Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Libraries and Journalism: Same, Same but Different?

One of the topics that has been floating around of recent times that has caught my attention is the decline of print Journalism in the face of the onslaught of news on the web.  It strikes me that the newspaper industry's uncertain future echoes that of libraries. They know that the impact of the web is fundamentally altering their future and they are not sure how their business model will need to change to accommodate the cultural shift. Sound familiar? (beware... long post ahead!)

First, we had Rupert Murdoch announcing that he believes that consumers will need to pay for online news. Then as he developed these ideas he pledged to block Google News from indexing content on his News web sites.  More recently, there has been a negative response to the ABC's announcement of a 24 hour News channel, now that digital TV is gaining traction in Australia, from commercial media outlets.  Their argument stems from a belief that public funding (and subsequently the lack of profit motive) gives the ABC an unfair advantage.  By taking market share from commercial media their advertising revenue is reduced and consequently it is more difficult to stay in business.   ABC argues, of course, that more competition in the marketplace is good for consumers.

Now, I don't think that anybody is going to pay for the kind of news that is available all over the web for free.  Indeed, the word-of-mouth effect of social media - twitter and the blogosphere for instance - is making the 'race to announce' a global phenomenon.  Coupled with the sloppy journalism and rehashed media releases we see in much of the current environment's so-called news media, so often exposed through channels such as Media Watch, I think that pay-per-view news announcements are certainly not a viable business model into the future.
(Media watch succinctly sums up the debate in End of the Free Ride and Building the Paywall)

That sort of news is simply information and information will be increasingly available. No... To generate enough revenue to survive news media will need a different focus. Be it analysis or opinion or something else they will need to add value to information.

What was that?  'Add value to information', isn't that what libraries do?

Forget Google. Maybe news media are the biggest threat to the ongoing future of libraries. Are we trying to occupy a similar space in the information management landscape?

I don't think either industry will survive on the fast fact - quick answers with raw information.  Google has that covered (at least until something better comes along). All the evidence points to people finding the information they get from Google Searches 'good enough'. Google's ease of use trumps any desire to seek out best quality.  So the future for libraries, and reference services in particular, is in adding value to information. Especially in situations that warrant more than a simple answer.  But maybe that's the future for news media as well?

Do we have any competitive advantages over news media?  I actually think libraries are well positioned to take advantage of possibilities of adding value to information due to several factors:

Libraries are trusted institutions. Libraries are generally funded by parent institutions and that funding is not reliant on libraries making a profit.  As a result we strive to be unbiased in delivery of our services.  This can't be said of commercial news media.

Our collections have been developed over a period of many years. We have historical material to draw on.  And it has been maintained so that we can access the full depth of our collections. We have a long tail.

Libraries have a long history of sharing resources.  Because we aren't generally required to turn a profit we are more willing to collaborate and share.  Commerical media are more than willing to accept contributions but it's a one way street. They can't afford to give away what they create.

But it's not all beer and skittles.  For all the self congratulatory rhetoric from within the library industry about librarians being the information specialists, I think we have a long way to go to add the kind of value that I'm talking about.

Librarians need to get much better at Information Design. From what I've observed, librarians are very good at collating information but the presentation of that information still leaves a lot to be desired.  We could learn a lot from the field of Experience Design - bringing together disparate information and designing it to be easy to consume, yet really useful.

Let me give you an example. Most NSW public libraries collect and arrange by subject lists of useful web sites in some form or another - something like this list of resources on Climate Change.  Some great resources in there but often buried deep in the information architecture of the library web site and not a great deal of value added.
Compare that with this special feature on Hurricane Katrina from the BBC (I used the Wayback Machine to get this screen shot from a week or so after the hurricane).  It has news articles but it also inlcudes audio and video material, history and analysis and space for readers to participate. And it is prominently promoted on the site, at least while the story is still current.
Notice however, that the bulk of the content is generated from the BBC's normal news production process. I believe libraries have a wider pool of content to draw from.  Here are some thoughts about where we can really add value to information.

Focus on the uniquely local
Almost all NSW public libraries maintain a local history or local studies collection. Uniquely and intensely local material that is often not available anywhere else.  In my experience, local information is highly sought after. However, the physical objects are locked up in a collection and only accessible while the library is open and sometimes only by appointment.  Let's digitise and promote this content, mix it with the rest of our collections and set it free. I think local content is a real drawcard for local public libraries.

Get more from your Collection
Let's start making more of our collections.  Let's surface interesting content, different resource types and bring them together in interesting ways.  Let's create a useful experience for our users (we might have to abandon Dewey for this!)

Provide Participation Spaces
As librarians we can add value to information but we should also recognise the amateur experts in our community and provide opportunities for them to add value to our collections.  Let's provide digital spaces where they can bring together their knowledge, our collections and resources and data from the wider web.  The rise of citizen journalism, blogging and so on shows the will to participate is there in the community.

There are regular calls for libraries and librarians to become better at promotion and it's true, we do need to get better at that. But there is more to creating a great user experience and adding value to people's lives than better promotion.  This quote sums it up:
While there are many quick, one-time things you can do to make your content findable, we’ll address those later. First, we have to make sure that there’s a reason to promote your library and its website. If you’re not offering relevant services or interesting content on your site, there’s really nothing to promote.
The most important and effective thing you can do to make your content findable and to draw people back is the most difficult: Make a good website. Creating a website is ridiculously easy, and it takes about 5 minutes to start a blog. Filling such sites with interesting content, however, takes skill, effort, and inspiration. Anyone can hit the “publish” button, but to learn about the interests of your community and to systematically present relevant content takes time. This is what you must do.
How to Drive Traffic to Your Website: Aaron Schmidt and Sarah Houghton-Jan
 Libraries need to deliver a better product than our current offerings as we move forward (especially in our web presence).  If they don't there will be others who will occupy that space. The phrase, 'painting lipstick on a pig' might be overstating it but you know what I mean.


KathrynJ said...

Great post, thanks for clarifying some of the issues I've been thinking about recently. Last week on ABC Radio 702 Sydney there was a panel discussion on the moves towards fee-based models for online content, and the implications for journalists and print news. I kept thinking, this presents opportunities for libraries, BUT as you say, public libraries must improve the ease of access and presentation of our information resources. I'm involved in database management and training and lately I have really been thinking - there is an elephant in the room - this is all way too hard to access for the average punter. Sure we do have many users who can negotiate the complexities of library websites, select the correct database, and then work through the database interfaces. But really, does the office worker checking for a fact or reading up on a news story at lunch time at their desk think to look at the library website.....and even if they did, how does the exerience compare to using the SMH online or ABC Online etc?

Martin said...

You're absolutely right Kathryn. The way libraries are presenting databases currently really frustrates me. There's a really high barrier of entry for the average person. Who wants to have to attend training to search a web site???

That's why I'm very excited about projects and software such as SOPAC and Bibliocommons and even the NLA's new TROVE service - they take the great content and make sense of it on the web.

It's not all the library's fault, of course. We rely on the product vendors a great deal - too much I think. Maybe we need to take back some control. I'm not sure how that would happen - whether it's through employing developers in libraries or through a state or national consortium where the costs and the benefits can be shared among all libraries? It's going to cost $$$ too, something that is fairly scarce in most local governments.