I just finished up "Empires Of Light" and one section really stuck in my mind. As electric lighting was catching on in the late 1800s there was a rather large group of people who said there would always be a place for gas/oil lighting because it was vastly superior to electric. It wasn't as dangerous, and they thought it to be better in other ways as well. For years the 2 different types of lighting were used in tandem, though eventually one system became the clear winner. I don't think I need to explain how that story ended. There was no small number of people who where certain they had the best way to do something. They had a different view on things, and they didn't see how the new way would be better, cheaper or easier for most people. They also thought their way of doing things was more stable and easier to use, and even more sophisticated.
Though people were certain they had the better system, they had ideas that turned out to be shortsighted, and enough people disagreed with them to eventually remove their option completely, whether they wanted it that way or not. Another example that occurs to me as being similar is the Mac Vs. PC crusades of the 80s and 90s. While that battle is still being fought, we do have a clear winner, at least for the time being. The battle has opened a new front in the Land O' Linux as well. But here again, a system many people knew to be superior, lost huge market share.
I don't know that my examples are perfect, but I think they illustrate situations in history that I can at least draw some parallels to make my point. There are assumptions I hear all the time that I am beginning to question, and I think you should as well:
There will always be a place for the printed word.
There will always be a place for libraries.
It's easy for us (librarians and our patrons) to see a place for libraries in the future, we spend our time in libraries, when we're not in them, we're thinking about, we probably dream about libraries as well. Most of our patrons probably agree with us when we say we'll always be around. But what about everyone else? What about the people who don't know what we have to offer, those who don't know what we do, and they just don't care. What about the people who think libraries are just buildings full of liberal propaganda? What about the next generation of users, those born digital? I don't think the latest Pew & The Internet Life study scared enough of us. Let me give you just one sentence that should scare you:
Students think the web is a library.
If the web is a library, why do we need a building full of books? Why do we need librarians? That's an easy question for us to answer, but I don't think it is for much of the population, and that should scare us. In my mind the most pressing problems we face are not censorship, the PATRIOT Act or Filters, but rather the growing gap between what we offer, and what people think we offer. Just think about the reaction to the Google books announcement.
Front page stories everywhere telling us about a revolutionary and exciting new development in the world of printed books. Suddenly we can search a few pages of books for sale. Through services like eBrary we've been offering not just partial searches of what essentially amounts to a book catalog, we offer the entire book. When your library started offering this service did it make it to the NY Times? Did it even get a mention in your local paper? Why can't I do this with my library's OPAC?
Something equally as scary was the article from Tacoma Washington where in a 2002 survey by Elway Research Inc, libraries ranked last of eight core services three times.
When surveyors asked what services the city should emphasize most over the next two years, respondents named library services last. When surveyors asked what services the city should emphasize in the long run, respondents named libraries last. When surveyors asked, â€œIf you had to choose, what services would you say are the lowest priority?â€? respondents listed libraries lowest.
Where are our vendors in this land of missed opportunities? OCLC might be an exception to a group of vendors that have done next to nothing to promote what they do for our users, but other than that, do any vendors do any marketing to end users? We are bombarded by booths at conferences, magazine and web ads, and phone calls, but we already know what they have to offer. We should not be the customers, our patrons should be. Like drug companies pushing their prescriptions wares to the general public, our vendors should be on our side pushing them selves to the general public, pushing them into our offices begging for a prescription for what ails them. Out patrons should be coming into the library in the same way they go to their Doctors office, begging for something they saw on TV.
Imagine putting the adverting and marketing departments of all our vendors to work FOR us, instead of them working ON us.
I am truly afraid that if we don't start to market ourselves to people who think we are useless we will witness the death of the public library in our lifetimes. We increasingly find ourselves marginalized by a product [The Web] we can see is currently inferior. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that matters. Ease of use & price will always trump powerful more useful results, it's a sad fact, and one that we need to work with our vendors to over come very soon.
Maybe I'm wrong here, and I really hope that I am, but if I'm even half right, we're going to have a long hard battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation of library users. Unless we're going to be thinking of Blockbuster as our main competitor in the coming decades, we need to start marketing ourselves as better than anything available on the web. We need to tell people our print and web collections are up to date, and our electronic resources can't be found elsewhere. It's a message that is just not getting through.