Friday, January 07, 2005

Why we need advocacy--and more research

ALA president Carol Brey-Casiano and Bernard Margolis, president of the Boston Public Library have an article in the January 5 Boston Globe on the sorry state of public library funding. "Despite the fact that more people are using libraries than ever before, their funding continues to decrease. More than $80 million has been cut from public library budgets in the past year alone, which has weakened or closed libraries in more than 40 states."

Gloomy as this is there was another statement in the article that particularly caught my attention: "Librarians truly are the 'ultimate search engine,' an incredibly knowledgeable human resource far more responsive and interactive than virtual commercial ones." It did so because I had just read something on the same topic expressing a different view. Rafat Ali at PaidContent.org posted some comments yesterday from an interview on digital media. Here's Rafat's posting.

"The Future of Digital Media: Hank Barry: An excellent interview with Hank Barry, who is a partner at the venture capital firm Hummer Winblad, and has been a close observer of the evolution of digital media - he was CEO of Napster and previously was a partner with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. This point is excellent: 'I think all businesses have tremendous opportunity here. To survive and prosper, they simply need to adapt...They have moved much of their ordering and sales configuration online. It's working. Perhaps contrary to expectations, customers prefer a consistent machine interface to an inconsistent human interface.' That's why I like banking online completely, than going into the bank or even the ATM" (my emphasis)

Now, Carol and Bernie, and Hank and Rafat aren't (necessarily) talking about the same kind of interactions but one of the major trends we focus on in the Environmental Scan is disintermediation of the sort Rafat mentions...interacting with a screen rather than a human.

There is good evidence that for many types of interactions, people actually prefer the machine.

In presentations we do, we often mention an article from Fast Company that George pointed us to called The Toll of the New Machine by Charles Fishman. This long article contains many interesting and important points and "offers a glimpse of the continued power of computers, automation, and the Internet to transform our lives as both workers and consumers--a power that, far from having plateaued, is only just getting started. Information technology hasn't touched lots of things that are just waiting to be automated, computerized, or kiosked. That they will be automated seems inevitable."

I think we continue to give too much weight to the notion that people coming to libraries want to be "served" by a human and I also know that I have no empirical evidence that library users prefer asking where the bathrooms are or why the sky is blue from humans. It's yet another area in our profession where emotion rules over fact, in my very own personal opinion. We don't actually know this; we just assume. And as Mr Fishman points out in his article, "Part of self-service is paying attention to how many different selves you might be serving. " So, I think we need to pay attention to the many kinds of interactions people have in libraries and decide where the real value of human interaction and service lies and focus on those selves and then get cracking on the things that are waiting to be automated.



6 comments:

Yogadad said...

Good post. It's true that librarians tend to be ruled by emotion when it comes to the value of human interaction. John Berry took on self-service in a recent LJ editorial. But when you consider what people are really doing while standing at the circ desk, is it really meaningful interaction? I don't think so. We really need to get real as a profession about what librarians are good at or we're going to find out that we're really good for nothing. I don't think Google can replace all reference librarians but I do think that the potential exists for Google to do to reference librarians what OCLC did to catalogers. Which was to make them much scarcer.

I make one little note in the opposite direction: I noticed recently that the Meijer down the street from here has torn out several of its self-service check-out lanes. I asked why (because I almost always preferred them to a human) and was told that customers really didn't like them. I wonder what the lesson is there.

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