Reading the Digital Consumers: Re-shaping the Information Profession by David Nicholas and Ian Rowlands

Digital Consumers

The title seems to convey the hope that by understanding digital consumers, we can re-invigorate the library profession and perhaps avoid certain demise. Or at least that was my intention when I picked up this book.

David Nicholas and Ian Rowlands made five concluding remarks in the last chapter “Where do we go from here?” and I have some thoughts about them:

1. Live with the prospect of constant change

As consumers are the drivers of change, this entails getting very close to the digital consumer (especially the younger ones) and remaining close – connecting in other words. This is a continuous, ongoing, and mainstream process, and should not be undertaken just when there is time or a problem.

A great start can be made by monitoring digital transactions (the logs) and following up with the questions raised in a questionnaire and interview. Establish user monitoring units, experiment, and introduce change; do not let your services become stuck in digital concrete. As far as we are aware, no one has yet done this.”

At first read, I totally agree with it. On second thought, I was bowled over by the immense resources required to “connect” constantly. Perhaps there is a reason why “no one has yet done this”. Because it is probably not sustainable.

I’m also not so sure whether the rapid change, on the part of library services, is going to endear us to our users. From my experience, even younger users have information habits and hate it when they have to change the way they access information.

2. Establish a link with information provision and access with outcomes

Demonstrate that professional information investment delivers benefits or outcomes (, scholarly). Access is not an outcome in itself. 

Yes, librarians need to find a way to articulate the value of their work to their users. This is a matter of expression. The value has always been implicitly understood. Librarians now need to express it effectively.

3. Keep it simple

A counsel of despair, quite probably, but one of the conclusions of the Google Generation project was that virtual library spaces are very complex and need simplifying.

Interfaces need to be involving and the problem these days is that digital consumers increasingly benchmark their online experiences against more immersive environments like Amazon or Facebook. One of the leitmotivs of our whole experience of the virtual scholar is that convenience and user satisfaction will triumph, even over content, any day of the week.

Why can’t library catalogues be like Amazon with sample pages, trust metrics, user feedback, and colour? Why do they not speak to the user? Look around at your environment, it is much bigger and more different than you think (just ask the user). Have you ever considered what other close occupants of the virtual space call themselves – Facebook, Bebo, BBCi, Google, and Yahoo? Why not blend in, join the community – why stand out like a sore thumb? Too many sites produced by information professionals and publishers are monastic.  

Do not be seduced by digital fashions, they will all disappear. Deal in what you know works now. Do not become sidetracked by institutional repositories, portals, internet cafes, open access, and social networks as you will not find salvation there, salvation instead lies with better understanding the digital consumer, and training to old strengths like collection management. In this regard wake up to the fact the e-books will be the next really big challenge. The seismic shift that will unquestionably happen will fundamentally change the information space (in fact, decrease the physical space) and will grow and change the population of digital consumers significantly.

I can’t say for the publishers, but as a librarian, I feel a bit wronged here. Librarians aren’t software engineers. We buy our information management systems from library vendors. We don’t built them from scratch.

Why not?

Because we don’t have the financial backing and we can’t guarantee our financial supporters any monetary returns. Libraries are not private businesses. They are a public good.

Recently, my library evaluated new library management systems and webscale discovery systems. I must say that none of the contenders could meet ALL our demands and needs. It isn’t that libraries do not want to simplify. To make matters worse, once we commit to a system, it is a marriage for about three to five years. If the vendors do not upgrade their system, we are stuck with it for years. Amazon, Google and Facebook own their systems. They can do whatever they want with it to suit their specific needs. Libraries can’t. Does this frustrate librarians? You bet it does. But we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Oh, if it is possible to tell with utmost certainty what are digital fashion and digital classics, I’m sure librarians will stick to the classics.

4. Get social

Forget all notions of broadcast one-to-many publishing/information access and build conversations with the audience. 

The funny thing about conversation is that they are two-way communication. The last I heard from my users, a conversation with a librarian, is the last thing on their mind. It is quite sad to hear it but it is true. But that doesn’t mean the librarians will give up. We will always continue to try and engage our patrons and do so through conversations.

5. Hold on to the physical space

A solution that is trotted out by many beleaguered information professionals is the library as a physical gathering/studying/reflective space. This, of course, is roots stuff. We think the jury is out on this one. In one sense the idea is not new enough, big enough; nor does it chime with the evidence.

Physical space is precious to libraries right now. Whatever the reasons, I hope all libraries fight tooth and nail for their space. Years later, when people realized that they do need the physical libraries, it might be too late and too expensive to start re-opening closed ones.

Ian Rowlands and David Nicholas closed the book with this statement:

I agree that our users have choice and we must stop thinking that we know best. Any talk about being experts or specialists just turn people off. Yet, librarians do have a certain asymmetry of knowledge over the average information seeker when it comes to understanding sources of information. Let me use an analogy from the tourism industry.

Tourists can visit Chinatown, a historical precinct, on their own and appreciate what they see and even read stories about the various buildings, temples and streets in tandem with their guidebooks. But imagine being accompanied by a trained and experienced tour guide, linking each place visited with some historical timeline or story, and furnishing details about people, historical events and even food-related to the precinct. I’m sure they have gotten more out of their time spent with the tour guide. This is, of course, dependent on the skills of the guide.

The important thing is for librarians to become like a skilled tour guide. Perhaps becoming the last resort for the information seeker because not all information seekers are successful in their quests. Convenience is of no use if they can’t find what they need. When they become desperate because they can’t find what they need on their own, I hope they will turn to the librarians.

I also hope that librarians are constantly learning about the information environment and source of information. I think this is how they maintain relevancy in an information deluge.

The last thought I have about the future of librarianship: the digital consumers may be tough to tackle for libraries and librarians but some fights are worth fighting. There will probably be casualties but I am sure some will survive to see the next age, whatever that is.

Librarians as the last resort. I like that. I do not mind being the last resort.

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