The network and the library

Lorcan 3 min read

Libraries have always been nodes in networks. They have managed flows of materials into those nodes from a range of suppliers, and between nodes in resource sharing initiatives. These flows are supported by multiply configured networks – of supply and use.
In the print world, library services were concentrated in those nodes. The library was vertically organized around the management of its collections. Distribution networks grew up to support this model, supported by various agents, jobbers and others.
Over time, more was given from the local node to the ‘network cloud’ of consortia, shared services, commercial third party services, and so on. Digital networks reduced the friction in organizational networks and provided more opportunities for interaction with suppliers and users.
This emerged gradually. Think of shared cataloging. Of remote access to abstracting and indexing services. But the pace is accelerating. Think of developments in consortial resource sharing. Of licensed full-text content. Of virtual reference. Of third party archiving services. Of the emergence of hosted services (see Refworks for example). A growing part of library services are secured within horizontal networks where the library participates with suppliers or other libraries. There is a similar trend in the way that the library interacts with its users. More of that is moving into the network also.
This phenomenon is not unusual. And anybody who has read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat or the more academic The Rise of the Network Society by Manuel Castells will be familiar with its various manifestations.
Castells talks about how a growing proportion of our personal, social and business activity is moving into the ‘space of flows’ supported by digital networks. Flows of information transform relationships, and allow a general reshaping of organisations, work and behaviour according to a networking logic, a logic based on addition at the edges, decentralisation, and horizontal integration around processes. He talks of the emergence of the ‘network enterpise’ where firms organize in networks with multiple sourcing dependencies. Think of how a company like Cisco for example draws on services from many other companies to develop and deliver its own.
Friedman tells a similar story albeit in different terms. The pervasiveness of the digital environment, the emergence of workflow technologies around web services, and the growth of capacity in India, China and Russia has led to a ‘flattening’ of business activity. Supply chains and logistics networks are becoming more streamlined, and communication and standardization supports outsourcing of business processes. These developments allow organizations to meet their goals by assembling processes from horizontal networks of suppliers, rather than by vertically assembling processes within their own organizations. Friedman gives the example of how Toshiba will tell you to drop off your computer with UPS to be repaired. However, it is UPS which repairs the computer. He goes so far as to say that there are some companies that never touch their own products anymore. Horizontal deep collaborations are becoming common, as organizations look for efficiencies in their operations.
So libraries, like the rest of the world, are getting flatter. They are giving more to the network cloud. They are entering the space of flows.
The incentives for libraries are the same as for other organizations. By reducing the friction in interactions, the network creates potential efficiencies and improved service. An example is the ability to do deeper resource sharing more efficiently because you can tie together the various steps – discovery, location, fulfilment – quickly and conveniently, joining up previously separate processes. So, once an ILL request would have to be written out and passed vertically up the organization to be sent to another organization where it would travel down to the appropriate place for processing. Now, in some resource sharing environments, the user can discover what they want, initiate a request and horizontal communication between systems steps in to do fulfilment and manage the transaction. Similarly, in some virtual reference environments, processes in different libraries communicate horizontally with others to satisfy requests.
Because of what they do, libraries have been early adopters of such networks of mutual dependence. They have recognized the value of shared resources which build capacity and remove redundant operations. As libraries work to create and demonstrate value in the age of Amazoogle, it is likely that this trend will continue as they seek further efficiencies so that they can develop new services.
Again, think of digital preservation, virtual reference, shared acquisitions and collection building, cooperative digitization, metadata aggregation, … These lend themselves to new network arrangements, to the development of shared services. What will be most interesting is to see how the balance between the library and the network continues to develop in the next few years.

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