Think like a startup

I would like to draw people’s attention to an excellent paper at, “Think like a startup” by Brian Mathews. In essence, he says that if libraries are going to survive, they must become more like startups and that actually means taking chances on new ideas that may turn out not to be successes, but libraries must undertake them anyway. A major problem I see with this approach is that normally, libraries are bureaucracies–either bigger or smaller ones–and bureaucracies are hardly known for their entrepreneurial spirit, but that is another matter.

On p. 2, he asks a series of very delicate questions:

  • What if Residence Halls and Student Centers managed learning commons spaces?
  • What if the Office of Research managed campuswide electronic database subscriptions and ondemand access to digital scholarly materials?
  • What if Facilities managed the off-campus warehouses where books and other print artifacts are stored?
  • What if the majority of scholarly information becomes open? Libraries would no longer need to acquire and control access materials.
  • What if all students are given eBook readers and an annual allotment to purchase the books, articles, and other media necessary for their academic pursuits and cultural interests? Collections become personalized, on-demand, instantaneous, and lifelong learning resources.
  • What if local museums oversaw special collections and preservation?
  • What if graduate assistants, teaching fellows, post-docs, and undergraduate peer leaders managed database training, research assistance, and information literacy instruction?
  • What if the Office of Information Technology managed computer labs, proxy access, and lending technology and gadgets?

Any or all of these scenarios are very possible. He then writes, “How do we help the individuals at our institutions become more successful? That’s the goal.”

When I consider what he writes and what it means for the catalog, I keep in mind that the public does not want our catalog or our catalog records. What they want are the actual resources our catalog records describe. The public uses our catalogs only when they have to and is why people have always preferred browsing the shelves to browsing the catalog records. At the same time, I do not believe that these resources organize themselves and believe that automatic indexing that provides reliable search results is still a long way off into the future. While I hope that catalogers and the majority of librarians would agree with that last statement, many technologists and members of the public would disagree and they can easily point to the “successes” they have had with full-text searches and the “failures” they have suffered using library catalogs.

This is why I think it is vital that catalogers prove their point because otherwise, they risk being completely ignored. When asking the question “What is wrong with our catalogs?” and considering it in the context of “How do we help the individuals at our institutions become more successful?”–which is the correct way of approaching it–what are the answers? The right answers as well as the wrong answers?

In this sense, wrong answers are probably easier to come up with and can shed a light on some possible correct answers. For instance, subject access is one area that we can point to that is wrong, in that the traditional method of creating subject strings has become dysfunctional in today’s tools. Of course, we shouldn’t stop at this point, but delve more deeply into why it doesn’t work and in this way, some solutions for subject access may arise.

Asking the question: “How do we help the individuals at our institutions become more successful?” seems to be an excellent focal point for all considerations about the future of the catalog.

I recommend the article.