Wednesday, May 18, 2011

New digital roles, new digital models

I'm almost at the point of completing the final proposal for my thesis, so it's time for a new focus. I've re-launched this blog as a research tool: I'll get ideas down, but I hope that others will join in with comments, questions and critique. It seems apt for the project I'm embarking on, so let's see if it works.

My research surrounds a central question of whether the digital world necessitates innovation, or if adaptation will suffice. It's a large topic that I need to whittle down, so my first efforts at that are a plan to examine smaller organisations, such as public libraries, that increasingly face a watershed within a society where knowledge transfer now occurs almost exclusively via digital media.

What do I mean by adaptation and innovation? Adaptation refers to using digital media and collections within a traditional analogue model. These collections are characteristically 'bolted on' to the established analogue collection format as an extra that probably doesn't represent the core goals of the organisation. The value of digital formats are mostly recognised for the levels of accessibility they provide, but not much else.

Innovation looks at digital media and collections in their own right. These actually don't have to be presented as separate to analogue collections, but they certainly present new possibilities, such as using collections in entirely different ways, particularly user creativity, ownership and even funding. Innovation operates outside of the traditional established box. In many respects, the choice of innovation or adaptation (or both) will depend on an organisation's appetite for risk.

Another way to look at this is chronologically. Ten years ago, the idea of huge digital libraries of scanned books seemed incredibly exciting. In 2011, are millions of books made available on screens really the height of a library's achievement? Books on a screen are, after all, still books, and the models haven't changed. The fate of public libraries in the UK suggest that more drastic measures may be required to connect with a new generation of users. We're in a 'second wave' of digital content beyond mass digitisation that acknowledges the importance of born-digital content and a more user-centric approach to collection discovery and engagement.

As additional food for thought, a couple recent blogs by Joseph Esposito and Seth Godin have tackled innovation vs. adaptation and the library digital watershed, respectively, in a pithy manner. These issues raise many questions, and I'll be trying to address as many as I can right here on this blog.

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