Can libraries survive disruptive technologies?

Blockbuster store

The traditional roles of libraries are being challenged by disruptive technologies such as e-books, Amazon and social media. As fast information and to-the-door delivery become the norm, how do we ensure the continued validity of the library, asks Jacquie Widdowson.

In 2011, the bookstore chain Borders was liquidated. In 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. In 2013, Blockbuster went into administration. What do these businesses have in common? They all failed to respond sufficiently to disruptive technologies. 

The world has always existed in a state of punctuated equilibrium: inventions and ideas shake up our reality, but before long we adjust to the new ‘normal’. Social, cultural and technological advancements move civilisations forward, but leave the ‘outmoded’ behind. Why use a scythe when you have a combine harvester? No one wants to stop the world turning, but what do you do if you are the person who makes scythes for a living? 

Selling scythes to 21st century farmers?

Libraries have had a place in society for almost as long as human societies have existed. Yet you may now feel that our profession is threatened by the digital era and that we might well be trying to sell scythes to 21st century farmers. The traditional roles and functions of libraries are being challenged by disruptive technologies.

These new products and services have created their own demand and found their way into everyday lives – e-books and search engines, Amazon and social media. Clay Christensen, often credited with coining the term ‘disruptive technology’, identifies how they are ‘typically cheaper, simpler, smaller and frequently more convenient to use’.[1] Convenience is a veritable byword for the digital age: people have become accustomed to fast information and to-the-door delivery. So how do we ensure the continued validity of library services in the face of such upheaval? 

Evolve… or risk failure

Everything discussed so far has a tone of inevitability. Time marches on, the wheel keeps turning and things will change. Yet there is only one thing inevitable about the fate of a disrupted sector: evolve or fail. The old adage that every challenge is both a threat and an opportunity is most true when it comes to business strategy.

Disruptive technologies require a response: turn disruptions into competence-enhancing influences. This is easier said than done. Information Systems Professor Hank Lucas[2] of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, outlines the primary inhibiting factors that cause businesses (like Borders, Kodak and Blockbuster) to fail to react in a positive way to new technologies:

  • Denial: ‘this will not affect us’
  • History: ‘we have always done it this way’
  • Resistance to change: ‘I don’t want to’
  • Mindset: ‘but that is not what we do’
  • Brand: ‘but that is not what WE® do’
  • Sunk costs: ‘we are too financially invested in the traditional ways’
  • Profitability: ‘we still have lots of customers... why change?’
  • Lack of imagination: 'there really is no other way for us to work'.

Borders failed to respond in time to the shifting new multi-platform book market. Borders launched an online store in 2010 but, as the Telegraph reported (July 2011): ‘industry analysts said the move came too late’.[3]

Kodak, founded in 1880, fundamentally saw itself as a film and photography business (rather than an imaging business) and feared that diversifying into digital technology would eat into its profits.

Blockbuster’s UK boss Martin Higgins claimed in 2010[4] that it was ‘a major misconception that our business [DVD rental] is a dying format’ – even though its US parent company was already facing bankruptcy.

Avoiding the iceberg

These companies hit the iceberg. They did so because the ship did not turn in time. In the case of Kodak, it did not even really try to take any new course of direction.

Who was supposed to be steering? The obvious answer is the Captain. Certainly, if the one in charge does not give the command to change direction then you have got a problem.

What if the captain does give the command, yet the message does not reach the engine room? Lucas points out that ‘Kodak’s bureaucratic organisation structure made change difficult; there was too much formality and there were too many layers of management’.[5] 

What about the lookouts? The frontline innovators who see the problems coming and start to do something about it also have a part to play. Avoiding the iceberg is a whole crew responsibility – from leaders, to middle-managers, to the frontline.

Prognosis for libraries?

Using Lucas’ inhibiting factors as a framework, what is the prognosis for libraries?

Libraries are not in denial about the impact of digital technologies on their traditional operations. Arts Council England’s The Library of the Future (2013)[6] asserts that libraries ‘are expected to respond to big changes in how people live their lives’.  

The British Library’s 2020 vision sees that the ‘digital environment provides an immense opportunity to democratise access to content through removing physical barriers’.[7] The recent IFLA Public Libraries Satellite Conference 2014 was entitled ‘Public Library Futures in a Global Digital World’.

Everywhere you turn in the library profession, people are talking about disruptive technologies and are responding to them. 

Nostalgia is not enough

From Alexandria to Oxford, libraries are woven into the history of civilisation. It is no surprise, therefore, that libraries have enormous sunk costs – millions of pounds worth of books on hundreds of miles of shelves. They are also a well recognised ‘brand’, steeped in preconception.

These are both the assets that sustain our profitability in terms of user figures, and the danger zones when it comes to ensuring our future. It is easy to assume that because libraries have successfully existed for so long that they always will exist – regardless of our actions.

Such complacency can easily turn into denial or active resistance to change. The library brand is so deeply imbued with positive, nostalgic, book-based associations that even our users are prone to resist change. Yet the world is changing and nostalgia alone is not enough to ensure ongoing relevance.

Taking risks

The mindset of library staff can vary enormously: for every librarian organising live music performances in the library, there is another staff member in the background thinking ‘but this is not what we do’.

It is hard to know, when trying out new ideas, which ones are any good. Christensen points out that investing in ‘disruptive technologies is not a rational financial decision’;[8] new technologies and new ideas are -often long shots. That is the scary thing about them, it is hard to identify the innovations that are going to change the world from the dead-ends that are a waste of time and investment. Remaining static, however, is not an option if we want to ensure the longevity of our profession. 

Finding the best way to flourish

It seems that the odds are stacked against libraries – steeped as they are in so much history – but our secret weapon is that we are meeting our future head-on and we do not lack imagination.

At conferences and unconferences across the world librarians are coming up with new ways of utilising digital technologies to enhance the library offer: e-book reading groups, online book battles, library Apps, augmented reality craft activities, QR Code trails, data fountains, YouTube book trailers, online database topic sharing, digital signage, digital book downloads, social media-based book shelves and gamification software – to name but a few.

With the correct attitude, it is not a case of ‘how can libraries survive’, it is a question of finding the best way to flourish.

Are new technologies a threat or opportunity for libraries? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below


Image source: "Throwback Thursday: Blockbuster North Ridgeville" by fanofretail, used under CC BY 2.0 / Original cropped and resized

  1. Christensen, C.The Innovator’s Dilemma. HBS Press, 1997 p. XV.
  2. Lucas, H. C. The Search for Survival: Lessons from disruptive technologies. ABC-CLIO, 2012
  3. Telegraph. 18 July 2011.
  4. Quoted in Retail Week, 26 Mar 2010.
  5. Lucas, H. C. The Search for Survival: Lessons from disruptive technologies. ABC-CLIO, 2012. p. 25
  6. Davey, A. The Library of the Future.Arts Council England, 2013. p. 2. 
  7. British Library Board. 2020 Vision. 2010. p. 7.
  8. Christensen, C. The Innovator’s Dilemma. HBS Press, 1997 p. XVII.

Update magazine

This article was originally published in CILIP Update Magazine, October 2014.

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