Vision: The Value of Information Service
It is something we do everyday, whether we acknowledge we are doing it or not. We make value judgments. Each of us manages daily a defined pool of resources: money, time, or perhaps most precious, our attention. Our days are filled with small but significant decisions that define the value of the things in our lives – services, tools, places, people. Increasingly it seems more and more things are competing for these scarce resources. The value judgments we make therefore carry more importance now than they ever did. The things in which we place value change as we change, and evolve as our needs evolve. This is true both on a personal level as we progress through the timeline of life, but also as a society and culture as we continually grow and adapt to the world around us. Progress, innovation, and change do happen and this is a good thing. That these things change and affect our value judgments is not inherently a good or a bad thing. Yet somewhere we must take stock of where those judgments lie, not only for ourselves, but also for those we serve.
The topic of value has been in the national discussion of information service this past year. The Association of College and Research Libraries issued a report looking at how value is defined for academic libraries. It includes a call for libraries to better understand and articulate value in the future. OCLC also released an update to their Perceptions Report which looks at how users of all types of libraries value and perceive the services they provide. In a similar vein, Inside Higher Ed published a survey of college and university presidents on their perspectives of the value delivered by information technology to their campuses. These are a few of the broad professional studies touching on the topic of value in information service. Locally, we have also been a participant in the MISO (Merged Information Services Organization) survey which gives us a picture of the value our local community places on our services.
I’ll put it bluntly: the times are changing. The perceived value of libraries is clearly declining across these studies. Historically, libraries were the only place to go for information. No one individual could afford to collect the resources a library held. Therefore they held significant shared value. Today, the Internet has fundamentally changed this equation. The very thing that most people valued about the library — access to information – can now be found elsewhere at a seemingly lower cost. There are no tax dollars that get paid to Google. The value in the other services a library provides such as information literacy training, access to rare and unique materials, research assistance, and physical spaces are not the things most associated with the brand of the library (the OCLC report examines this question closely). The future of ebooks is being made today by large companies who have little incentive to make use cases easy for libraries. Consider the effect on libraries if Amazon.com instituted a Netflix model for ebooks delivered to mobile devices (Kindle, iPad, Nook, etc.). Consumers could pay a flat rate of $9.99 per month for access to a set number of titles at a time from a seemingly unlimited catalog updated daily. There is nothing technical that would prevent this model from working today. It is clear that historically, library users value the collections. Going forward the collections will no longer be as unique nor defining. We in the profession must work to ensure that libraries are known for much more than just collections.
It is somewhat paradoxical that in today’s age of technology innovation, information technology organizations are facing similar challenges. It is true that any organization of significant size cannot function without technology infrastructure today. Just walk around a modern workplace during a power outage and note the dazed looks on faces. In most places, business processes are digital and rely on a wide range of tools to function. Leaders, and in our sector, college and university presidents, however, are not certain of the value delivered by all this infrastructure. The costs of providing IT are in some ways divorced from the business processes they support. The fact that technology operations remain a somewhat mystical and unknown science to many in leadership positions exacerbates the problem. There is a trend in many areas of IT to deemphasize the technology organization itself and instead infuse it within the other business operating units. I think this is a good direction as it better paints the picture of how technology delivers value in the real world. The rise of cloud and virtual computing also is disruptive to technology support in the same way the Internet was to libraries. There is no longer a strong business case for much local IT infrastructure as servers in the cloud are cheaper, and often more reliable. As personal devices go more mobile, and everything is network based, the role of organizational IT changes significantly. The value of our local infrastructure (or collections in the library case) is lessened. Are our IT organizations known for delivering value in other areas such as training, integration, and user service?
Our first hurdle to overcome is the often distorted view of value that we who work within the information profession have about our services. Our problem is no different than anyone else’s. We have chosen to make a profession providing library and information technology service, and so, of course, we find value in what we do. To be fair the studies above do not say that library and technology services are not valued – they are. However, the things that are valued about our services are not the things that we are in the best position to deliver in the future. So our second hurdle is to rethink and rebrand library and information service in the minds of our users. Focusing on the primacy of our personal relationships with users, we need to double down on our literacy and training initiatives (the need for this is greater than ever even if people do not really realize it). This also involves working to deemphasize portions of our service that have long been at the forefront. We need to fundamentally question all assumptions about how we do what we do. Such exercises can be difficult and scary, though they do not have to be. What we do – providing resources and expertise to support the academic mission of our host institution – has not changed at all. Pretty much everything about how we do that has and should change. We need to hold fast to what we do, and jettison as much legacy “hows” as we can. Keeping this perspective helps maintain focus and allows true change to happen. For if one thing is certain, if how we do what we do does not change significantly in the coming years, we will no longer be relevant to anyone but ourselves. This is particularly challenging in higher education where many of our constituents will not press us to change. We need to have the vision and courage to go where we know we need to be in the future.
I have read and heard arguments that the solution to the value question lies in a better articulation of the services we provide. I think this is true, but that it should not be our focus. The assumption in that argument is that our services are worth the message. However, if you have to convince people that your service or product is better than others through marketing, then you’ve already lost the war. What I believe is much more effective is designing and delivering such high quality, useful, and innovative services that users instantly recognize the value and seek it out. Doing so opens up relationships and communication paths through which we can further articulate our message. We can no longer afford to carry forward or prop up mediocre or outdated methods of providing service. We know that today’s consumer also is much less likely to grant multiple opportunities for success to us. Our challenge is to move earnestly and intentionally to a new model for information service. Though the stakes are high, the benefits are many, and in our case of supporting the education of tomorrow’s generation of citizens, the value delivered by doing so will be long-lasting and true.