05 March 2006

Who Needs A Library, Anyway?

Students and the Public need libraries, fair enough: schools, universities, cities, villages... When the Grande Bibliothèque du Québec (official web site here) was planned, I would have preferred to see the total project cost (Cdn$90M) injected into a "book acquisition revitalization program", allowing local libraries, especially in remote areas of Québec; to revitalize their collections - especially books for children. That story and the shifting uses of corporate libraries prompted me to think of the continued relevance of corporate and governmental libraries: do we need them?

The question becomes increasingly difficult to answer in corporate and governmental settings, because of workstation access to relevant information. The 21st century knowledge workers in corporations and governments have access to more and more information right from their desktops: why walk to their "in-house" libraries?

Well, for starters, one of the good answers is not very scientific but resonates true - see this recent post by Amanda Robertson:
I think any librarian would agree that the most important part of the library isn’t the materials contained within but how they are used. (...) [Patrons] certainly want the instant desktop access of electronic copies, particularly when it comes to reusing data from other in-house work. But they also want the copy in paper, and many of them can’t yet imagine keeping up with the industry by reading e-journals.

Additionally, many of them use the library serendipidously. They poke their head in the door and ask me where petroleum technology materials are shelved. I show them, and they browse through the shelves. Sometimes they find something they wouldn’t have noticed when searching the OPAC.
Serendipity is fine. However, as powerful electronic search, discovery and retrieval methods become available; the never-to-stop quest for governmental and corporate cost efficiency will result in second-guessing the existence of several corporate and governmental libraries, especially in settings where the community served is article-centric.

I thoroughly enjoyed the issues and discussion on topic as presented in "paved paradise: the future of (a particular type of) research library?" by Richard Akerman (thanks Amanda for the link). Highly recommended reading. I really liked this part:
When I said "pave over the library" it got read I think as "pave over the librarians". To me, librarianship and librarians are completely separate from their current physical container, the library. You could pave over the library and still have as many or more librarians providing services, just from different locations, e.g. co-located with the researchers.

My fundamental argument is more around holdings, and how they are presented. Firstly, is it true that the sciences mentioned above are article-centric? If they are, then

1. Why would I use as my primary research tool a giant physical container of lifeless, non-searchable paper articles that I have to request and wait for, rather than having live articles online that I can access instantly, with clickable linked citations, interconnections to data, and all sorts of wonderful electronic goodness?
2. Why is the library's website book-catalogue based, or journal-title-based, rather than putting full-text articles front and centre?

Also, to make it worse, is it true that science is moving beyond just articles to becoming data-centric as well? If so, where is the library transformation to data-centricity?

The article by Richard is thoughtful, beginning to end, and the comments are worth reading too.