Libraries and the Future of Electronic Content Delivery
Seizing the opportunity to preserve unfettered access to information
Posted Wed, 07/13/2011 - 08:42
Michael Porter, president of Library Renewal
“Libraries are about content plus community,” says Michael Porter. “What does that mean in a world where in 5, 10, or 20 years the vast majority of content is electronic?”
Porter draws on two decades of experience as a librarian, speaker, and writer to envision an organization that will take a leading role in charting the future of electronic content delivery for libraries, with expert information professionals and industry leaders at the helm. He created, and is president of, Library Renewal, “a new kind of nonprofit” organization whose goal is to develop “a new electronic content access and distribution infrastructure.”
Porter talked with American Libraries at the 2011 ALA Midwinter Meeting in San Diego about “making an idea happen,” the current information technology landscape, the plans for Library Renewal in the year ahead, and how librarians everywhere can get involved.
One of the goals of Library Renewal is to combine research, partnership, and grassroots involvement to define the future of electronic content delivery. Why is this important now?
Google lapped libraries early on in self-service search on the web, but iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, Pandora, Spotify, and others are now getting ahead of them in providing electronic content. Either we figure out how to get people the electronic content they want, when they want it, in the formats they want it, or someone else does it … and for a price that only some can afford. These companies, the faces of the new publishing, will deliver content in ways that lack our special training, care, understanding, community commitment, and long historical view. This trend threatens both librarians’ roles as providers of unfettered access to content and information, and—since it is built on this concept—democracy itself. The writing on the wall tells us we run the risk of being replaced by commercial alternatives that serve only those who can afford them. In such an environment, all content provision is subject to the corporate bottom line. Existing libraries are not addressing this massive threat, and it simply cannot stand, plain and simple: The stakes for libraries and the communities we serve are too high.
What are the critical implications of mainstream adoption of digital content for libraries?
Libraries either figure out new ways to be major players in a world where electronic content accounts for 85%–95% of content access (reading, research, music, and multimedia) or we become antiquated institutions that our local communities are less and less willing to support. That may sound extreme, but once you research the hardware currently on the market and future technologies, how the software is and will be working on that hardware, and the companies that are doing all of this right now, you see the writing on the wall with blazing clarity. We are at a critical crossroads that both presents amazing opportunities for libraries and poses powerful threats to our very existence—threats that we have never faced before.
How will Library Renewal address the challenges of increased digital engagement in libraries?
We are designed to be a “think and do tank” that works in three areas:
- Research—what is at play here and what are practical paths forward.
- Relationships—with major companies, corporations, professions, and individuals that see these issues as critical to society and want to join forces with libraries and Library Renewal.
- Outreach—within the library profession and focused on the general public, those who understand that if libraries do not provide effective access to electronic content, their libraries may very well go away. These millions of citizens can create a critical mass of support that can both spread the word and encourage cooperation and innovation.
Describe how an effective “electronic content access and distribution infrastructure” will better serve the needs and expectations of library readers and researchers.
As their cost plummets, content-delivery devices are becoming increasingly practical and powerful. On one hand, they can help people get the content they need more efficiently via electronic means, and this gives libraries a chance to meet users at their point of need. Embedding social features in these new forms at the library provides an opportunity for growth and renaissance that we have never ever seen.
How will Library Renewal help libraries adapt to evolving digital content in the long term?
By doing the research, relationship building, and outreach that we have planned—and by banding together with thoughtful, hard-working library professionals who are willing to chip in and work with us. Join with us; watch what we are talking about, writing about, asking about, and whom we are partnering with; send in your feedback; and spread the word. Think about becoming an advocate for Library Renewal. There is no other organization designed from the ground up to address these issues specifically, let alone in a way that allows you to be involved and contribute. Look at what libraries do now. Look at what you have seen happen with technology in the last 20 years. Join in and help make sure Library Renewal does what needs to happen, the way it needs to happen. It’s a rare opportunity.
For updates on Library Renewal, and to learn more about getting involved, visit the website and sign up for the organization’s email newsletter, libraryrenewal.org. You can also follow Library Renewal on Twitter at twitter.com/libraryrenewal and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/libraryrenewal.
LISA CARLUCCI THOMAS is digital services librarian at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. Follow her on Twitter @lisacarlucci.