7 Aug 2013

Services > Collections, Collections > Services, or Collections and Services?

"Bad libraries build collections. Good libraries build services"

If you look around the web you'll find plenty of people arguing that the days of traditional libraries are numbered (Last hurrah for the traditional university library). Thinking of libraries in terms of giant rooms with pretty books is an image that just doesn't cut it anymore when people are spending more and more of their time discovering and using information online. Instead, libraries should embrace a more services-oriented approach rather than a collection-based one; sell the library to our users based on what we can do for them rather than simply what we have on our shelves. After all, what use are books and journals in an empty library? This is one of the main ideas behind the 'services are becoming more important than collections' argument. Obviously this is an extreme simplification (as indeed collections are also a service!), but R. David Lankes' Bad Libraries Build Collections, Good Libraries Build Services, Great Libraries Build Communities does a good job of capturing the complexities of the idea behind the soundbyte.

"Build it, and they will come"

Conversely, speak to a cataloguer and you will be quickly converted to the idea that libraries are nothing without their collections. This is the reason why libraries are investing more resources than ever in facilitating access to our materials through discovery services, mobile technologies and our library websites. Indeed, in many cases, collections are seen as "the heart of the library" - the essential reason why people walk through our doors.

Collections and Services

Of course, both arguments are right in different ways. It also depends on the specific context of your users and their needs. As somebody who works in a library primarily aimed at supporting the translation of research into practice, my role is very much focused on supporting specific information needs at an individual level, rather than building collections as such.

Notwithstanding this, I do think we need to focus less on the collection as being the primary function of libraries, especially now that more and more information can be independently accessed online. For now, we do still have an important role to play as both curator and broker in providing access to subscription-based research information and 'commodity' materials, but as open access hopefully continues to develop this may change in the future. However, we also need to breathe new life into our collections by creating a real point of difference. Often this is delivered through our Special Collections and the content we create ourselves through digitisation and archival work. Some nice examples of this in recent times have been the UL40 photo digitisation project, NUIG's digital partnership with The Abbey Theatre, and NUI Maynooth Library's Morpeth Roll exhibition. This value is unique and impossible to replicate.

Similarly, we need to hoover up the spaces where we can add distinct value in terms of our services. But if we do go down this road, we need to be assertive and confident in claiming ownership of new territories that may be up for grabs (data management and user experience for example), and not just mop up the leftovers that nobody else wants. This may mean upskilling significantly in some cases, as well leveraging our existing strengths, to provide unique expertise to our users in sourcing hard to find material, providing tailored research advice, sharing our knowledge of how information domains are connected, and leading with new technologies that can enhance existing teaching and research workflows.

We also need to be vocal in promoting and communicating this uniqueness, and we still have a lot to learn about how we can do this most effectively. How many times have we all heard "that's a great service you offer, I never knew it existed" or "I didn't know you had access to this resource"? Instead of arguing over which is more important - our collections or our services - we need to look at both, ensuring that we can continue to offer something that nobody else does.

*Creative Commons image reused from http://www.flickr.com/photos/shacharabiry/90718825/


Post a Comment