Thursday, March 15, 2007

So much for that paper...

Lorcan Dempsey pointed to a paper written by David Lewis, Dean of the IUPUI University Library (A Model for Academic Libraries 2005 - 2025), delivered to an audience in Southern California in late January this year, that pretty much nails everything I was thinking about (and had written about in a preliminary manner last semester for Knowledge Management class). So it seems, as I felt last semester, and as other readings keep confirming, none of my conclusions about what's happening or the likely consequences are new. Folks who have been deeply involved in running libraries for decades have come to the same conclusions. From my perspective, there's little need to say the same thing others are saying ("me too -- what he said"). But if many people, even those in positions to act on their beliefs, are aware of the need to gear up for the inevitable, why is there such complacency, such staggering passivity? Lewis himself points to many of the reasons for inaction in an earlier article where he applied Christensen's "Innovator's Dilemma" teachings to the library, (The Innovator's Dilemma: Disruptive Change and Academic Libraries).

I read Christensen last semester and indeed, his observations were central to my analysis, along with Anderson's "Long Tail." We come to slightly different conclusions about how libraries can escape the inevitable failure that results from too comfortable a focus on one's high-end customers' needs, but all the options are on the table for all to see. There's no mystery about it. Still, as I read over Lewis' suggestions, I could see how counter-intuitive they must feel to those who have been operating within the library culture for most of their adult lives, certainly for the span of their careers. From the outside (i.e, to me), it looks like people are having tea on a railroad track with the locomotive in plain view bearing down on them. I just don't know what to think about it or what to do about it.

I wonder if Christensen's newer works focus more on success stories where large comfy corps actually managed to thrive in creatively destructive environments? More to the point, where are the libraries that are embracing innovative low-end services, displacing old expensive little-uses services (whether their prime customers think that's a good idea or not), repurposing space and funding, retraining staff, etc. (all the things Lewis indicates are needed to get from 2005 to 2025 successfully)? Maybe I need to study actual instances of successful transition rather than just be part of the bell-ringing. There must be big, well-run libraries that are finding their way around the mechanisms that Lewis describes, mechanisms that paralyze in most cases. Enough describing the problems. I sure am not interested in chronicling declines. Maybe I should focus on those who have found solutions, not in theory, but in practice. Perhaps I should start with Lewis, though it isn't inevitable that even in his own library he can do what he thinks should be done. Library directors don't hold all the cards -- nobody does. But even if IUPUI isn't there, he may know who is, or who is headed in that direction.

The idea of writing a dissertation seems daunting right now. I can't imagine that I could narrow my interests down to some kind of niche statistical study, but who knows? I'll have to figure that out soon enough.

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