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strategy and business
 / Spring 2009 / Issue 54(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Library Rebooted

4. Forge a digital identity. As not-for-profit institutions, libraries have limited operating funds. In its 2007 fiscal year, for instance (before the crisis hit Wall Street), the NYPL had operating support of about $300 million; the British Library, of about $220 million (£111 million). By our estimate, no more than one-fifth and probably far less of any library’s funds are used to advance its digital initiatives. By contrast, Google, in its 2007 fiscal year, spent more than $2.1 billion on research and development alone.

Clearly, there is no way that libraries could transform themselves into leading-edge Internet organizations even if they wanted to. Nor should they aspire to that. A great many things are in flux, and a library that goes too far with a digitization initiative today runs the risk of creating data structures that will be incompatible with future standards. But some experimentation is in order. Should libraries let people reserve books remotely, from their home or office? Should they adopt a convenient delivery-to-home model, à la Netflix? Should they make their librarians available at all hours to respond to online inquiries? And to the extent that they do these things, should they (as part of rethinking their operating model) charge for some of these services, as the Toronto Library does with a fee-based custom research service? Finally, should libraries pursue these initiatives alone or in concert with one another?

5. Connect with stakeholders in ways pure Internet companies cannot. What determines who wins in a fight between a bear and an alligator, as one saying goes, is the battleground — where the fight takes place. Libraries can’t provide faster online data retrieval than a search engine, and that’s not where they should try to compete. What they can do, on the community library side, is take advantage of their local strength, and, on the research library side, share their service-oriented exper­tise in new ways and through new channels.

In practice, this means that the leaders of community libraries should have an understanding of the institutions in their community, so they know how to serve students, seniors, the poor, and those without Internet access. Community library leaders who get out and make connections in the community will successfully transform their institution into a fulcrum for many of the issues and concerns that touch local residents. Their programs, services, and offerings will all be better off as a result of this outreach and connectedness.

Research librarians must move beyond collecting and curating and become more adept at connecting with scholars. They should aspire to help build broader and more connected communities among the primary users of their collections. In this regard, they may want to take a page from newspapers’ new playbooks, where staffs are increasingly breaking out of standard news-reporting mode to contribute to blogs, produce online video segments, and answer questions in reader forums. This more personalized approach keeps news — which is already available from innumerable online aggregators — from becoming a commodity. Likewise, the research librarian who enters into an online dialogue with users offers something that will never be available directly from a search engine.

6. Expand the metrics. As they refine their mission, libraries will also have to change how they measure success. Keeping track of the number of monthly and annual physical visitors will still matter, as will monitoring the number of books (and other offerings) in circulation. But online-specific metrics will have to be added, especially as libraries invest more resources in digital initiatives and put bigger parts of their collections online. And it will be important, no matter whether the asset is a physical or a digital one, for the measurements to move beyond the strictly countable (number of books on loan, number of page views, etc.) into attitudinal areas like level of engagement and customer satisfaction.

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  1. Robert Darnton, “The Library in the New Age,” New York Review of Books, June 12, 2008: Eight reasons libraries are more important than ever. 
  2. Anthony Grafton, “Future Reading,” New Yorker, November 5, 2007: What digitization means for reading and the library.
  3. Miguel Helft and Motoko Rich, “Google Settles Suit over Book-Scanning,” New York Times, October 28, 2008: The impact of Google’s settlement with authors and publishers.
  4. Robin Pogrebin, “A $100 Million Donation to the N.Y. Public Library,” New York Times, March 11, 2008: News story on the charitable gift by financier Stephen Schwarzman.
  5. Jeffrey Toobin, “Google’s Moon Shot,” New Yorker, February 5, 2007: Google’s ambitious plan to digitize all the world’s books.
  6. Google Books Library Project Web site: Provides an explanation of how its digitized book site works.
  7. For more business thought leadership, sign up for s+b’s RSS feeds.
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