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A couple of years ago Ross Housewright of Ithaka S+R published an article about the future of academic libraries. The thesis was that the academic library was in danger of disruption, along the lines already experienced by the corporate library. Success would depend, he argued, on shifting from a supply mode of thinking, where the library defined itself in terms of its traditional roles, to a demand mode of thinking, where the library defined itself in terms of its constituency’s expectations.
The case of the corporate library offers us a parallel example in which many of the academic library’s roles are performed in a very different organizational context. Both corporate and academic libraries have mandates to support users by building and maintaining general collections, providing reference assistance, organizing information and resources to facilitate use, and otherwise addressing their users’ information needs. The corporate library sector, more urgently than the academic library sector, has seen the effects of disruptive change particularly in these service-oriented roles. Because of the nature of this environment, it has been forced to critically reconsider the role of the library in the modern organization as it attempts to survive. In recent years, many corporate libraries that were slow or ineffective in reacting to a changing information environment have closed, suffered severe cutbacks, or seen their functions outsourced or passed off to others within the company.3 The corporate world also offers examples of library organizations that have adapted and thrived, becoming more important than ever before to their parent institutions.4
The institutional context of academic libraries, he claims, has delayed such reconfiguration.
Academic libraries, however, have in many ways been insulated from the full extent of change because of their position within academic institutions. The library is deeply embedded in the intellectual life of the campus, is often a source of considerable prestige for its host school, and is generally a well-respected campus institution with significant historical importance. Although these protections have slowed the pace of change in academic libraries, they have also lessened the pressure on the academic library to evolve; and to observers, it is increasingly evident that the library is becoming less relevant to campus research and teaching.
And here is how he summarises
In general, successful corporate libraries were flexible and allocated resources with an aim of maximizing their value to their parent firm. Roles were chosen based on their contribution to the success of the parent enterprise, not on historical necessity or tradition. They were regularly reevaluated and revised to keep up with the changing needs of the company, as determined through deep engagement with the user community. Rather than arguing that users were making poor choices or complaining that information activities should be the province of the library by right, they, instead, sought to offer services to match users needs. They focused their energy on tasks that users could not effectively accomplish without their intervention and proactively sought out activities, either solo or collaborative, in which their expertise would be of value to the company. Although other variables played into many libraries’ ultimate success or failure, this value-maximizing outlook was a general theme of the more successful corporate libraries.