Technological Disruption in Technical Services

by Donna Frederick
Services to Libraries, University of Saskatchewan

In hearing discussions among technical services librarians at conferences, it is hard to deny that the majority are dealing with the impact of disruptive technical change within the field.

In his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen (1997) talks about how disruptive innovations typically “result in worse product performance, at least in the near term” and generally “underperform established products in mainstream markets” (p. xv) but eventually can come to dominate the market and surpass the established products because of a combination of characteristics. These characteristics include that the product appeals to a new significant audience and that the product is generally cheaper, simpler, smaller, and more convenient to use than previous products.

While it is easy to imagine an application of Christensen’s conceptualization of the disruptive innovation in the area of electronic gadgets including cell phones and other personal electronic devices, the connection with what has been happening in technical services in libraries in the past 5 years or so and the idea of disruptive innovation is less readily understood. The reality is that recently a number of technological developments in combination with the blooming of related theoretical frameworks has gradually moved both technical services theory and practice into a new realm where the old tried and true concepts and practices have been completely challenged and many have been overturned. Evidence that the innovations have had a disruptive impact are seen in the fact that many of the newer processes are judged by seasoned professionals to result in work of inferior quality relative to the past. However, the new practices offer library workers the ability to process large volumes of information and resources at a relatively low cost while offering new functionalities to users. As the demands on technical services staff increase and the rate at which libraries are expected to make the latest information available to users accelerates, so does the pressure increase on libraries to let go some of the older practices in favour of innovations which hold the potential for allowing rapid but informed and intelligent preparation and processing of information resources. A dilemma occurs when technical services librarians can see that to adopt the innovations some of the perfection and stability of the past is lost in favour of what, while functional, is hard to describe as anything less than a lower technical quality product. The question is why a library might even want to adopt a disruptive innovation if it is known in advance that the product will be of a lesser quality. My answer to that question is that the decision is made in the attempt to remain useful and relevant in the current information environment. A slightly reduced technical quality of product which is still highly functional and even offers some value added features is tremendously more valuable to users than creating a massive multi-year backlog of work which will eventually be completed to a hard-to-justify standard of perfection. In fact, when I have taken an objective look at what makes the outcomes of the newer processes lower-quality, the vast majority of what I have discovered to be “problematic” or “mistakes” consists of either cosmetic flaws, variations in style which don’t impact on function, and slight deviations from display conventions which are likely not even recognized as such by individuals besides library workers. The final conclusion in my mind is that if libraries can’t do it all, so to speak, the best approach is to try to remain useful and relevant to their patrons and, where the choice needs to be made, to prefer function over form.

So, what role might evidence-based practice take in helping libraries’ technical services functions successfully navigate from the past into a fast-paced, highly-demanding future? The reality is that a lot of choices will need to be made as libraries make the transition. In his book The Search for Survival: Lessons from Disruptive Technologies, Lucas (2012) has described eight signs that an organization is failing in the face of a disruption. The following lists those signs and explains how they might be observed in a library context:
1) Denial: This is a denial that a disruption has occurred or is important. It could take the form of denying the importance of the role of cloud computing information storage, discovery and access.
2) History: When libraries believe that they will always be the key provider of information to their patrons without having to adjust their approaches to changing realities, they have fallen into the trap of history.
3) Resistance to change
4) Mind-set: This is often displayed as “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” despite the growing evidence that the status quo is failing. It is denial that exists at the level of the individual.
5) Brand: When libraries assume that all of their patrons will automatically recognize the library as the superior source for reliable information and do nothing to continue to build the brand in the mind of their users, over-reliance on brand is evident.
6) Sunk costs: When libraries decide to not adopt changes because much has already been invested in older systems despite the fact that those systems are failing in critical ways, a problem with sunk costs is present.
7) Profitability: If libraries keep getting donations, grants, and other types of funding by maintaining the status quo and use this to justify their inertia, concerns for profitability may be overwhelming the bigger picture.
8) Lack of imagination

Reading through this list and reflecting on various other ways the signs might be present in libraries reinforced in my mind that the librarian who makes decisions based on evidence is significantly more likely to thrive in the face of disruptive change than the librarian who does not.

Christensen, C. 1997. The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Lucas, H. 2012. The Search for Survival: Lessons from Disruptive Technologies. Denver: Praeger.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.