Why must libraries focus their work in a changing environment

“I consider a [person’s] brain originally like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.” — Sherlock Holmes

We decide what and how we spend our time focusing on, Sherlock Holmes seems to say. But there is only so much space in the brain to enter that information. Information overload is fresh on peoples’ minds—the idea that we can’t process too much information (statistics, facts, opinions, etc.) because the deluge makes the function of decision making more difficult.

Holmes foresaw this problem and created a very utilitarian response: he purposely, famously, ignored learning about certain subjects. Very few of us would choose to live like Sherlock Holmes.

I used to work in knowledge management, though, and I think some organizations could learn a little from the great detective: Ignore everything but the essential.

The problem is libraries have always had a lot of arenas that compete for our focus. Like many organizations, libraries are not master of our own domains: a lot of spheres can apply leverage on our work. Take for example the changing environment of higher education.

The role of the university has been under turmoil since at least the turn of the century. On one hand, more people agree that obtaining a degree is a necessity to a better job. And, most years, more people are willing to travel – sometimes quite far – to attend a university to earn a degree.

However, in the United Arab Emirates, the market for higher education is very competitive (pdf). People have choices where they can attend colleges. This buyers’ market means many universities need the individual student more than he or she needs them.

Secondly, the change facing academic publishing greatly impacts libraries. New competitors to traditional academic publishers have risen since the rise of the internet. Google Scholar is one example, as is the rise of pre-print services like Arxiv and SSRN. For-profit, social, research disseminators Academia.edu and Research Gate are included in this list, along with pirate sites like Sci Hub, which could affect their traditional business model.

At the same time, the marketplace for academic publishing is becoming increasingly concentrated: A larger amount of scholarly material is being published by fewer publishers. That means the top four publishers increasingly control the majority of published work in the major disciplines, like Humanities, Social Sciences and hard sciences.


How does this impact libraries? Students in the UAE look at three major factors (pdf) when choosing a university: quality of education, university of reputation and the recognition of the degree. Libraries play a foundational role in university reputation and learning culture. Universities employ librarians as marketers to potential students and parents. Once students enroll, libraries are often called to develop new services and programs for these new discerning users.

The push for augmenting university reputation may also lead organizations to change focus or add a set of new skills. We see that in the push for increasing research output and helping solve specific problems facing the country, a longstanding reason higher education is so abundant in UAE. From a library standpoint, this institutional decision changes our emphasis from supporting undergraduate teaching and learning to supporting research and researchers.

The changes in scholarly communication marketplace is even more apparent in our work. We’ve dealt with assessing the multitude of new access models, from demand driven acquisitions to evidence based acquisitions, experimental new models like article rentals and the number of issues surrounding open access.

Academic publishers have also moved into new markets, such as the research ecosystem. They have acquired scholarly analytics tools, collaboration software sites and research workflow platforms. We are fielding sales calls for these new services, either as one-off purchases or bundling them with other services. This has compelled our office to wade into areas we generally left alone: research budgets and faculty promotion.  

Finally, fewer publishers controlling more journals and publications had greatly impacted our ability to negotiate access and attempting to control price. With few competitors, publishers are allowed to bundle items (whether we want them or not). One set of academics argue the concentration of the academic publishing market coincided with the sharp increases in resource prices.

How to keep up

The change in higher education and academic publishing economics is only two areas impacting academic libraries. There are many more. The question is: how do you keep focus as an organization? Do we act like Sherlock Holmes – pushing immaterial issues from your attic? Do we try to understand everything these changes imply and to adjust our service models accordingly?

These are especially complicated questions for smaller libraries. The lack of available staff time is an obvious reason. Small libraries are also generally attuned to meeting the needs of its institution. Abrupt changes to the university’s mission may make it difficult for the library to change tack.  Not just for librarians and staff, but also for counterparts (professors and heads of departments) used to having our full attention.

As our work becomes more complicated, though, something is going to have to give.