notes on information organizations

July 29, 2010

the future of the academic library (?)

Filed under: librarianship, service models — Frank Cervone @ 7:20 am

Last year I attended the Cornell Institute for Computer Policy and Law and while the institute was quite good, the only session of any note on academic libraries was lacking as  it was more about preserving the existing order (and stereotypes) than exploring what really needs to change to ensure that academic libraries have any significant relevance in the future. So, I was very glad to see that this year’s session on academic libraries was much more progressive and forward looking.

In the session entitled The Future of the Academic Library: Space, Digitization, Access, and Curation in the New World of Information (available via streaming video), Susan Perry pointed out 10 major issues libraries need to consider as they plan and develop services. While the entire list of issues can be found at Tracy Mitrano’s post The Future of the Academic Library – Law, Policy — and IT? so I’ll emphasis just a few of the major points that I think are particularly cogent along with some of my own comments:

  1. Within ten years, most academic information will be available in digital format, so the need for space for collections really will markedly decrease; 
  2. Librarians today need to be: intellectually curious, collaborative, technologically sophisticated, good teachers, and adaptable because things are changing to quickly to not be all of these things; 
  3. While the Open Source movement is making many learning materials and computer applications freely available, maintenance of the applications requires staff. It is completely unreasonable to think you can build an infrastructure based on open-source without developing the necessary skills within your staff to maintain these applications; 
  4. Digital asset management and production is the name of the game for the archives of the future; 
  5. Helping students find and evaluate accurate information is probably the most important roles for librarians now. In order to do this librarians, instructional technologists, as well as faculty, must work together.
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January 25, 2008

taking a cue from "IT Doesn't Matter"

Filed under: change, information technology, service models — Frank Cervone @ 1:33 pm

Several years ago, Nicolas Carr made quite a stir with his article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “IT Doesn’t Matter.” His main argument was (and still is) that while IT is essential it is not strategic. According to Carr, companies can’t gain strategic advantage from their systems because everyone is running the same systems. Over the last several years, many have either endorsed or refuted Carr’s views.

Until recently, it hadn’t occurred to me how this might relate to libraries, but after reading an article by Paul Ingevaldson, it seems to me that libraries are facing the same issues that IT does. Almost all libraries run the same systems, often with little or no customization other than changing the colors of the web pages to match the organization identity. Librarians haven’t traditionally thought about how what they do contributes to what the corporate sector calls “strategic advantage” – that is, aligning the outcomes of the library to the outcomes of the larger organization they are part of. We often see our libraries as entities unto themselves.

This kind of thinking has to change. To be successful, libraries have to differentiate their services from what can be obtained elsewhere. As has been the case in IT, a lot of the benefits traditional services provided are now commodity items that are moving to self-service models because they’re so automated they do not require the high level of expertise they did in the past. This is happening whether we like it or not.

What savvy IT departments do today is develop custom services and applications that work directly with the unique strategy of the organization. Libraries need to take a cue from this and do the same for their organizations as well.

November 26, 2007

jumpstarting innovation

Filed under: innovation, service models — Frank Cervone @ 4:54 pm

Recently, Working Knowledge (from the Harvard Business School) had an article on Jumpstarting innovation: Using disruption to your advantage. Not surprisingly, this article is geared toward the commercial sector, but many of the ideas can be adapted for libraries and information agencies. For example, the author advises us to listen to, and perhaps more importantly, learn from the people who use our services. This has been operationalized in research libraries by using this type of thinking to drive the specifics of institutional repository implementation with the repository as a way of (potentially) addressing issues related to the current model of scholarly communication. Further advice in the article to “expand your horizons” can been seen as a potential impetus for the creation of 23 things at the Charlotte & Mechlenburg County Public Library.

One question that remains is how the advice in the article can be applied to libraries and information agencies. Perhaps the best thing to do would be just jump right in. You can do this by using the tools provided to analyze the disruptive trends in your organization, analyze the ideas about these trends for potential value and then prioritizing and implementing the ideas. Even if it’s possible to only implement a few of the ideas, going through the exercise helps create an environment that values innovation and fosters an innovative spirit, which may be the most important thing.

