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Joseph J. Esposito, an independent management consultant to for-profit and not-for-profit clients, has written a nice post at the Scholarly Kitchen about disintermediation:

In this piece, Joe describes the “value chain” in scholarly publishing in which each link in the value chain adds something to the process: the author creates value by originating an idea and content; the publisher adds value through editorial selection, refinement, production, and marketing; and so forth. Libraries, too, contribute to the value chain:

Libraries are selective; they help guide readers to materials of higher quality. Libraries have purchasing power, which saves money for readers. Libraries provide a suite of tools for organizing publications and helping readers find what they are looking for. Libraries provide so much value that most people want them to be bigger.

Disintermediation occurs when one link in the chain is bypassed. This can be caused by the link losing value, but it can happen for other reasons and can result in destroying the value provided by that link.

How does this relate to the FDLP and government information? As we’ve noted here and here and elsewhere before, users of government information no longer need to go through FDLP libraries to get government information. And, as many others (including Ithaka S+R) have noted, FDLP libraries no longer have a monopoly on free government information, have no “purchasing power” advantage, and so do not save readers money. That particular value of libraries in the information value chain no longer exists and that results in government information users bypassing libraries for their government information needs.

Some (including Ithaka S+R) have concluded from this that libraries can rely on online access to government information stored on government-controlled web servers and create a service-only model of libraries without collections.

But this view overlooks the other important values that libraries add to the value chain. These include libraries’ selection of materials of interest to particular user communities, their tools for organizing information to make it easier to discover, their tools for making information easier to use, and their commitments to freedom to read, user privacy, and long-term free public access to information. It also overlooks the ability that libraries have (but which government agencies for the most part do not have) to build collections that combine government information with non-government information. In short, it overlooks the importance of digital library collections.

Joe makes another good point that is equally relevant to FDLP libraries: that, when we see a link in the value chain being bypassed, we should be asking what effect management decisions had in making that link lose its value.

[D]isintermediation lends itself to a version of technological determinism. Because the Internet makes it possible for an author to have a direct connection to a reader, therefore, it is assumed, authors inevitably will connect directly to readers. This ignores the role of human agency.

…[D]isintermediation, in other words, is an outcome; but the input is management strategy. Rather than talking about disintermediation, we really should be talking about the things that affect management decision-making and strategy and to take control of them.

Thus, shouldn’t we be asking, If users are bypassing libraries for their government information needs, what decisions are libraries making that make the library of less value to the user?

In some cases users may not be aware of value lost. If governments fail to preserve all the information that users need, users will not be aware of this until they find information missing — at which point it will be too late.

In other cases, users may find that getting some information easily (e.g., using google to search the web and find some possibly-relevant government information) is better than using primitive hard-to-use library tools to find some possibly-more-relevant government information. Librarians may say that users “should” use libraries and they’d find “better” information if they did; but making that argument will not attract users. Providing better services will.

If we look at what services users do use, we will see that they tend to be services built on top of digital collections. ProQuest, for example, does not build indexes that point to government web servers; it collects digital information and builds services on top of that.

In short, libraries could create new value in the government information life-cycle by building robust services on top of rich digital collections (FDLP: Services and Collections ). Or, as Joe says,

[I] think of it as the creation of a new value chain, with the stress being given to the new value that is created.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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