Go with the Flow

It can be funny when a concept learned or experienced in one place comes back to inform something completely different.  Property law in Arkansas inevitably talked about the role of the Mississippi, the great river that comprises the state’s eastern border.  But rivers are not fixed entities, and this one has moved and shifted so that the border moved as well.

Information flows like a river.  Information habits change over time and it can have the same effect on an information organization, like a library, or on companies that provide research products.  The most obvious example of this is Internet search.  For better or worse, many researchers begin their professional, academic, and personal research online before using librarians or libraries.  Libraries have attempted to change their services to attempt to entice users back.  Some organizations have moved beyond the “if we build it, they will come” approach which has stretched library resources in an attempt to be everything to everyone.  Some libraries are putting drop boxes in malls or creating pop-up library branches.  But that’s really just sticking out tentacles.  The octopus is still sitting on the shore.

One thing that strikes me, though, is that the physical library remains the anchor around which all of these activities happen.  Imagine a library built on the banks of the Mississippi, almost assuredly behind a levee to avoid floods.  Then, one day, the river moves away.  If the river represents the information flow, it might make sense for the library to close its physical location and move closer to the river.  But we don’t do that.  We maintain our physical presence and try to bring people back in.  Alternatively, we attempt to place ourselves back into the information flow, with one foot in the river and the other on the bank.

The problem with the physical focus is that we end up paying for the footprint – rent, utilities, upkeep – even when it goes relatively unused.  We create new ways to use the space “as a community center” which may or may not work but most likely duplicate a service already provided elsewhere by people probably better able to provide it.

If the library was thought of as being a boat rather than a building, then we could more nimbly maneuver ourselves into the mainstream of the information flow, wherever it went.  This means being more fearless when it comes to ditching our physical spaces – and not getting into political battles to justify spaces because that’s where we feel comfortable – and being more flexible.  In the same way that a store might close down one location and open a new one three blocks away because that’s where the new traffic flow is, libraries need to be less attached to a given space.  If we really are focused on providing information access and supporting literacy, a building shouldn’t really be necessary.

It makes me think that many of the things we do need to be turned on their heads:

  • rather than have a building supplemented by bookmobiles, create an entirely mobile library system.  This would use some physical space but could be quickly adapted to meet changes in need, space availability, and costs.  Similarly, if your patrons are in the mall, put your library there, rather than just a drop box.  If your patrons tend to reserve books online for pickup because they are commuters with limited time to get to the library, why not take those books to the train station and enable them to check out without an extra trip to the library.
  • Our hours tend to be egg-shaped.  Since we all get visitors during our hours, we may assume that we are meeting the need.  In a public law library, though, most users are available before we open or after we close.  Daytime hours are when they are meeting with clients, in court, and otherwise working themselves.  If we were really geared up to meeting their needs, we would staff our libraries like an hour-glass:  most staff and availability early in the morning, diminishing to a skeleton staff in mid day and then expanding at 5pm to provide full services later into the evening.  If your public library serves families where the kids are in school and both parents are working, then providing full service and staffing in the middle of the day and only being open one evening a week may be encouraging a drop in library use.
  • Focus on outcomes rather than anecdotes and trends.  I’m as guilty as the next director who heard a great idea from a colleague or at a conference and immediately said, “we should do that.”  There tends to be an assumption that all public libraries are the same or all law libraries are the same, and so anything that works for one will work for others.  It’s not even a matter of saying that we’ll take an idea and customize it to our local needs.  We should be data driven and know what those needs are and go out and find solutions for those needs.  Success or failure by another organization shouldn’t really be an indicator of our own ability to use a similar idea or technology.  There is a good chance libraries are not going to be the source of the answer, if an answer even already exists.  This requires a level of flexibility and creativity that we may not have cultivated in our staff or library community.

Unlike a physical river, which has some limitations to how far away from the riverbank it can flow, the information river can wander anywhere.  If we are anchored to concepts that forestall our ability to stay connected to the river and, preferably, stay afloat on it, we can hardly be surprised when Internet search and online booksellers become more palatable than our services and space.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.