November 10, 2007

making complexity work

Filed under: complexity, innovation, service models — Frank Cervone @ 10:23 pm

While many of the details in a recent article from CIO Insight magazine on creative thinking are rather specific to information technology, one particular point in the article does resonate for anyone in the information professions, “…culturally you want a certain amount of complexity and churn because it creates a chemical reaction that jars creative thinking.” Thinking creatively is an important skill when dealing with complexity because it can help us deal in new ways with many of the issues our organizations face.

Think about things in different ways can help us work through the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that accompanies complexity. In doing so, it provides us with new ways of addressing critical issues, such as how to standardize and consolidate functions so we can decrease spending in less critical areas while increasing spending in areas that generate greater strategic return for our organization overall. An example of this from a library IT perspective would be investing in new data mining software. One of the potential benefits of doing so is it would allow us to spend less time tinkering with routine library management system reports and shift the responsibility for that type of reporting closer to where it belongs in the organization. It would also allow the systems development staff to focus on “higher-value” projects, such as developing enhanced user-interfaces that bring all our content together which is one of the most important issues we need to address today.

November 4, 2007

reenvisioning our processes

Filed under: change, complexity, service models — Frank Cervone @ 2:54 pm

A recent article in Computerworld documented the unexpected problems a bank experienced after installing a customer relationship management (CRM) system. Basically, the problem was that the bank was too focused on fulfilling its own information needs at the expense of its customers. Although the context in most libraries is quite different from that of the bank, much can be learned from this example. For instance, how often do we ask for more information than is truly necessary “just to make sure.” A perfect example here is the typical interlibrary loan form where we ask for so much information it makes it appear we are actually trying to discourage people from using the service. By asking too many questions, the bank started losing people in droves. The question we must ask ourselves is, “Are we doing the same thing in our libraries?”

September 20, 2007

on being more adaptable

Filed under: change, complexity, service models — Frank Cervone @ 8:35 am

A recent article in CIO Insight magazine talked about IT’s Bad Reputation. What is interesting about this article is that the same issues the author identifies as stifling innovation in information technology services are the same issues we face that contribute to a lack of innovation in information agencies and libraries in general.

If we are going to move forward in ways that are meaningful to our publics we have to change some things:
1) Decision making needs to be pushed down in the organization to the most appropriate level – the “trenches” as it were,
2) Even non-managerial employees must know how to make business decisions and not simply focus on the good of their local department or area of specialty, and
3) We have to make sure our colleagues understand how developments, such as Web 2.0, are disrupting the way organizations operate.

July 23, 2007

on Dewey and complexity

Filed under: change, complexity, service models — Frank Cervone @ 7:43 am

The recent uproar (by librarians) following the decision of the Gilbert, AZ public library to abandon Dewey as the primary means of locating materials on the shelves demonstrates how we do (or do not) adapt to complexity.

The basic jist of the problem is summed up nicely in a Wall Street Journal article. In discussing the controversy, the author states that “it feeds into a broader, increasingly urgent discussion about libraries, where a growing number of patrons, used to Google and Yahoo, simply don’t look for books and information the way they used to.” As was the case with web design, in a complex system we must gather our information and adapt based on the environment.

As Bowker and Star pointed out in their book, Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences, classification works best when it is invisible. When classification starts to become visible you have a good indication that the classification system isn’t performing its job. That’s the problem here, Dewey (in this case, but it really could be any classification system common in libraries) doesn’t work for the average person because it doesn’t conform to our current mental models. It requires too much, “What does that mean?” or “Why is that?” processing to be viable for many uses. For example, why is computer science classified in the 004-006 range instead of the 500’s (sciences) where it really belongs? Why when I perform a subject heading search for “Social network research” do I find books scattered throughout the library in spots as disparate as 658.472 G562c, 305.80072 M297, and 300.72 A244?

Adaptation is one of the ways we continue to make systems work in a changing environment. An example of this is the organization of books at Northwestern University. Here we use Dewey (which is odd for an academic library to begin with) but we do not have books arranged in strict call numeric order. The Dewey ranges are combined based on very high-level topic areas (humanities, hard science, natural science, social science, etc.) in an effort to bring disparate areas in the classification system together to make more sense of the order for our patrons. Is it perfect? No, but it is does make discovery easier in many areas that have been “broken up” due to anomalies of Dewey.

Rather than castigating the folks in Gilbert, we should be trying to learn from their approach. It’s too bad the naysayers don’t get that.

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