Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Of libraries, digitization programs, and doom

From my safety of my keyboard, I watch news of libraries and library consortia that are financially stressed due to the impact of the economy.  For public library organizations, the financial problems are caused by their government not having enough money to fund everything that it should.  Academic and special libraries (e.g., corporate, news, legal, etc.) are also having to do less with less. We assume wrongly that organization have enough money to make it through a downturn.  While some likely did have reserve funds, those monies weren't enough to keep them stable until their funding is fully restored.  Sadly, we all know of someone who has lost a library job as a result of tightening budgets.

While at Computers in Libraries, I was a part of several conversations about BCR merging with Lyrasis.  BCR has come to a point where merging with another organization will help to ensure that its services continue in its region.  BCR had already absorbed CDP which is well-known for its digitization efforts.  (CDP originally stood for Colorado Digitization Project and then Collaborative Digitization Program.)  Lyrasis was created from the merger of Palinet with Solinet.  Since Lyrasis has its own digitization efforts, I am assuming that the digitization work that BCR was involved in will continue.

Last week the North Surburban Library System (NSLS) announced that it will be drastically scaling back services and laying off many members of the staff including the executive director.  NSLS has a wonderful digitization program known as Digital Past and there is no news on what will happen to it.  My hope is that someone (or some organization) will step in to ensure that it is maintained. It would be a shame to have it fall into disrepair and fail.

Yesterday word came that Nylink - the BCR equivalent in New York State is shutting down its services within the next twelve months.  Because Nylink is part of the State University of New York (SUNY), it cannot be merged with another "baby OCLC" (like Lyrasis).  Nylink had not embarked on its own digitization efforts, but was an "authorized dealer" of OCLC services and, I believe, may have also been selling products from other vendors.  In my view, because library organizations could deal directly with OCLC, and not have to go through Nylink, Nylink lost its market.

We can all point to other library organizations that are stressed and on the verge of extreme ill health.  Some have not failed because checks somehow keep getting written, even though the bank account is virtually empty.  Others may be using staff, volunteer and community goodwill to keep themselves going, but we all know that goodwill is not enough.

In 1999, the Corning (NY) Public Library closed for a year, due to an unfavorable budget vote, which said more about area politics than support for the library.  All of the library materials were boxed up and stored.  The staff was dispersed and patrons had to go elsewhere for services.  Thankfully, when funding was restored, services, books, etc., and even some of the former staff were able to come back together.  Now when such an event occurs, we need to throw the organization's digital assets into that mix and hope that they can somehow remain accessible even if the institution is gone.  And it is likely that most organizations have not considered how their digital assets will survive even if the organization itself does not.

Here's my call to action:

First, communicate to your constituents as much information as possible about your organization's current situation.  If your organization is truly in great shape, tell them.  If your organization is on shaky ground, help your constituents know what that means for the near-term and what it might mean for the long-term.  If you need them to rally and offer support, they will need information in order to make that happen.

Second, no matter what type of library organization you're in, spend time with your staff thinking about your services.  Honestly, which ones are critical to your users?  Which services do you have the most invested in?  Which ones could be maintained with very little effort and still be useful?  While we always want to keep everything at the best level of service/support, NSLS shows us that sometimes tough choices have to be made.  Those decisions need real forethought and should not be made rashly.

Third, if you have digital assets that you have created, plan for their future.  If you can't keep them viable into the future (for whatever reason), who can?  Is there another institution that can maintain them and their online presence?  Is there a digital archive that could help?  What kind of arrangement would be needed to make that happen?  This is not a trivial matter, so forethought and planning is required.

Finally, if you or your library are part of a larger consortia or another type of library organization, start asking tough questions.  The information that you receive will help you understand how to help the organization whether its through financial support, moral support or advocacy.  And...no...don't turn your back on the organization.  Find a way to be supportive.  In this economy, we all need each other.


Unknown said...

Hi Jill,

Thanks for your kind words about Digital Past and NSLS. We will be migrating all Digital Past collections to IDA (Illinois Digital Archives). The Illinois State library has offered to host the collections.


Anonymous said...

I can't speak to NSLS but there's a theme running through the rise of Lyrasys, and the demise of BCR, NYLINK, and several other systems. (NEBASE anyone?) Notice that they were all OCLC networks. OCLC has basically screwed over all of the networks and forced them all to close.

"Steep declines in Nylink’s revenue as a result of fundamental changes in its business environment have seriously degraded Nylink’s ability to remain fully self-supporting."

That's NYLINK politic way of saying that OCLC's changes made it so we can't live. Look though other anncouncements of the past year and you'll see similar statements.