v28 #1 Op Ed — IMHBCO (In My Humble But Correct Opinion)

Give the People What They Want — or What They Need?

Column Editor: Rick Anderson  (Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources & Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah;  Phone: 801-721-1687)

Here’s a thought experiment: imagine a ten-year old boy.  Imagine that he’s thirsty.  If he’s thirsty, he’s not only going to need something to drink, but he’s also going to want it.  When it comes to thirst, the connection between need and want is very close:  if we offer a thirsty boy what he actually needs, he will experience us solving a problem for him by giving him something he also wants.

Now suppose that this same ten-year-old boy has a vitamin deficiency that can only be remedied by eating more broccoli.  In this case, it’s relatively unlikely that he’s going to feel a craving for broccoli, even though he needs it.  In fact, he may not feel any discomfort at all, at least in the short run.  In this case, the connection between need and want is much more tenuous, and if we try to get the boy to eat broccoli it’s very possible that he will not perceive us as solving a problem for him — in fact, he may feel that we’re creating a problem for him.  Now, he may be wrong about that in fact, but his perception, whether right or wrong, will shape his behavior towards us when we encourage him to eat broccoli.

Why am I talking about water and broccoli in an Against the Grain column?  It’s because I’ve been involved lately in a number of conversations about the future of academic libraries, and those conversations tend to center on trying to figure out what our patrons, both students and faculty, are going to need in the future.  But here’s the question that increasingly worries me: what if, for our patrons and in the context of their scholarly work, the connection between need and want is tenuous?  In other words, what if they don’t want what we are confident they need?

(Let’s leave aside for now the question of how good we are at knowing what they need.  That’s an important question, but for the purposes of this particular column I’m going to take it as given that our assessment of what our patrons really need, as distinct from what they want, is always reasonably accurate.)

When we talk about the future roles of academic libraries, some of the ones we commonly identify include these:

  • Helping patrons make sense of a confusing abundance of information.
  • Helping patrons find their way through a maze of information options.
  • Certifying and selecting high-quality content on our patrons’ behalf.
  • Archiving and curating research data.
  • Making our faculty’s scholarship freely available to the world.
  • Personalizing the information experience.
  • Connecting scholars to each other.

There are several questions we need to ask ourselves about these roles.  One is: are they important roles — does someone need to be performing them for the good of our patrons, of scholarship and of society generally?  Another question is: should that someone be the library?  These are important questions, and I think we’re pretty good at asking them.

Here’s another question, though, and it’s also important: do our stakeholders care whether those roles are performed, and if they do care, do they want the library to perform them?  These are also important questions, but I don’t think we’re very good at asking them.  Sometimes this is because we assume that the answer to them is obviously yes (so what’s the point of asking?), and I think sometimes it’s because we think the answer should be yes, and if it isn’t yes, then it’s our job to educate our patrons — or, in other words, to change their minds.

Those who read a column I wrote for Academic Newswire (http://bit.ly/1nKFBPP) back in January of last year may be getting a sense of déjà vu here;  I’m back on the topic of is versus should, or “science” versus “religion.”  By the provisional definitions of those terms that I used in that column, figuring out what our patrons actually want is a matter of “science” — of using empirical evidence to establish the objective truth of a proposition like “Our patrons want X.”  Figuring out what our patrons should want is a matter of “religion” — applying values to a question in order to determine how things ought to be (“Should our patrons want X or Y?”).

In that earlier column I emphasized that both kinds of thinking are essential, but that it’s important always to bear in mind the differences between them and to know when we’re involved in which kind of thinking.

So what happens if our patrons don’t think they’re confused and don’t want us to “make sense” of the information world for them, or to tell them whether or not a source is trustworthy, or to personalize their information experience?  What if they’re not interested in making their scholarship freely available to the world, or in securely archiving their research data — or at least not sufficiently interested to adopt the new workflows and practices that doing those things would require?

Clearly, in such cases we have only two choices:  either change what we’re offering them so that it corresponds to what they want (this would be the service model of librarianship) or try to change them so that they will want what we know they need (the education model).  The first option kind of grates on us as professionals;  the second is fraught with frustration (since changing people is notoriously difficult) and political peril (since the people we’re trying to change are also people whose support is essential for our professional survival).

At this point, most readers are probably saying “Come on, Rick, you’re advancing a false dichotomy here.  We don’t have to choose between service and education; as librarians we do both, and we always have.” Fair enough.  But what concerns me is that I think I see a growing distance between what we, as librarians, think our patrons ought to do and what they demonstrably want to do.  We want them to start their research with the library’s website or discovery layer; they want to start on the open Web.  We want them to make their scholarly work available on an open access basis; they mostly don’t care much about OA.  We want them to check out books;  they do so in decreasing numbers.  We want them to archive their research data;  they don’t do it.

If I’m right — if the distance between what we think our patrons should do and what they actually want to do is getting wider — then there’s a real tension between our service and education roles, and that tension is increasing.  And if that’s the case, then we face some pretty difficult questions in the near- to mid-term future, and whatever answers we come up with will be fraught with risk.  Move too far in the direction of “just give the people what they want” and we end up abdicating our role as professionals and (in many cases) as faculty members.  Move too far in the direction of “educate the people so they learn to want what they should” and we run the serious risk of alienating our stakeholders.  The appropriate and effective resolution to this tension is going to vary from library to library and institution to institution, and will depend on (among other things) the amount of political capital the library has in reserve, the actual amount of distance existing between patrons’ desires and library practices, and the nature of the changes the library wants to see in patron behavior.

What does not vary from library to library, I believe, is the radical importance of paying attention to these questions and addressing them in a careful, mindful, and strategic manner.  Our future probably depends on how well we do so.

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