PVLD is in the process of developing a new strategic plan which is forcing us to both take a hard look at what we currently do and how we do it, and to think about what we want the library to be in the future. As we've looked at what we currently do and how it fits with our future aspirations, one of the questions floating around in my mind is how important/relevent our content (i.e. our library collection - whether physical or electronic) will be.
We currently focus a lot of time, attention, and energy on maintaining that content - choosing what to buy, processing the orders and paying the bills, deciding how to organize the collection both in the libraries and online, cataloging the various items, weeding things from the collection, and handling the books, movies, cds, etc. as we check them in and out, shelve them, and move them between branches. In many respects this management of content dominates what we do.
If the recent growth in our circulation statistics is any indicator access to our content is still very important to the people we serve, particularly in these difficult economic times, and yet I've had this little niggling thought bouncing around in my head for a while - In a world of myriad cheap (or even free), easy, and convenient ways to access content electronically, what if our future isn't about content management and delivery? What then?
In one of those curious bits of synchronicity that seems to happen as I surf the web and read various blogs it turns out I'm not the only one with this thought on my mind. Over the weekend I came across this post from Aaron Schmidt's Walking Paper blog. It's a great articulation of the competition faced by libraries in a world of "content anywhere/anytime." Aaron uses the example of Netflix and how it is partnering with the New York Times and others to allow people to download Netflix content via widgets at online locations (like movie reviews) where it is most relevent. Not only do most libraries lack the technology to do something like this, we are also constrained by digital rights management laws and technologies that prevent us from making the best online content available to our customers.
Today I read on the O'reilly radar blog (thanks to a tip-off from Stephen Abram) that the fastest growing category of applications for the IPhone is downloadable e-books - most of which cost 99 cents or less, and one in twenty of which are free. Couple that with the ability to get everything from bestsellers to classics anytime, anywhere and without the hurdle of shared collections and limited checkout periods and you can see that the downloadable books offered by libraries are a poor alternative.
So if our future is not about delivering content, what is it about? I'm not sure anyone knows for sure. I think Ross Dawson's phrase "the shift from expert curators to facilitators of participation" is as good a description of what the future might hold as any I've seen. And Aaron Schmidt was pursuing the same idea when he wrote about creating "excellent programs and experiences based around content and conversation" and "providing shared experiences by gathering people together at hosted events."
What I like most about this concept is that the role of the library is really enhanced, not diminished. If we can take all of the time and energy we spend managing content and redirect it to finding ways to enrich peoples lives by helping them make richer connections with both the content and one another, the future is bright.
That said, I still think providing access to content will be a role for libraries in the future. The question will be how we do that. We don't want to become the poor cousin to commercial content delivery services like Netflix, Amazon, and Itunes - there primarily for people who can't afford or otherwise can't access the commercial services, but with inferior content and delivery mechanisms.
One thought is that we need to step outside our traditional models and partner with the Netflixes of the world to make content available anytime, anywhere. For example, what if when people search our catalog and an item is either checked out or not in our collection they could just click on a button to buy it on Amazon or download it from Netflix (with a commission for us of course)? PVLD's upcoming trial of a Redbox DVD dispenser is another example of how we can work with commercial services to deliver content - in this case physical DVDs. The Redbox machine will not only allow us to offer a wider selection of titles and more copies of the popular ones, it will also allow customers to obtain them outside of library hours, request specific titles online, keep them as long as they want, and return them to any Redbox location...with no investment of library staff time once the machine has been installed.
Of course, these are just my thoughts. I'd love to know yours...