As I’ve been preparing for a sojourn abroad (first vacation in four years!), I’ve been frantically trying to wrap up the loose ends of various projects. One of those is writing a review a Cooperative Cataloging: Shared Effort for the Benefit of All by Rebecca L. Mugridge (ed.). The final section of the collection contains an essay by Roxanne Sellberg of Northwestern University entitled “Cooperative Cataloging in a Post-OPAC World” where she posits a future when “most libraries do not maintain separate, highly redundant databases of metadata records designed to support both backroom processes and library-specific online public access catalogs.”

Sellberg’s article focuses on the role of cooperative cataloging and so she goes on to outline the various ways in which cooperative cataloging can still take place, but what I found intriguing was how a lack of an OPAC would affect the character of our institutions. Even as a cataloger, I find the idea… enticing.

    • Imagine if we spent less time editing records and more time editing the presentation of those records (via APIs that bring in data from various centralized data sources).
    • Imagine if we built our own discovery layers that reflected the subject strengths of our home institutions, tweaked to the informational needs of our unique user communities.
    • Imagine if we let go of collection management (because most material would be available electronically) and focused on collection service.

And there is the quintessential change that a post-OPAC world would bring: libraries would be (re)defined in terms of their services rather than their collections. What type of instruction do we provide for undergraduates? What type of technological and pedagogical tools do we offer faculty? Where are our access points for reference/research and how robust are they in virtual environments? What spaces for innovation, creation, discovery, play, collaboration, and independent study do we offer? The post-OPAC library is a library that focuses even more attention on the needs of the user: information needs and otherwise.

In the twentieth century, we best served the information needs of our users through focused collection development and information organization. Librarians were, for the most part, the only professionals qualified and in a position to make the necessary information resources available to campus populations. In the twentieth-first century, the means of information distribution and organization are in the [capable?] hands of institutions with more resources and leverage than most universities can muster. We can best serve the information needs of our users through guidance, instruction, and by developing better filters (read: discovery layers) to help them manage today’s chaotic information landscape.

The libraries that shift their focus to collection service will, in my opinion, be the ones that succeed and that maintain a strong influence on campus intellectual life. Those that continue to put most of their efforts into collection development will soon enough find themselves being replaced with more efficient and more robust vendors who provide the same service for less. We can make our own future rather than be determined by it. We can be the rock in the stream.

Special thanks to @lagina for helping me find a title for this post.

“We must look with cold and hard-headed rationality at our current practices and ask ourselves not what value they offer, but rather what value our patrons believe they offer. If what we offer our patrons is not perceived as valuable by them, then we have two choices: change their minds, or redirect our resources. The former is virtually impossible; the latter is enormously painful. But the latter is possible, and if we do not undertake such a redirection ourselves, it will almost certainly be undertaken for us.”

The above quotation comes from an editorial in the July 2011 issue of The Journal of Academic Librarianship. In it, Rick Anderson, Associate Director for Scholarly Resources and Collections at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library, discusses the current plight of academic research libraries: that patrons’ perceptions of libraries, particularly their value and use, have moved beyond our organizational design and there is little we can do about it.

If you enjoy reading “future of libraries” talk with overtones of the apocalypse (see also Taiga), then Anderson’s article offers tasty hors d’oeuvres. He answers the question “Can the research library go out of business?” with a definitive “Yes” and goes on to describe what that might look like.

I recommend reading the article in full, but I want to touch upon one aspect. We’ve suspected for some time that reference transactions were declining (over 60% per FTE since 1995 according to one study Anderson cites), partly because more information is easily found online but also because students’ perceptions of their information searching skills are strengthening. They may indeed still need librarians in certain situations, but they don’t think they do.

Anderson doesn’t believe we can change this perception. I tend to agree. Rather, I think we should be working even harder to integrate our resources seamlessly into our students’ daily lives in ways that encourage [self-initiated] discovery: embedding resources in course pages, using search discovery layers, making ourselves available at the students’ point of need in both physical and virtual spaces (but mostly virtual), and building programs and projects that encourage complex human-information interactions. We can be leaders, but the kind of leaders that stay out of the way.

