The challenges of the digital future

Publishers and information professionals gather to discuss what next for the 'online revolution'

The future for the information industry is change, and more change. This was a key finding at CILIP’s Digital Information conference which took place last week in London as publishers and information professionals gathered to debate the current state of the online revolution and explore what it means for both communities.  As if to underscore the theme, the conference venue was King’s Place, the new development overlooking London’s Regents Canal which also houses the offices of The Guardian – surely an example of an organisation that has grasped the print-to-digital revolution with both hands (but has yet to make money at it).

Librarians need to drive change, not be driven by it, in the opinion of opening keynote speaker Mark Furneaux of Wize Nordic as he shared his vision for the future. He sees 'mind-blowing' possibilities, but also some significant barriers to be overcome.

One of the major challenges for the industry is that users now demand instant answers, and are predisposed to want facts, not a list of references and a bibliographic database. For many users, 'quality is not appreciated or valued and perhaps even is not needed', commented Furneaux.  As a result, 'quite a bit of publishing is over-engineered – is the important thing the quality of an article, or is it getting it out there more quickly?

Future opportunity, according to Furneaux, lies in new pricing models, fee-based services for mobile devices, and more controversially, revenue generation through incorporating advertising to students in order to pay for services.

Furneaux also flagged up the importance of 'measures of usefulness – as opposed to usage'. At the same time, 'librarians need to be more assertive with publishers and to vote with their feet – that’s valuable and drives change.'

Max Hammond of consultants Curtis + Cartright specialises in helping public sector clients make use of technology. He echoed the theme of users’ changing expectations: 'most users are after "good enough" information – the question for libraries is to what extent do you want to lead them towards something better?' The pace of change will continue, and Hammond advises that it’s important to consider how the world might be, and how you might react to possible futures using techniques such as scenario planning and horizon scanning.

Technology in itself is not a benefit, 'just saying "Everyone’s using Twitter" is not enough.'  It’s important to understand and ask users what they need, and to design for flexibility.  At the same time, says Hammond, it’s vital to concentrate on your core business – but also to consider what that core business actually is.

Michael Popham is Head of the Oxford Digital Library, a core service of the Bodleian Libraries, serving the University of Oxford but describes his role more robustly as 'cat herder in chief'. He too noted the massive change in readers’ access to, and experience of, technology and noted that Oxford faces particular headaches because of the age and historical importance of some of its library buildings – even providing wifi access was a 'ridiculous challenge'.

Looking to the future, Popham could see one possible role as the move from library to 'libratory', fully participating in the research process. He sees the library working in partnership with readers and teachers; with researchers and funders; and with each other, and an even greater focus on 'measuring what we do, and for whom'. One of Popham’s responsibilities is to co-ordinate the university’s collaboration with Google Books, and he voiced a concern about the foregrounding of high usage material at the expense of the long tail of less popular content: 'most of the engagement through our Google Books work has been with the long tail stuff', he notes.

As with any conference, platform debate is teased out during the coffee break. The irony of the view over the London Canal Museum – celebrating an activity which was once at the heart of the nation’s infrastructure and communications, now obsolete – was not lost on some.  Reverberating also was Mark Furneaux’ admonition that information professionals and publishers should not get bogged down in nitty-gritty detail, but should look for the bigger picture of what’s possible. Delegates seemed eager to embrace the challenge of change.