A symphony out of tune: when companies go deaf…

The last few months have been, as Andrew Pace has said, “interesting times” in the library automation business. We’ve watched as companies from outside of the profession moved in and consolidated the companies serving the profession. It has not been entirely smooth or satisfying.

Over the years, many of the companies servicing libraries, particularly the ILS companies, sprang from the minds and hard work of those who worked inside the profession. Many were actual librarians, others not, but most were closely involved with libraries. With that experience came a vast understanding of how libraries work, the culture, the finances, the terminology and more importantly, the sense of mission and service that is at the heart of all libraries. Implicit in that mission is a component of trust, a shared understanding that while companies must make a profit to grow and do new things, an obscene profit would be frowned upon and even discouraged (although in some cases, tolerated). Greed does not fit into the mission of libraries. It is the antithesis of sharing, openness and freedom.

Unfortunately as many of the original founders have matured and left the industry, they’ve been replaced with a new breed of company owners, most focused entirely on growth, market share, quick money and profit, frequently to the exclusion of customer needs.

With the focus and actions of some of these new owners, we’re seeing the seeds of a new revolution being sewn. As the goal of some companies becomes one more attuned to trimming costs, including reducing products and services that don’t earn as much profit as others (even though they might be critically important to the customer), libraries and their users suffer. In some cases, cost savings are being generated for the company by consolidating products and in so doing, take the underpinnings of the technology offered backwards on the time line. When this happens, it is short-term profit (or at its extreme, greed) that is the objective rather than serving the long-term mission of libraries. These companies have become unresponsive to the collective goals of our profession and, like so much of our society these days, are no longer focused on the “we” but the “me”. It is a sad state of affairs and one that will not be tolerated.

This is exactly where the business people trying to squeeze massive profits out of our profession have misunderstood libraries, librarianship and education. It is at this point where the quiet but dedicated field of librarians will speak out with great authority and most effectively with their dollars. They’ve noted what is happening. They’ve even raised their voices in protest. When they see they’re not being heard, that they’re speaking to deaf ears, they’ll move towards those who are in tune with their needs. They’ll seek and find those who will listen to what they want and are willing to work within the realm of the environment in which the profession is known to have to function. There are new companies with new solutions out there. Many of these are being led, once again, by those coming from within the profession, those who listen, understand and are in tune.

These new companies will face a higher level of scrutiny than ever before from customers. The implicit trust between libraries and the businesses that serve them has in some cases been broken. All companies wanting to sell their products and services to libraries will pay a price for that violation. Although this is not always warranted, it is to be expected.

When the symphony stops playing, those that paid for a ticket will realize that they should have exited at the point the symphony went out of tune.

One Response to “A symphony out of tune: when companies go deaf…”

  1. Sebastian Hammer Says:

    I find it particularly ironic that these changes in the industry take place at a time when libraries and their suppliers more than ever need to be nimble-footed and innovative to keep up with the challenges of the changing information landscape, changes in people’s use of information, etc.

    Based on my own experiences (which clearly are biased), I would expect a growing counter-trend involving libraries that take charge of their own destiny, implement innovative solutions, and in turn challenge established vendors to improve their products. Small software companies have a role to play here, but library schools are increasingly churning out “librarian-geeks” who are keen to experiment and challenge preconceptions about technology — just look at some of the fiery debate around MARC vs. alternative data models. Add to this that service-based architectures, open APIs and high-level development tools bring application development into the hands of more and more people, and you have an exciting mix.

    These are really exciting times. Don’t get me wrong… if librarians don’t step up, they could find themselves going the way of the old-school travel agents in the age of Orbitz & co.. but my sense is that they *do* step up, and the vendors will either do their part, or they are the ones who’ll become irrelevant.

    –Sebastian

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