic libraries, we do a lot of strategic planning, but not enough strategic thinking.  We don’t put our money (staff, resources) where our strategic plan is.  Hmmm, what a good thing to measure.

What are the radical collaborations possible?  Neal mentioned as one example the need to deepen preservation capacity among libraries.  Radical collaboration needs to be like Parabiosis – a sharing of body systems and body parts.

It was a whirlwind, I didn’t do his thought-provoking presentation the justice it deserved.


This entry was posted in Academic Technology Planning, Disruptive Technologies, Organizational Effectiveness, Shifting Education Paradigms and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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