By Ben Showers
It sometimes feels as though libraries are always behind. In the academic sphere this is amplified by the perception of cutting-edge research and activity that goes on elsewhere in a university. Yet it is often the case that libraries are already testing ideas and new technologies and services. Indeed, one might argue that the recent history of the library is one of adaptation and new technology innovation.
Libraries are often contrasted with the private sector, in particular with what are seen as highly innovative companies such as Google, Amazon and Apple. Yet it is becoming clear that such thinking is a dangerous and false dichotomy. Indeed, it might be argued that thinking of the library as a model for innovation and change challenges this reductive thinking. As the British author and library campaigner Phillip Pullman made clear in a speech to save Oxfordshire’s libraries, such polarizing language “… always results in victory for one side and defeat for the other. It’s set up to do that.”
In many ways the library makes the ideal site of resistance to a dominant language of polarization and reduction. It is a space that negates the profit motives of the commercial sector; instead it exists to serve the communities to which it belongs (be that academic, public or private). Even in a time of drastic financial pressures this community belonging gives the library an advantage as it transitions from the hard copy book to a digital online future.
Changing models of access to library services and content is an example of where libraries have been able to meet student expectations and improve the student experience for the institution as a whole. In the UK, the University of Bath’s work with quick response, or QR codes, those strange black and white matrix barcodes that seem to be popping up everywhere, is an example of a library adapting early to a technology that is only now in use by many commercial enterprises and advertisers. The list of libraries engaging with mobile technologies is, it seems, growing.
An organization that works to bring innovation to UK higher education institutions is JISC. Over several years, JISC has invested significantly in both research and projects exploring the potential and impact of mobile technologies. A snap shot of the current mobile landscape is provided in this blog post providing background to a funding call to develop a mobile infrastructure for UK higher education. Libraries demonstrate a remarkable ability to adopt and refine new models of working. In times that demand new efficiencies and practices libraries can adapt to produce new shared and collaborative services and systems. A prescient example from the UK is the shared academic knowledge base (or KB+ as it has become known).
While traditional publishers struggle to create and deliver content in an economically viable model, libraries have managed to innovate and leverage their position to exploit new methods such as the “crowdsourcing” of effort to both enhance and create digital content. One of the best known examples is the Australian National Library’s newspaper crowdsourcing project Trove. The project aims to motivate the general public to help correct text from digitized newspapers and the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) text that accompanies them. While a machine might fail to recognise certain characters or have problems with a font style, this is not generally the same when using people to correct such errors.
In the UK, JISC is stimulating crowdsourcing efforts like the First World War Poetry Digital Archive which asked members of the public to contribute ephemera and memorabilia to support the academically significant poetry and research materials from various collections and libraries. The result is a balanced archive that combines public contributions with academic content of international significance.
Similarly, there is the work that the New York Public Library has done with its digitization projects. Examples include their crowdsourcing project to transcribe beautiful historic New York menus, and teaming up with a computer games guru to hold an overnight game within the library building, helping demonstrate the social and creative environment that the library represents.
Indeed, the “gamification” of library and information services, something you might expect from a cutting-edge technology start-up, is being tried and refined in a number of UK libraries. Lemon Tree at the University of Huddersfield library is an example of how the idea of play can be used as a means to increase the use and impact of library services. Lemon Tree will allow library users to earn points and rewards for using and interacting with the library and its services, as well as provide integration with other social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Such innovative ideas and projects provide a test bed of innovation within a department and help meet strategic goals across the organization, like improving the student experience. Yet, it seems worth asking what might account for institutions like libraries, which are not usually perceived as nimble, being able to react and innovate? In a recent article in The Atlantic entitled What Big Media Can Learn from the New York Public Library a senior editor rather eloquently attempts an answer:
The library’s employees give a shit about the digital aspects of their institution, and they are supported in that shit giving…second, the library sees its users as collaborators in improving the collections the library already has.
Like many “traditional” businesses and organizations libraries are a product of “old-fashioned” ideas such as physical infrastructure (people and buildings) with an associated history of systems, processes and models of how things work. Libraries and staff suffer from their perceived lack of value within the information supply chain and the continuing devaluing of librarianship as a profession — the same disintermediation and de-professionalization as other industries such as music, media, and publishing.
Yet, libraries have been able to utilize their staff as passionate advocates for innovation and user needs, as well as realizng the potential of their location within their communities and public spaces. This helps highlight the need to support library staff in constantly trying and learning new skills and the importance of activities and events such as the UK’s Mashed Libraries series and the work of Dev8D in bringing together the technical and the curatorial.
This is not an argument that libraries need less funding; rather it is that libraries have been able not just to adapt to incredible external pressures, but to continue to innovate throughout.
Ben Showers is the program manager at JISC. Opinion pieces for Backtalk should be 850 to 900 words and sent to Michael Kelley at email@example.com