As they struggle with their shrinking domain in a digital era, the best research libraries aren’t standing idly by. The New York Public Library is re-creating its landmark Fifth Avenue research library by moving much of the storage of its vaunted research collection underground, beneath the adjacent Bryant Park, and devoting the freed-up space to a lending library and areas for children, teens, and seniors. The library is also narrowing its research focus and selectively digitizing some parts of its collections, while looking for ways to get users to interact with those digital collections. Prioritization and selective digitization are going to become important capabilities at all research libraries in the future. Indeed, such libraries may want to consider commercial enterprises’ approaches in this regard, even to the point of selling off or exchanging “nonstrategic” parts of their collections in arrangements with other libraries.
But can research libraries really make their treasures (often created with quill pens on parchment) come alive online? The U.K.’s biggest library provides an exuberant answer to that question. Under Chief Executive Lynne Brindley, the British Library has created digital exhibits of some materials complete with a curator’s narration. The project amounts to a guided Web tour of some of the most prized parts of the library’s collections, and one could argue it provides a more compelling experience than seeing the physical pieces under glass. An online visitor can use the library’s Turning the Pages software to view the original manuscript of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, browse through Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, or see some of the notations that Mozart made in December 1784 as he worked out parts of a piano concerto. (A link allows the visitor to listen to the passage being played on a piano.) These are examples of repurposing content using an engaging interactive experience, as a television network might do by putting snippets of its shows online or a movie studio might do by posting outtakes or behind-the-scenes features.
These approaches partially address the question of how to maintain relevance. None of them, it must be said, provides a full answer. However, together they offer insights into the steps libraries are taking as they seek to ensure their value at a time when the Internet has reset user expectations.
Seven Imperatives for Library Leadership
The challenge of relevance is leading libraries away from a conventional mind-set toward one that is analytical and pragmatic about opportunities, yet open to transformation and effective at implementing new strategies. In a sense, what library executives need to do is not that different from what their business-world peers are doing in media industries threatened by the Internet, and it is just as important to survival and continued service. Following are seven imperatives that we have identified through our work with leading libraries around the world — including assisting the NYPL in designing its new strategic plan.
1. Rethink the operating model. Many of the old assumptions about running a library — that the measure of a library’s quality is the size of its book collection, that there’s value in keeping even infrequently loaned books on the shelves, that library staffing decisions shouldn’t be questioned — are outmoded and need to be set aside. This is not to say that libraries will be able to re-create themselves as purely digital, service-oriented organizations; that would be a lot to ask of an institution that got its start some 5,000 years ago, with business records and hymns engraved in clay tablets in ancient cities. But many libraries today, operating in paper and film, haven’t changed some of their operating practices since World War II. Their role as the preservers of recorded history means they have to spend a lot of their resources just maintaining the assets they already have.