Friday, June 02, 2017

Libraries as Friction Points

David Whelan has an inspiring post up this week, titled, Gatekeeper to a Thousand Gates.

The focus of David's discussion isn't necessarily on Law Libraries, though it's a lesson that anyone providing information to a targeted community would do well to listen to. In a fairly detailed example of the digital book sign-out process at his local public library, David describes the delicate balance that libraries must maintain between enabling access to information vs. putting up unintended additional barriers.

In the context of providing 'free' access (or communally paid for access) to licensed content, I think David has it right. Libraries focus on creating an ecosystem that's easy to use, but often end up putting up barriers; and I would add, the publishers themselves don't always make it easy for libraries to act as gatekeepers for paid services.

There is also a bit of an optics issue here. While public libraries often give the impression that the information they deliver is "free access", and publishers certainly do see this kind of access as competition, taking away from their paid product, these types of services are hardly free.

David's concept of "friction points" alone identifies the user's time investment as a soft cost to accessibility. Libraries can try to reduce this friction, but it's hard to imagine a situation where the library service is actually easier than purchasing the product. Which leads me to this question: Has it ever been easier? Is signing up for a library card and wait-listing for a popular piece of fiction any easier than going to the bookstore?

Don't get me wrong, Libraries can reduce the friction to digital borrowing services, as David describes. We can. I suspect we can get much closer using digital tools than we ever could with paper media. But I don't think we can directly compete with publishers. To be honest, I don't think publishers are motivated to make it easier for libraries (but that's a discussion for another day).

For me, really, all library services need to do is get close. If libraries can offer a reasonable alternative, especially when the original material or service doesn't have ROI for a user or group, then close is good enough.

(Horse shoes, hand grenades & library services? ;)

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