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Notes from the Executive Director – July 2018

In the beginning, there were two libraries. And they saw that their collections were good. But not great. Somebody was always walking in to ask for something that wasn’t in the collection. And so they begat interlibrary loan. Resource sharing may not quite go back to the creation, but in terms of our culture, it might as well. We are unabashed sharers.

What brought this to mind was the keynote address at the 2018 Great Lakes Resource Sharing Conference by George Needham. With his talk, “The Promise and Pitfalls of 21st Century Resource Sharing,” Needham tossed off one thought-provoking idea after another. I suspect he did so in the hope of rousing us audience members from our usual assumptions and perceptions of resource sharing and interlibrary loan.

He first asked us to consider a library that looked like a mall, where everyone came in to shop for what they needed. It was a very transactional view of the library, without, as far as I could see, much connection to life in the community. In his description, the customers, which in this case is a very adept way to describe the people using the library, would be given options for getting materials by using shopping carts, just like they were in a retail store. I must confess that I didn’t find the concept very appealing. That model is in opposition to the transformation now going on in libraries as they transition from a near-total focus on their collections to one in which libraries become service and innovation hubs for their communities. The transactional nature of Needham’s description doesn’t fit very well in a model where libraries become more embedded into their communities and much more engaged in crafting ways to achieve community-wide aspirations. The library as retail outlet is a model whose time has come and gone.

Needham next asked us to consider, “What if everything was on the web?” All of us have been asked ad nauseum, “Why do we need libraries now that everything is available on the web?” We usually cue up the response that vast amounts of data and print resources are not available on the web, so yes, libraries are still needed. Needham poked at that response, seeking for us to consider who we would be if we didn’t have collections to manage. What kind of a case would we make for our continued existence? Surely, much of the answer to that question will be found as we continue our transition to the community hub that I described above.

As Needham talked, I found myself considering that question from a different angle. After all, a very large proportion of the information resources, including leisure reading, listening, and viewing as well as scholarly material, is online now and available for people to use. Nearly every article and book published today starts life as a digital file from which the print version is derived. That makes it discoverable and potentially accessible on the web. But how do we get to it? The question really should be, “Is it available and where is it?” That shifts the discussion in a very real way. Suddenly, we can talk about online digital materials as well as print and artifacts, some of which may never be digital. Thus the question, “What if all the metadata for all those materials was freely available on the web?”

We know that everything newly or recently published is digital, but importantly, everything, even the stuff not yet in digital form, has metadata. Perhaps a better question is, “How can we make all that metadata easily discoverable on the web?” In other words, how can we free the metadata from our library silos and make sure it can be found on the web? And, of course, that answer is to stop using MARC and get all our metadata into a linked data format that the web can understand and use.

Once we have the metadata pointing to the location for the objects, whether it’s digital or physical, we librarians will always have work to do. We need to be the ones making sure that the pointers are correct, and the stuff is where it’s supposed to be. I don’t believe we’ll ever be without collection development work. It may become much different than what we know today, but it will still be collection development. And we’ll still need librarian skills to get it done.