In April of this year, I took the opportunity to attend the annual Computers in Libraries conference (CIL 2013) held in Washington, D. C. Several hundred librarians, technicians and hybrids of the two were there, and it’s not hard to imagine the overall impression conveyed by the attendees: it’s an exciting time to be involved with libraries, particularly if you are something of a tech-geek. (Exhibit A: the first night’s event saw a few dozen librarians playing laser tag, painting with motion-sensing devices and steering small little motorized balls.)
Cleveland Public Library’s TechCentral, the Douglas County Library (CO) digital branch, or SUNY Cortland’s streaming video collection all had their moment in the spotlight, and are all taking steps toward their own vision of the 21st century library. The point has been made before, and most libraries are coming to terms with the role that technology will play in their future to one degree or another. That said, the conference wasn’t (purely) about cheerleading the wonders of the digital age in libraries, and many of the presentations were aimed at libraries struggling with first steps.
One interesting notion that was reinforced over several presentations is this: in a de facto sense, libraries are in direct competition with companies such as Amazon and Google or services such as iTunes and Netflix. Whether one agrees with this statement or not, it does bear some examination. I for one feel that it’s hard to argue that services such as immediate download have changed the face of the music, movie, television and publishing industries, creating a consumer that has come to expect instant gratification, something that is difficult for libraries to emulate without the resources of a corporation behind them.
However, it’s not purely about getting material into the hands of our patrons (or customers, if you prefer). It’s the experience that’s being provided, the nature of the transaction between vendor and consumer, that makes the real difference. Furthermore, transactional efficiency is not the only way to achieving consumer satisfaction. In fact, as it was argued at CIL2013, the human element is where libraries can easily outpace the corporations. In fact, as the ability to offer instant access to items (as with the Maine InfoNet Download Library) becomes easier to achieve, the more that libraries can establish parity and even superiority for the demands of our communities, simply because of the personal interface.
Libraries do seem to enjoy continued goodwill and relevance even while some few claim libraries to be outdated due to the power of search engines and the proliferation of Internet access. People gravitate to good experiences, and if libraries can provide similar results as corporations like Amazon but with the personal and friendly touch (or perhaps the long-distance “touch” of a friendly game of laser tag), there’s every reason to suppose that libraries can, in fact, compete with them and triumph. End soapbox.
In next week’s post, I’ll talk more about three key points for libraries tackling the challenge of technology that I distilled from CIL2013. In the meantime, do you agree that we’re in competition with big companies like Amazon? How do libraries remain relevant in the face of “two-day shipping” and streaming movies?