Image [cc] jessamyn

There is a theme that I hear from interviews of today’s struggling musicians, “I really wish we had been making music in the 90’s.” The idea behind that, although it might be like that Utopian 1950’s United States that never really existed, is that there was a time when people bought music, record companies supported bands through promotion and concert funding, and that if you were a good band that had a following, you could make a lot of money in the process. It seems that those of us in the Library, Information and Research profession think along the same lines as those musicians. There was a golden age where information was scarce, people needed our assistance in collecting that information, and we were there to support those in need of obtaining the information. Now, just like musicians, we wished there was a way to get back to those golden years, but we know that it is gone forever, and we struggle to define what it is that we can do that will still fill our desires to succeed in our professions.

The problem with both the music world and the information world is that anyone can now cut a song or directly obtain information without going through the tradition processes of a music studio or a library. The once scarce resources are now so common that there seems to be almost no barriers to obtaining these resources. A five-dollar app on my iPad can produce high-quality music, and an Internet connection can bring in amazing amounts of high-quality information. No longer are music studios or libraries the only place to go to get what you need. That has caused an enormous amount of upheaval in both of these industries, and the professionals that work in these industries, but at the same time, the consumers of these industries have more options than ever. So, how do we, at least on the library and information side of this situation, adapt?

The record industry is still trying to catch up with the paradigm shift, and they misfired on many occasions in adjusting to the shift by continually trying to find ways of getting their industry back to a model that simply didn’t exist any longer. Instead of looking at the needs of the consumer, they looked at the needs of the industry. The same might be said of the library industry. We look at ways that technology and services can be modified to give a better version of the same service instead of stepping back and creating new technologies and new services that fit the changing demands of the customers. In fact, we’ve probably spent too many years attempting to satisfy the needs of customers that will never, ever use us again because they can simply obtain what they want from a cheaper, faster resource (read: Google).

Syracuse University’s professor and Dean’s Scholar for the New Librarianship, David Lankes, discusses these changes in those that use information, and how those of us that believe we provide relevant information are not on the same page. A very good article on this topic is in this month’s Information Today, Inc. where Lankes comes right out and says that where we, as a profession, are going, is not where our customers are heading. To paraphrase Lankes, our customers are dreaming of the things they want to do, while the librarians are attempting to make them give up those dreams in order to follow the guidelines and rules we set up to make our own jobs easier. If we continue to try to make our customers fit into our defined services, we are destined to fail. Instead, we need to define our services based on those dreams of our customers. Since we are not the only game in town any longer, the customers will simply leave and go to those services that fulfill their dreams.

For today’s musician as well as today’s librarian, there are amazing opportunities to serve a community in a way that makes you more valued by a smaller group of people. The same technology and shifts in the way customers access music/information that has caused us all headaches can also be leveraged in ways that expand our reach beyond our traditional customer base. For musicians, it is exposing the styles of your trade to groups of potential customers through self-promotion and understanding the different potential communities that are out there that desire to hear you, but just don’t know you exist. For the library, it is slightly different, but the idea is that you find out where your community wants to go, and for you to set up your services to help get them there and then partner with that community to help them get to the next place they want to go.

  • Anonymous

    "The once scarce resources are now so common that there seems to be almost no barriers to obtaining these resources. A five-dollar app on my iPad can produce high-quality music, and an Internet connection can bring in amazing amounts of high-quality information."
    Quality? And this is judged how?
    A nice encapsulation of the paradox, though.

  • Anonymous

    A really interesting and thought provoking piece here. The comparison of the two industries made me think. I'm not sure that I try to make my clients work in the model I find easiest – I think that it may take a little time for clients to be able to say exactly what they want. If I tell them what they need does that mean I am again leading people to what suits me as an info-pro best (however sub-consciously?)

  • Anonymous1 – I'd say that "high quality" can be judged by the way people vote with their feet. If they are satisfied with the quality of service they get (whether from a Garage Band app on a Mac, or a Google result) then the quality is appropriate for their needs.

    Anonymous2 – Let me turn the question back on you. If you've ever worked with IT or computer programmers to create something, do they help guide you to the results you need, or do they guide you to the process they are familiar with, and get you to a product that "sort of" works, but not exactly what you had envisioned? Most of the time, it is because they are used to using certain tools and processes and they attempt to make what you need fit into what they know how to do. For example, if you've ever needed a way to share information with someone in an easy way, and IT tells you "let's build an FTP site" or "we own an Intranet and can set up a log in for you and each of the individuals you want to share," then they are leading you to a solution that fits into the products and processes they already have. In turn, what you do is nod your head, ignore these antiquated processes, and go get yourself a Dropbox account and simply don't tell IT you've done it. In other words, some other entity stepped up and provided you with a new way of getting to your goal.

    The same can be said of how we produce information (or in the music business, how they create packaged music), instead of thinking about what the customer/patron is desiring to have, we go to what we know how to do and we make their desires fit into our process. Whenever there is a major shift in the industry (Google, Dropbox or Low-Cost Production of music), the customer then has new options and will take the option that gets them closer to their objective… in the easiest/cheapest/fastest way (notice, I didn't say "best" or "most secure" way.)

    Now, I went off on a bit of a tangent there, so forgive me. I think that we still need to do the "Reference Interview" (which seems to be what you are doing in directing the client into describing what they are needing), but we also need to understand what is next for the client after we lead them to resolving the current question. We just can't function like a Google search result and simply wait for them to come back with their next query.

  • I think there's a significant difference between creating a piece of music versus finding and using information. Music-writing does not require credibility. A song is just a song and it matters not whether there's truth to it.

    Information seekers (I would hope) want credible information. Granted, the web is full of it. But if we're talking about legal research, we've to rely on certain sources and people (aka information professionals) to discern the content.

    So we really need to treat librarianship as a professional service rather than a stringent business practice model.

  • Tony,

    I'd have to counter that this isn't about creating music or identifying credible resources of information, but rather how our customers are changing their habits. Librarians can ride their high-horse of 'we know better' (even if that is 100% true) right into obscurity. We definitely need to push that angle, but we also need to understand the way our customers work and adjust to them rather than sitting back on our laurels and watching our customer base drift away.

  • Tony Chan


    That brings up a good point. I think librarians do need to become an integral part of the overall process of firm business (IT, accounting, marketing, etc.), not just focusing on the "library business." To do that, it requires a different type of personality and skill set. It's hard to have a sense on whether librarians in general are adaptive enough to retool.

    In the same vein associates (sometimes even partners) are reluctant or disinterested to divert their energies in developing client relations and engage in firm management initiatives. And that's exactly what they need to do to cultivate and promote firm business.