Saturday, November 24, 2007

Information International: Advocacy in a Globalized Environment

Easily noticeable on the top right of this blog, I have added a Kwintessential translation tool (admittedly, this is just a web tool and is not by any means a truly proficient way to translate this site but can help in reaching non-English web surfers). In the sidebar I have also included a link category of international library associations and other international library links. The point of all this is not just to add more ‘stuff’ to this blog for adding’s sake but rather, it is the recognition of the globalized world we now live in. Information of course plays a key role in this globalization process and so likewise, do and should libraries. Information is the business of libraries and information is now a highly valued commodity in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy.

Surely all this is well known already. Nevertheless, the foregoing presents the context in which libraries have to operate and this is a context where advocacy has become all the more important. This is because in a global market there is a greater competition for resources and the attentions of audiences and clients: and this is so, whether you are in a competitive business or not. Globalization is helping to create, what in economic theory is referred to as a perfect market. Not perfect in the sense that 'all is well' but that there is more known about all the participants in the market, more known about producers and consumers, with each in either sector also knowing more about each other. Undoubtedly, there is still a digital divide but most of the world now benefits from knowing more now about people, places and events in other parts of the world. This is a sort of equalizing or flattening process, as with the term used and thesis posited by Tom Friedman in his book The World is Flat.

Such increased knowledge results in individuals and entities having to distinguish themselves all the more: to stand out and be noticed. And so indeed, is the case with libraries, where with online databases and directories, they, like other institutions putting content on the Web, can have clientele that can be from anywhere in the world and not just within the same country. Yet with the Web and so much information available from it, over the years many have wondered about the relevance of libraries and whether such relevance is on the wane with the Internet's inexorable growth. Apart from scholarly articles, a check with the blogosphere reveal a number of posts on this topic within recent years as well.

It is with some of such concerns that the OCLC (Online Computer Library Center) undertook its 2003 OCLC Environmental Scan: Pattern Recognition report. In the report there was the concern that there was:

"a dissonance between the environment and content that libraries provide and the environment and content that information consumers want and use."

However the OCLC went on to undertake another report Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources, published in 2005. This other report emerged as despite all the studies and reports that the Scan provided:

"few of these resources emanated from the part of the infosphere that OCLC and libraries inhabit and there are no major recent empirical studies that look specifically and broadly at the role libraries and librarians play in the infosphere, from the point-of-view of the information consumer. How are libraries perceived by today’s information consumer? Do libraries still matter? On what level? Will library use likely increase or decrease in the future?"

And so in commissioning the new report the OCLC:

"wanted to know more about people’s information-seeking behaviors, how familiar people are with the variety of e-resources libraries provide for their users and how libraries fit into the lives of the respondents. One of the most important goals of the project as a whole was to collect information that would help us build a better understanding of the “Library” brand."

The methodology of the report consisted of an online survey of millions of respondents worldwide, that was "open to English-speaking male and female residents of Australia, Canada, India, Singapore, the United Kingdom (U.K.) and the United States (U.S.). "

Some of the findings of the report:

84% of respondents begin an information search with a search engine; 1% with a library Web site.

Search engines are rated higher than librarians.

Library card holders are more disposed favorably to libraries than non-card holders.

'Books' is the Library brand: no runner-up.

Most information users are not aware of nor do they use most libraries' electronic information resources.

Search engines fit the information consumer's lifestyle better than physical or online libraries.

Clearly from all this, despite the good work that librarians perform and the wealth of services libraries provide, there is still more needed to promote the work of libraries. What makes the findings all the more significant in this report is its international scope. What is highly useful about the report though, is that the findings do provide some indicators as to what libraries need to focus on to better position themselves in the eyes of the public.

Aside from public support, perhaps nothing gains the attention of policy makers more than an ROI (Return of Investment) perspective as well as how people can better interact with the very service which the federal government provides. In the ALA's (American Library Association) report, The State of America's Libraries issued in April this year, an FSU (Florida State University) study found that:

"more people are relying on library computers to find government services that are becoming less available locally and more available on line. In Florida, for example, regional offices where families can apply for food stamps have been phased out, so people must use the Internet to complete the application. Local libraries usually provide the needed Internet access, plus instruction in computer skills and completing forms."

With respect to ROI or economic returns, the study also reports in Florida, it was also found that:

"for every $6,448 in public funds spent on Florida’s public libraries, one job is created. In addition, every dollar of public support spent on Florida’s public libraries produced an increase of $9.08 in gross regional product and an increase of $12.66 in total state wages. A similar study showed that nine public library systems in southwestern Ohio create an annual economic impact of nearly four times the amount invested in their operations."

With globalization there has and continues to be international cooperation between libraries as well. With such cooperation therefore, libraries in different countries can also collaborate on their advocacy efforts. Such efforts can not only be showcased at international conferences but through bilateral arrangements libraries can also seek to help funnel donated funds and advocacy efforts each other's way. In the global market, while many corporations may not overtly cooperate with the objective or increasing earnings, they nonetheless do so tacitly and so maintain the guise of competition and in some cases also engage in this practice to avoid any trade bloc regulations in the markets in which they operate. With libraries there are no such restrictions except maybe with respect to regulations for cross-border technology exchanges where they apply, and so there can potentially be more cooperation among libraries from different countries.

With economies growing in knowledge-based sectors, the importance of the infosphere also grows in direct proportion. It is within this environment though that libraries must take advantage to reiterate their relevance every chance they get. Library cards must become as commonplace as credit cards: and essentially, these two are similar in that they both exchange information. However, the information received from libraries as opposed to traditional goods or services, always redounds to increasing and not diminishing returns. Information or knowledge gained can never be taken away. And so with such a return, libraries and the nature of their business in this information era, should likewise not allow their relevance to diminished.

In the global environment, with information being the highly sought-after and highly prized commodity that it is, libraries whose business is the business of information should thus naturally be valued likewise and advocacy on their behalf should more readily be seen as logical and necessary.

Post Addendum

I discoverd this book after writing this post and thought it would be remiss of me to not at least make mention of it in relation to this article.

Global Librarianship, by Martin A. Kesselman and Irwin Weintraub, Marcel Dekker Inc. 2004.

Book Description: Providing new insights into the role of librarianship in an age of socioeconomic, environmental, and political transformation, Global Librarianship illustrates how globally networked environments promote and increase the sharing and dissemination of ideas, information, and solutions to obstacles affecting libraries. This reference showcases methods to tailor and build collections and technologies that continually support worldwide scholarly and business communities through the utilization of digital tools and electronic media. It Illustrates breakthroughs in the organization, management, and dissemination of information to facilitate easy access to libraries anywhere in the world.

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