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The Shiny New Thing

As libraries make the transition from print to digital, needs arise that are not easily accommodated in the traditional organizational structure. Librarians are generally inclusive, and they have been generous in their acceptance of the organizations that spring up to fill gaps. In the post-World War II era, numerous resource-sharing and interlibrary loan programs were created to make it easier for researchers to gain access to the library materials they needed. National microfilming programs were launched to provide broad access to scarce materials.

In the early 1970’s a consortium of college libraries in Ohio hired Fred Kilgour to help them find effective ways to share bibliographic records to reduce their individual cataloging burdens. Kilgour was brilliant in recognizing that the needs of the several libraries in Ohio were, in fact, a national need and he proceeded to create to largest and most effective platform for library collaboration ever known. The results changed the staff composition and roles of individual libraries.

While library administrators appreciated the benefits of the OCLC collaborative, it also set in motion a string of “me-too” actions.  Libraries in different geographical regions tried to develop their own OCLC-like systems, one more attuned to their regional interest. All of them eventually formed an alliance with OCLC, becoming nodes of the larger system. The Research Libraries Group, another national bibliographic utility that used the network as the basis for a broader resource sharing and policy-making organization, lasted much longer than the regional networks, but ultimately became part of OCLC as well. The history of bibliographic utilities and their relationship to individual libraries has yet to be written, but their influence has been enormous, affecting staffing and budgeting in major ways.

Witnessing the success of collaboration in the bibliographic arena, libraries have tried to form coalitions to address new challenges with the hope of reducing local institutional costs. Over the years, many organizations and initiatives have been launched to help libraries cope with the demands of digital library development, preservation of scholarly resources, collective purchasing of library materials, and leadership training and development. In some cases, the new organizations have been created so that individual libraries can outsource local functions to them. In other cases, the new organizations have taken on an advocacy and policy role, pushing agendas that individual institutions would not be able to advance on their own. In both cases, the first impulse of many libraries is to join these initiatives.

Measuring the effectiveness of these new organizations gets very little attention, unfortunately. The inclination to be part of new, innovative groups often trumps serious analysis of what the new organization actually does for the existing library and at what cost—but isn’t it time that we create key performance indicators for the tasks we assign to other organizations?

Library decision makers should be clear about the difference between those new organizations that do something that the library cannot do on its own and those that advocate for new approaches and policies. The former becomes more of an outsourcing agent for the library, and how it is governed is not so important, assuming that good business practices and fair charges are established. The latter is harder to justify on a purely economic basis, but it may be that the new initiative helps the local library advance an agenda. When considering sponsorship of an advocacy or policy organization, it is critically important to understand its governance structure and its ability to support the local library’s perspective on how the particular policies should develop.

If the library joins a new initiative as a way to outsource current internal tasks, measuring success is relatively straightforward. Does the new organization do the task better at a comparable or lower cost? Does the new organization do an effective job of communicating its plans and business models? Does the governance structure allow the local library to offer input? Are problems resolved quickly and fairly?

The advocacy/policy initiatives are harder to assess. The mantra that the initiative is “by the community, of the community, for the community” identifies the organization as a public good, but from the individual library’s perspective, it is important to ask why and how it will benefit from participating in the new initiative. Does the “shiny new thing” fill a gap in the library’s strategic direction? Is the governance structure clearly defined and is it fully acceptable? How will the library evaluate the effectiveness and efficacy of this new initiative?

Since all initiatives seem to be supported by a robust communications plan, the “new ideas” receive a lot of media (print and social) attention. The pattern is a number of speaking engagements for the leaders of the new initiative, followed by a growth in membership of the new organization. All is well for two or three years, and then the low grumbles begin to be heard. What is this organization really accomplishing? Does it need so many staff? Are we getting our money’s worth from this group? Generally speaking, the grumbling doesn’t become more than that, for organizations, once started, are very hard to kill. But the shine begins to fade, and the new organizations have to worry about mergers and consolidations to be sustainable.

New and innovative organizations allow the traditional library to thrive in a fast-changing environment, but it is difficult for the local library, once vested in an organization or project, to leave without offending colleagues. That is why it seems so important to think carefully about the reasons for joining at the outset. The local library can avoid some of these problems by articulating the metrics it will use to assess effectiveness in advance so that the decision to withdraw is evidence-based rather than political.

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