Monday, January 10, 2011

Is the library a customer service institution?

Some initial thoughts on Paul Ford's "The Web is a Customer Service Medium" (h/t Anil Dash)...

A medium has a niche. A sitcom works better on TV than in a newspaper, but a 10,000 word investigative piece about a civic issue works better in a newspaper. When it arrived the web seemed to fill all of those niches at once. The web was surprisingly good at emulating a TV, a newspaper, a book, or a radio. But the web is not just some kind of magic all-absorbing meta-medium. It's its own thing. And like other media it has a question that it answers better than any other. That question is: Why wasn't I consulted?...WWIC is the thing people talk about when they talk about nicer-sounding things like “the wisdom of crowds” or “cognitive surplus”...The web is not, despite the desires of so many, a publishing medium. The web is a customer service medium. “Intense moderation” in a customer service medium is what “editing” was for publishing...The days of the web as all-purpose media emulator are numbered. Apps on mobile are gaining traction; the web browser, despite great and ongoing effort, will not become the universal platform for everything ever. Apps provide niche experiences.

Okay, so. In comics, someone struck with a sudden idea gets a lightbulb drawn over their head. It usually works the opposite for me. Strike me with a big enough idea, and I get a wrapped present. I know it's there, I know it's something I'm going to really like, and the wrapping paper is so shiny. But what is it? I won't know until I unwrap it. Which can take...time. But here's what I've got right now from the metaphorical shaking of the package and listening for thumps or tinkles:

Historically, as an oversimplification, libraries as institutions developed for the purpose of preservation and access. People made Stuff. Eventually libraries ended up with some of that Stuff in order to serve their patron(s) or customer(s).

At some point, libraries in the United States moved from being an after-market customer service to being a market in and of itself.

This process seems to have speeded up in the second half of the 20th century, at the same time as broadcast media gained prominence. Coincidence?

Libraries, on the whole, have never successfully engaged the question of broadcast media. When recordings are made available by someone else, we may collect them. But if no recording of a particular broadcast is made, well, tough luck.

Broadcasters therefore have had no reason to look to libraries as a market.

In the online era, all media is increasingly broadcast media. A book downloaded to a mobile device or an online journal subscription has more in common with on-demand TV than their print ancestors.

If libraries continue to fail to engage the question of broadcast media, we will be left with very little to collect, and publishers will cease to look at us as a market.

In contemporary American society, only consumers (or capital owners) have power to influence production.

If libraries are not seen as consumers, we will be...what? Returning to our historical roots? Losing our ability to pursue our goals? Stuck in an identity crisis? Left with no choice but to become capital owners?


  1. Couldn't libraries be thought of as crowdsourcing? My library is less a monolithic institution than it is a group of people who collect, preserve and disseminate the culture that we find most relevant. (Both staff and users.) The fact that the library can buy a database or a stack of books (for cheaper than an individual could) and many people will use the resource over and over again is part of that power. The local history sections, where community knowledge is shared are another component of many libraries.

    When I started working 12 years ago, the fact that we had access to a television station to tell our stories was a HUGE deal. Now, we have flip cameras that can reach just as many (if not more) people. Libraries and librarians need to get good at telling the stories of why the library is relevant. And they need to do it fast.

  2. Crowdsourcing is an interesting thought. The only piece of it I'm not comfortable with is that libraries should be considering the needs and desires of the people who aren't already users--people who aren't part of the "crowd." I guess that ties into your observation that librarians need to get good at telling stories of relevance--to enlarge the crowd.