Library Pivot: The Long Game

The south facade of Bobst Library.

Michael Stoller recalls the cusp of the library industry’s pivot toward digitizing.

It was 1995, when he wrote an article for the Library Trends periodical about electronic journals—and struggled to find any to talk about.

“Most of them were little operations coming out in ascii text form [without formatting] from guys in Colorado in log cabins and what have you,” said the director of collections and research services at NYU Libraries.

In contrast, upwards of 90 percent of journal content today is in electronic form, evidence of a major shift in the library industry as it turns toward digital content.

The electronic pivot is absolutely necessary for libraries, according to Marty Zwillig, founder and CEO of Startup Professionals, Inc., which provides entrepreneur assistance to startups and small businesses. He said libraries risk extinction as they squander patrons to the Internet.

“Libraries, in the traditional sense, are obsolete and rapidly dying, sort of like the train industry after the advent of automobiles and airplanes,” Zwillig wrote in an email. “Some people will always hang on to the old ways, but digital data on the Internet has so many advantages for most requirements.”

Despite the convenience of the Internet, library use remains generally unchanged, according to an annual survey conducted by Harris Interactive. In both 2007 and 2011, 62 percent of respondents surveyed said they had visited a library in the past year, indicating sustained interest in the services.

“As anyone can tell as they’ve walked through the atrium of Bobst Library during the academic year, we’re not wanting for people coming through the front door,” Stoller said. “We’ve got lots of people in this building.”

Libraries are digitizing to keep up with demand. The largest transformation at NYUL, Stoller said, has been a boost in the paper-to-electronic ratio in acquired content such as periodicals and books. Other major shifts involve the creation of a digital video library and bolstered reference functions.

Though the library industry pivot has picked up measurably in the past 10 years, Zwillig said it may not be enough, “since most are run by local governments and institutions, which are notoriously slow to change … Witness also the recent bankruptcy of Blockbuster, trying to hang onto movie rentals, when the world was changing to streaming video.”

Stoller disagrees. “Virtually, all we do is respond to what patrons’ needs are,” he said. “We do with paper when we need to, but people do increasingly expect to see information in digital form.”

Lydia Vasquez, a junior at NYU, said she uses the library not for its electronic resources but as both a study spot and for its book collection, which is five million volumes strong.

The fundamental nature of libraries is—and always will be—to connect people with information and scholarship, Stoller said, adding that the pivot may be slow, but it is ultimately beneficial.

“Technology obviously has substantially shifted, and for the most part overwhelmingly enhanced our ability to do that, to build those connections for people.”

Click below to listen to my conversation with Michael Stoller!

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