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The halfway dilemma

I work in a small scientific library that faces many problems of libraries everywhere: the community we serve has found other ways to meet their information needs. Our users are doing their own information searching, accessing and archiving, and the library has been left out of the equation, short of paying the few bills for journal access. 

Is this a case of simply figuring out a way to survive disruptive technologies or disruptive innovations of the Web? If so, how has this library adapted to changes in the information environment? 

One issue is that this library is not a common model. It's not a public library, so we don’t fight against, say, a competitor like Amazon, with its super search machine and advances in ILS technologies (Look Inside). The population of our user group may be too small to participate in Amazon-like reviews, helpful as that may be. It's not an Academic Library, where goals about student learning inside and outside the classroom can help guide us.  

We work in the background, my colleagues like to say. We get things done but people don't notice it. I take another tack: our doors may be open, but that doesn't mean we're meeting the needs of our customers. These users seem to expect different things -- more things -- from their information environment. The problem is, our users aren't looking for the services most information consumers are. 

But we must carve out a role for the library. On first look, I'd say we should assist where users have hurdles in their research process. In my interviews with researchers, I have found some complaints about not gathering enough information from the Web, yet very few information gathering tools being used. Some researchers have turned to RSS feeds and Google Alerts, yet no one is sharing new information via social networks (although they exist and collaboration is a large part of the environment).  Some people leverage bibliographic organization tools, but the need for more is not jumping out. Ditto with the use of intelligence agents and personalized search tools. 

Pushing RSS feeds and Google Alerts and RefWorks? That feels like halfway measures (Not to mention, a bit behind the time...) Maybe that's the rub. If we push too hard, give them too many options, we'll lose the attention of users, who are happy to get back to their work.  

When other organizations successfully tackle a major disruption like this, there's a feeling of people making wholesale changes: Extreme modifications to service or attempts to find new customers. Instead, our ideas don't feel very radical, or even progressive. But should they? Should we be more willing to take risks and learn from our mistakes? 

Perhaps that's some of the issue with innovating with information. We live in a time of many new products, new methods to collect and parse information. With this, the expectations of our customers changed. If we’re good, forward thinking librarians, we’re ahead of the curve, pushing ideas to early adopters. What happens, though, when our users are much more conservative than that? The library can offer changes in services – embedding new tools into researchers’ workflows – but we also have to think about the person who's willing to look at only a few new methods to research or collaborate or write. 

The only way through this is the middle way, it seems. And halfway feels like a recipe for disaster. Look at retail. It seems in this day and age, you either provide lots of value and high quality service for a select few willing to pay for it; or, you provide bottom dollar prices for a few bells and whistles and the ability to upgrade. In information, that feels like a trap. We either overreach for a few or under reach and try to grab the many. Where do we fit? 

Failure, failure, change, change