The world is becoming flat

In his keynote address on Monday at the ODCE conference, John Seely Brown discussed the idea that the world is becoming flat. Our world is no longer as divided by borders, time, or space as it once was, largely as a result of the technologies that we are using today. We have the ability to email, conference call, video conference, and IM with nearly anyone in any place in the world. While Dr. Brown was referring mostly to the globalization of world business, this could also apply to many of the things we are doing in libraries. This flattening of the world has a huge impact on how libraries provide services and how they define the communities that they serve.

During my IM presentation on Monday, one of the attendees asked about how we control authentication with the IM service. This is a very common question, and the answer is we don’t. We have no way of really knowing if a question is coming from an Ohio University student, or if the question is coming from someone in Wyoming. All we know is that bigbubba7236 is asking us a question, and we try to help him or her find an answer. That aspect of instant messaging scares a lot of academic librarians because many want to limit service to patrons at their own institutions. I can understand the factors that contribute to this attitude. The students who attend the university are paying tuition, and that tuition pays for a majority of the resources and services on campus. With dwindling staff resources and budgets, many academic libraries are finding it hard to keep up with serving their own patrons, so the fear of taking time to serve someone who does not pay tuition is legitimate. In the same sense, if a librarian is serving someone who is not paying tuition, he or she is essentially denying service (or providing lesser service) to someone who actually pays for the service. In the business world, paying customers generally demand the right to be served before — and be served better than — those customers who are not buying products or services.

While this argument may hold some water, I think it helps to take a larger view of the picture. If we base our service solely on who is paying for the service, then we have to question who is actually footing the bill. For most colleges and universities, a majority of the operating revenue comes in the form of tuition. However, public colleges and universities also get a large amount of financial support (although it is decreasing drastically each year) from the state. Because of this state support, it is very difficult to distinguish between a “paying” and “non-Paying” patron at a public university library. While the paying patron does pay tuition, the non-paying patron probably pays taxes. It’s a portion of those taxes that helps to build new campus buildings, fund acqiusitions budgets, and even keep the lights on.

It’s with that understanding that many academic libraries will serve both community members and tuition-paying students with the same level of service. Unfortunately, this argument is easier to rationalize when “service” means serving patrons in the physical library. But when “service” means “any time, any were,” then how far will the library go with serving both the tuition paying patrons and the community members. I think one of the concerns with IM or email reference is that with these technologies, it is incredibly difficult to define (or limit) the community that is served. With the world becoming more flat, a community member can be someone in your university, your town, your state, your country, or your side of the world. The question is, where do you draw the line about who is a member of the community you serve, and what lengths will you go to serve the community?

In some cases, this question is often answered by the availability of resources. Most database licenses limit the use of the resources to the current members of the academic community (faculty, staff, and students), so if the answer to a patron’s inquiry requires using one of those databases, then the database license defines the members of the community. However, if the inquiry requires using something like American Factfinder, then the community is no longer constrained by a third-party legal restriction. This can make the definition of the community seem artificial, because the members of the community may be determined not by those providing the service, but by those providing the resources. Even this definition of community can break down as well. What if a member of another university or community contacts you via IM or email, and he/she has the same resources available at his library? Will your library help this person, or refer him/her to their own library? If this person is in the same town, or state, do you consider that part of your community?

I don’t really know the answers to these questions. I suppose for now, the real answer is “it depends.” But “it depends” will need to be more clearly defined if libraries are going to remain viable and successful resources in the future. As the world if becoming more flat, libraries will need to find a way to broaden and define the communities they serve. Libraries will also need to work together through consortial arrangements and partnerships to extend the coverage of the community, and to provide better services to the community. I have no idea what these partnerships will look like, but I really think libraries need to think about how they can work together to serve large communities. How do you think these partnerships will look in the future? How does your library define its community, and are you looking to expand it?

In closing, I’d like to mention an IM question that we received last night. One of our overnight staff emailed me the synopsis of the transaction, and it is posted below:

Hi Chad,
I had a really interesting IM early this morning (12:30 am) from a university student in Malaysia(!). She was researching IM and virtual librarian concepts and practice and she was really interested in our service.
I was a steward for the IM and chat service and department, I can assure you, that the student left the chat with much more knowledge than she came to it with.
Just thought you would like to hear about it.

In this example, our staff member was providing a service. He did not limit the service based upon the patron’s location, even though he apparently knew that the patron was out of the country. As a result, the staff member was able to help someone with a research need, while broadening the concept of the library community. Do you have any similar success stories? What is your library’s concept of community? How is the flattening of the world impacting your library’s services? If you have any answers to these questions, or if you have more questions, please feel free to post a comment.