Libraries in a Flat World (Pt. 1)
August 1st, 2005 by infomancy
First, let me point out that this post is copyrighted and I hereby DENY the right to read this post to anyone who would use the contents discussed herein in any way that would negatively impact libraries or the quality of library service provided to patrons (Erie County, this means you!).
I am just finishing up Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. In this book, Friedman takes a very frank and open look at the practice of outsourcing (among others). He presents evidence and references that basically conclude that anything that can be outsourced will be outsourced. He presents examples of this trend, including from the service industry: pull up at some fast food restaurants and your drive-through order may be handled by a call center in Colorado. While most outsourcing replaces low-level repetitive tasks like this, other highly-skilled professional tasks are being replaced or supplemented by outsourcing. In some small communities, the radiologogist reading X-rays at the local hospital is actually in India. What allows this, Friedman explains, are a series of “flatteners” that include social, political, and (most importantly) technological changes. Outsourcing happens because, now, outsourcing can happen.
This got me thinking…What does this mean for libraries? Can you outsource libraries? And I don’t mean the outsourcing that has been going on for a while mainly focused around technical services. What I got thinking about was a bit more scary.
Could you outsource a librarian? (And what defense could we mount against it?)
A librarian provides reference services. And so could an outsourced librarian in India. Using the same electronic resources that a local librarian would. Ah, you say, but we have local book resources…that are quickly becoming digitized and available in India. But the reference interview…could be done over a phone or, even better, a videophone, using Voice Over IP (VOIP). And, when you are connecting to a call center filled with reference librarians there is probably less of a wait.
A librarian helps patrons find resources. Again, the librarian in India is accessing the same OPAC that your local librarian or patron are using. With a Virtual Private Network (VPN), the librarian in India could have secure remote access to all the ILL features the local librarian has as well. I could actually envision kiosks spread about the library that included an OPAC computer for “self-serve” catalog searching as well as a VOIP phone a patron could pick up for instant connection to India. The computer monitor in the kiosk could then be used for video conferencing or screen sharing so the patron can see (and learn from?) the search techniques being used. Feeling mobile? Call in from your cell phone or use your own wireless laptop/handheld with VOIP capabilities.
A librarian shows patrons where books are located. Ah ha, you say. How can a librarian in India show a patron in Western NY where a book is located? Well, as we move forward with RFID tags in our books, our shelves are becoming digitally aware of what is on them…and where. When our stacks become networked, that network is accessible in India. When a patron needs to know where a book is located the librarian in India can pull up a “map” of the stacks and print out directions to the exact location of the book – even if it is out of place! Need more help? What about embedding LEDs into the shelves of the stacks. LEDs that are network controlled. LEDs that can be selectively set to blinking in a certain color or pattern as the patron approaches with his or her RFID-enabled library smart card.
If we are already outsourcing cataloging (vendor discs), collection development (TitleWave, et. al.), and other aspects of the job, could we just go all out and replace the whole librarian? If asked to defend what a librarian does to those writing the budget, what could we say?
So what do librarians do that can’t be outsourced? We know the answer, but do the people creating the budgets?