November was a BIG travel month for me. I was privileged to deliver the keynote at the Libraries Australia 2009 Forum in Hobart, Tasmania /> then the keynote at the Museum, Library and Archive Forum sponsored by Keio University in Tokyo, Japan. In between I attended an OCLC Board/Management retreat in Dublin, Ohio. All were pleasant and informative experiences (except for that 30 hour trip from Hobart to Columbus, Ohio). There were some superficial things in common – in both Japan and Australia OCLC was regarded as an important partner and OCLC Research work was well-known and discussed. In all three venues we ended up discussing grand challenges that face the library world including Google Book Search (#1 by a large margin even though neither Australia nor Japan will be impacted by whatever settlement emerges), e-readers, new scholarly outputs, the move from print to electronic books, cloud computing and print-on-demand.
Having been at home for a few days with opportunity to reflect I’m struck by how different the Australian library environment is from that in the USA and how many similarities the Japanese environment has to the USA.
The National Library of Australia (NLA) provides both leadership and an important service infrastructure for all of Australia. It seems to be largely welcomed by the library community there with the possible exception of some of the university libraries who wish for some things a bit more tailored to their operating challenges. Even so they are cooperative participants in the infrastructure that the NLA offers. In its turn the NLA provides a high level of innovation on behalf of all libraries, a set of services that is focused on the common clientele served by all the libraries (Australian citizens) and it has been very effective at securing national level funding to perpetuate both the innovation and service array. The best current example of this leadership is their Trove service which was formally launched during the 2009 Forum even though it has been out and available for many months (Roy blogged about it here back in May 2009). With this service the entire nation has appropriately placed the discovery of their library assets at a network-level (or at least a significant regional level) to great impact. The need to do this seems to be widely-understood and is reinforced by the NLA leadership in many different ways.
The Japanese library environment seems to me much more like that in the US with perhaps a few uniquely Japanese obstacles layered on. The national agencies whether the National Diet Library (NDL) or the National Institute of Informatics (NII) do not deliver a national-level shared infrastructure and they do not offer a future vision of libraries that others can discuss and organize around. Consequently the innovation must come from ad hoc groupings of individual institutions as in the US and those efforts share the same problems that emerge in the US circumstances – sustainability challenges, competing visions, lack of scale, and a dependence on passionate individuals whose activities are temporarily supported by their home institutions. What is more, there are additional challenges to providing this type of leadership that are rooted in Japanese culture (being first among equals is a fraught aspiration and difficult to achieve) and business processes (the Japanese system of middlemen distributors makes it very difficult for institutions to organize change around shared operating processes or purchasing patterns e.g. to my knowledge there is NO consortial purchasing of electronic journal subscriptions).
That said, I see a variety of signs that things are changing and progress is evident even over the short number of years that I’ve been able to visit. The NDL has a thoughtful and technologically-skilled leader in Dr. Makoto Nagao. (There’s a short English language bio here. I note that he is co-chairing the 2010 C5 Conference with Alan Kay!) The NDL has secured funding and permission to digitize materials arriving at the library via their copyright deposit regime. They are reaching out to peer institutions around the world and very interested in substantive participation. Our RLG Partnership colleagues at Keio University have taken the lead to create a dialog among peer academic institutions and national agencies around the need for collaboration and joint activity. They have reached out directly to publishers and brought them into these conversations. I would not be surprised if over the next few years all of these activities result in the emergence of a national level service infrastructure.