16 January 2009

Future agricultural libraries - Everything will have to be different!

Yesterday's post asking for ideas regarding the future of agricultural libraries is generating several very interesting comments ...

Ajit Maru has sent in a much longer reaction, see below:


If I were to answer what I think the "Agriculture Library of the Future" should be, I would look at how I use the "brick and mortar" library and its on-line services in the organization I now work in.

1. What primary role or purpose does your agricultural library/information center have at this time?

The sad fact remains that I hardly use the "brick and mortar" library. It is not because I do not need to refer to documents. In my line of work, I really have to look at a myriad of issues in agricultural research for development which require related information according to themes, disciplines, commodities, regions, Institutions etc. In fact I believe I have a very information intensive function. And why do not I use this "brick and mortar " library?

This is because it is primarily a collection of physical documents with very little value added services that I really want.

I do not need a physical repository of documents in todays world where my Terabyte sized portable hard disk costs about 170 Euros and my 8 GB Pen Drive costs about Euro 16. I can physically store all the documents I need in my personal space. The problem I have is in organizing it but that is not a real problem when I can search using my computer or portable device the sentence or phrase I am looking for. Maybe a "mind" map of this information would be useful and there are rudimentary tools now to do this.

I have very good Internet connectivity where I work so the Internet cloud is the source of most (I would say almost all) information execpt that in journals that need to be subscribed. These are also available online (though at what I believe exorbitant costs for work that my peers have done at largely public expenses and provided free with binding conditions to profit shareholders of large publishing houses). I now try to avoid this type of information and search for their open source equivalent. The only function in this regard for the library in the organization I work in appears to be to financially account for what I access from these online and physical document subscriptions !

I do not need the referencing services of the "brick and mortar" based librarians because I can search any document using my desktop search and online search engines. I go to sites of professional organizations (such as IAALD) for profession/discipline related information or use online services that inform me on new documents. What I really need is summarized information from a set of documents (to save my time) which unfortunately librarians in my organizations do not provide. They cannot add value to my information needs because I have expectations that are very customised and new tools make it easier for me to manage my information needs directly rather than through an Intermediary. The librarians provide me with TOCs of publications, not that they are not useful but that this information is usually old hat because by the time the information is published it is rather dated. And, they (the librarians) have never asked me what I need from them !

One of the major problems I have in attending libraries is the enforced silence and the need to talk in hushed voices even with the circulation and reference staff. Why? In ancient times libraries were not only repositories of documents but places where people met and exchanged ideas. Show me any agricultural Institutes' library where there is a space for people to converse? This is an antitheses to the whole concept that libraries store, share and exchange information and knowledge. Even on the "virtual" avatars, which I now think are not very useful because they mimic the "brick and mortar" libraries, we have no way to know who is accessing what document and whether we can chat with that particular user if we are interested in the same topic.

I had been Incharge of a large library at an Academy of one of the largest NARS in the world and when I viewed the data on the numbers of users of the library (which had an average of 400 scientists and students at any given time) I always had my doubts whether the huge investment in the library was really valid. Not that I do not believe in physical repositories but whether the current organization and arrangement of a "Brick and Mortar" library was the right one. And I am not sure whether its "virtual" avatar is also the right way to go about. In today's world, do you really need to accumulate (I would have used the word "hoard") all electronic information at one place? So, the Library or Center, as I can now access in the organization I work in, with its current structure and organization, has no role or purpose that serves my immediate needs. In my opinion, the purpose it has now is only to be a warehouse of documents and a place where I can take visitors to try and impress them that I work in a "knowledge" organization.

2. What might be DIFFERENT about this role, in perhaps 5 years time?

Everything will have to be different.

First of all it will not be a "hoard" of documents except in warehousing printed copies. Second, sections like "circulation", "reference", "indexing and cataloguing" will be irrelevant. Third, subscription of journals will be outdated. Fourth, journals as such will be outdated and so its current focus and budget will be outdated. A very key issue is that do we really need "Journals" in todays world?. The only thing in my opinion that is keeping this time old tradition of publishing is that current reward systems in agricultural research organization for researchers is the requirement of publishing in "peer-reviewed" journals and books for career advancement. If the reward system is changed, this whole publishing mechanism through journals and books will collapse and with it the organization and function of these libraries.

The Libraries and Centers as they are now may not exist.

My sources of information are now changing. I now rely on open archives, blogs, communities of practices and on-line tools such as delicious and search engines to avail and access my information. I have a much better choice of access to information in languages I do not know using online translators. I share and exchange my information also though electronic documents, blogs and participating in online communities (as I am doing now). I do not need agricultural libraries or centers as they are now and their dissappearence will not really affect me. The difference is that they may not exist as they are a huge cost centre in an organization with very little return on the investment. Administrators and managers are now finding this out and questioning this concept of information management through libraries in organizations.

So should we not think differently. Not about Agricultural Libraries and Information Centers but about fulfilling the information needs of communities involved in agriculture (and in my case its development).

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home