Value undeniable; price unknown

March 17th, 2008 by John

Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan is the source of the famous definition of a cynic: ‘A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ In an address to OCLC Members’ Council last November, Stephen Abram, Vice President of Innovation at SirsiDynix, ridiculed libraries for rejecting the increased business which can derive from empowering users. He quoted an example of a library in which interlibrary loan staff threw up their hands in horror at the extra workload which accompanied a 700% increase in interlibrary loan following patron-initiated requesting. Was this cynicism, or fear? To refuse to introduce a major service improvement on the grounds that the price is too high could represent either cynicism or timidity. Whichever reason applied in this case, Abram excoriated library leaders who allowed their services to be impaired by these attitudes. But on the other hand, we can always improve services if the price tag is not a problem. Having to live within our means requires a dedication to service improvement on a reasonable and costed basis.

In our current professional climate it can be tempting to take refuge in those services whose prices we know, even when we can see the value in new services which we cannot yet cost. When it comes to the areas of new library collaborative activity where RLG Programs is engaged, libraries can sometimes feel as though they know the value of everything but the price of nothing. That can induce a helplessness which stops them in their tracks. Our ‘value proposition’ seem obvious, and we are convinced of the value of the work we are doing with our Partners in our thematic areas – developing the ‘collective collection’, renovating bibliographic descriptive practices, advancing new service architectures and promoting new modes of learning and scholarship. But what is the price of making some of these changes?

For example, as libraries pursue aggregation, won’t there be responsibilities to the collective collection beyond just providing its content? ‘The librarian’, ‘the curator’ or ‘the archivist’ will be the professional source from which a researcher browsing digital collections will want to find the answer to certain questions which arise as they work with the materials on the web. With more specialist materials – rare books, archives and museum objects, attracting serious researchers and scholars – the likelihood of enquiries increases. Who is going to step up to this challenge? Do we expect that the library which has digitised a special collection is going to provide the reference expertise to go with it once it is being hit by thousands of people via Google? This point was made to us by somewhat anxious library staff in a recent meeting at the University of Aberdeen. And if some of those questions relate not just to the collection which the holding library has provided, but to other digitised collections which are complementary, do they even have the expertise to provide an answer? Arrangements which provide articulated specialist reference support will increasingly be required. The collective collection implies collective curation, interpretation and enquiry support. We need collaborations of human resource to accompany our collaborative collections, and therefore new business models to resource this.

There are many other examples at the present time, where, though they may have no problem in seeing the value, even bold libraries will hesitate before agreeing to pay the price to achieve it, if they don’t know what it is. In other words, a pricelist is required, and producing it will be complex and challenging, requiring political as well as economic skills. In RLG Programs we will be tackling this question more and more in our projects and programs in the future. As a community we know we cannot turn back from this task, but it can seem a huge and frightening one. This is a moment when we require leadership which encourages and supports us to stick with the dynamic of change – more easily faced collaboratively – and continue to reject the stock responses of both cynicism and timidity.

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One Response to “Value undeniable; price unknown”

  1. Andy Havens Says:

    Nice post. It’s an interesting, and scary, topic.

    In the mid 90′s, when I worked in the wireless sector, we had to upgrade our networks from analog to digital. The original networks had cost our company hundreds of millions of dollars (billions, if you took the whole industry into account), and the switch to digital wouldn’t provide any new revenue for at least 5-10 years. At a strategy meeting, there was quite a lot of argument about the upgrade, and the possibility of extending the analog network or refining it.

    Eventually, though, our CEO made this point: our choice isn’t whether or not to change; it’s how and when. If we put off this upgrade we risk being forced to change on somebody else’s terms. And if we do nothing, we’ll undergo the most dramatic change there is: we’ll go away.

    Another interesting note… In most industries, discovering another service that your users really want would be cause for joy, not alarm. And if a resource shift is necessary, it’s a great opportunity to look for where resources are allocated that *aren’t* in as great demand. Or to seek more resources ;-)