Sunday, February 19, 2012

Thoughts on the concept of evolution and public libraries

I like this image. It speaks to me, and not in an atheist way. Mostly in an organisational way. It highlights things that I've noticed more and more in my professional life. This post is going to start with some (very basic) biology as a framework for understanding my own disillusionment with the way that many organisations react to changes in their environments.

Living with an ecologist, I tend to hear about a lot of the interesting things that are coming up in science-land, and I tend to hear the rants about people who misunderstand the concept of evolution, which is sort of the backbone of a lot of biological and ecological studies.

According to Wikipedia, "Evolution is any change Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations" (emphasis mine). I added the emphasis because there is absolutely no stipulation that these changes are positive or negative, good or bad. Darwin said the survival of the most fit. He didn't mean the organism that was most capable of lifting weights or running long distances, he meant the organism that had adapted to its environment the most successfully was the most likely to survive long enough to reproduce its genetic material to the next generation, who would, presumably, have certain characteristics of this successful progenitor.

People talk about evolution in an organisational context and they tend to refer to evolution as a linear process of picking up the newest technologies or the best platforms and that, in itself will be an evolution. To an extent, they are right. But I think it is more than that.

I think that for an organisation to evolve, that the changes need to fill a niche. That the organisation, much like the successful creature, needs to have an adaptation that will allow it to successfully exploit its environment. The organism that mutates without any benefit will gradually be bred out of the local gene pool, and the organisation that wastes resources on filling a niche that isn't there will gradually either waste away, or realise its mistakes. That's evolution.

I think it's occurring to me, after going to the Public Libraries Futures Forum that perhaps Public Libraries are doing just that. We're still the go-to place for a particular generation of people when it comes to media consumption, but the perceived value of the library is diminishing as people are able to retrieve, consume and store media in their own homes without having to sign up for a library card, without having to talk to some harassed person at a service desk and really without having to leave their chair/bed/beanbag at home. So the question becomes: if public librarians, as information professionals, are not considered valuable as people who can store, retrieve and supply subsidised media, then what are we valuable for? Is there a niche that we can fill as well as we used to fill that one? How can we, as a profession, use our skills and expertise to make ourselves invaluable in our community and ensure the continued success of our organisations? What do we have that no-one else has?

The three speakers at the futures forum answered that question for us in very similar ways. Jason Griffey suggests that libraries have the opportunity to subsidise physical objects (not just books) and Eli Neiburger says something similar. They suggest that 3D printers, telescopes and other physical technologies that individuals do not need every day, but that they do have a need for sometimes, may fit the bill for future library exploits. But that's a continued use for the space. What about a continued use for us as people? Well, Both these guys, as well as the third speaker from Guinness Storehouse suggested that we have local content. We are in a unique position in our local communities to preserve things that no-one else gives a damn about right now, but that becomes invaluable to fleshing out the history and the personality of our place over time.

But honestly? History bores the crap out of me. I would prefer to take on the third suggestion by Eli that we use our resources to provide experiences, services and content to the lives of the people we are here to serve.

What do you think we should do? How can we evolve so that we fill the niche and can best exploit and utilise the available resources?

The presentations I mention were not recorded, however similar presentations were done by each of these speakers at VALA2012 where they were recorded (hooray!).

Jason Griffey: Libraries and the post-PC era
Eli Neiburger:Access, schmaccess: libraries in the Age of Information Ubiquity
Ebilhin Roche:Guinness Archive: unlocking the potential of an iconic global brand

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