Are libraries sustainable in a world of free, networked, digital information?

January 30, 2015 Lluis Anglada

Wiley Library Advisory Board member Lluís Anglada – Director of the Department of Libraries, Information and Documentation of the Consortium of University Services of Catalonia (CSUC) – recently published an article about the sustainability of libraries in a world where information is increasingly digital, networked, and free, based on a speech he gave at the 22nd Bobcatsss conference in Barcelona, January 21-24 2014. This brief summary of the full article (originally published in El Profesional de la Información vol. 23 (2014) núm.6, and available open access here  is published to coincide with the 2015 American Library Association Midwinter Conference.


Source: PeterMFisher/Fuse/Thinkstock
Source: PeterMFisher/Fuse/Thinkstock

Libraries have survived for centuries, but the great technological changes in recent years – most notably, the advent of the internet and the digitization of information – have led to speculation about their future relevance and sustainability. When today’s users are more likely to seek information on their own than to use the library to meet their information needs, what does this mean for the future sustainability of libraries?

This paper proposes a mathematical formula to determine library sustainability, defined as demonstrating whether their social value exceeds their cost, and applies this formula to libraries during three major phases over the past 50 years. The first, Mechanization, is characterized by the construction of new buildings and the mechanization of processes. Next came Automation, where networks of libraries were established, the OPAC was introduced and union catalogues were created. And now we are in a period of Digitization, which has seen the introduction of electronic journals and books and the digitization of documents stored in libraries.

Public perception during the Mechanization phase was highly positive and operating costs were relatively low, meaning that – according to the proposed algorithm – the sustainability of the mechanized library was high. Under Automation, user perception was still good due to the technological improvements, and even though this also increased the costs, sustainability was still acceptably high. During the Digitization phase, however, despite librarians’ ability to adapt (both in terms of their own roles and how the library space is used), the speed of change has been so great that dysfunctions (defined as the difference between expectations and realities) have continued to increase. For example, duplication in catalogs as a result of one book being catalogued more than once; the ‘Googlization’ of information, while library catalogues – once so innovative – have failed to keep up with; and the failure of libraries to sufficiently adapt their services to meet users’ changing expectations. As a result, applying the formula to the Digitized library shows a clear downward trend in terms of its sustainability.

To ensure future library sustainability, changes in what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman terms ‘perception’ (decision-making based on cognitive biases or prejudices rather than on probability calculation or reason), as well as better adaptation to the new paradigm are essential. Basically, libraries are suffering from the fact that the public perception of them remains attached to the printed book, which – with the advent of the Internet and digitization of information – is no longer valued as much as it was. Among other things, this has led to the steady decline in library budgets – both in real terms and as a proportion of the overall university budget. Some classic library services are also experiencing significant declines – loan transactions, reference inquiries, and displacement of the starting point for literature searches from the library catalogue to and A&I service or the internet, for example.

Looking to an imaginary future, what would a librarian say in 2030 about the value of the library in 2010? Probably that the sustainability formula was low. And in their own time (2030)? Perhaps open access is now a complete reality in the scientific world, that many services provide access to a range of publications for an acceptable flat fee, and that Google’s successor finds the documents people need with almost no margin of error. That could be the point at which, according to the formula, most libraries would become unsustainable.

So, what is to be done? How can we change public opinion so that, rather than seeing librarians as confined to what the name suggests – the four walls of the library – they will continue to be sustained by people through institutions and society in general because they believe that libraries are important to them, because they have a positive perception of them. We need to establish a new stereotype of ‘library’ in people’s minds, one that is not based on physical elements – buildings and books – but on the role of providing support and assistance in the difficult process of using information and transforming it into knowledge.

The creation of this new perception must be performed by the current generation of young librarians – “those who are inheriting renovated libraries but also a mental image that is associated with becoming less powerful for society. This is the challenge and responsibility for young librarians: to create a new perception of our profession.”

About the Author

Director, Consortium of University Services of Catalonia // Lluis Anglada is a Wiley Library Advisory Board member and Director of the Department of Libraries, Information and Documentation of the Consortium of University Services of Catalonia (CSUC).

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