It isn’t important that students know librarians are behind it. Most probably don’t care if it’s us or our IT department or Google. They only care that it works and that it helps them get things done. Thoughts?



Anderson, R. (2011). The crisis in research librarianship. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 37(4), 289-290.

In her 2006 article, Heinström discusses an event called “incidental information acquisition.” We’ve all experienced it before: while looking for one piece of information, you come across another piece of information the you had unsuccessfully searched for in the past. For example, a while back I remember hearing a review of a book on the radio that caught my interest, but by the time I arrived at work, I’d forgotten the title. I searched unsuccessfully online. NPR hadn’t published its stories for the day on its website yet and so I forgot about it and moved on to other tasks. Until one day a few months later I was in a bookstore and saw the book on a display of new releases and I remembered having searched for book.

Heinström studied 3 groups of users: college students, older adults, and 6th-12th graders. Of those surveyed, 77% claimed they had had similar IIA experiences. Heinström wanted to know if there were any psychological characteristics that predisposed users to IIA. She determined that the following characteristics encourage IIA events:

  • the tendency to regularly and broadly scan information sources
  • having previous knowledge of the subject
  • intrinsic motivation
  • general feelings of confidence, certainty, and satisfaction

Roberts (1989) also looked for similar psychological characteristics and determined that attributes such as sagacity, awareness, curiosity, flexible thinking, and persistence increased the likelihood of IIA.

As librarians, how can we influence and encourage these characteristics to support serendipitous discovery of information? If we are lucky enough to teach semester-long courses or have specific students assigned to us (check out Drexel’s new program), perhaps we may have the opportunity. But between the ready reference questions and the one-off sessions, when do we ever have the chance to help students develop deep, psychological traits such as “curiosity” or “sagacity”?

Perhaps we should look elsewhere. Williamson (1998) examined information seeking, communication behaviors, and telecommunications uses and concluded that personal characteristics, socio-economic circumstances, values, lifestyles and physical environments influence IIA in some way: specifically, those aspects influence how often and effectively people monitor their world. Again, with the exception of physical environments, there seems to be little here librarians can work with to influence the particular factors that affect and increase the potential for IAA.

Nonetheless, librarians are trying and doing what they can given the time and resources they have to increase discoverability. As librarians, we are changing the way we use space and designing libraries that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but that offer a wide range of resources and tools (information commons, media labs, coffee shops, lounges, group study rooms, multi-media classrooms). We are reinterpreting our online catalogs using pre-indexing functions to improve search results and redesigning them to improve their look and feel. Librarians are reaching out to student groups and moving beyond the walls of the library, both physically and virtually, to increase their visibility and let students know that someone is always available to help, even at 4am in the morning. We are changing ourselves and striving to change our environments and transform the context in which users access and seek information.

But is it enough? Can friendly circulation staff inspire curiosity? Does redesigning a search interface build confidence? Can virtual chat reference change someone’s economic circumstances? Do RSS feeds in the OPAC promote critical thinking skills? Can a collection development policy inspire lifelong learning? Can a coffee shop increase the equitability of access? Can metadata teach users about confidentiality?

Forecasting aside (as delightful as that diversion is), there is still the issue of how librarians can encourage IIA when so many of factors that encourage it are out of our control. A recent article by Schroeder & Cahoy (2010) may provide an answer. In their analysis and discussion of the ACRL Information Literacy Standards and the AASL Standards for the 21st century Learner, they call upon librarians and educators to pay more attention to affective learning outcomes. In their definition, this includes “a person’s attitudes, emotions, interests, motivation, self-efficacy, and values”: the very same characteristics mentioned above that encourage serendipitous discovery of information! While they recognize the time constraints imposed on most librarian-student interactions, Schroeder & Cahoy provide a conceptual model for encouraging the traits that favor IIA and inspire “positive feelings” in students. Perhaps, we should start here.

What do you think? Is it the goal of an academic library to create an environment that fosters incidental information acquisition and helps students build personal traits that encourage it? If so, how? If not, why?


Heinström, J. (2006). Psychological factors behind incidental information acquisition. Library & Information Science Research, 28(4), 579-594.

Roberts, R.M. (1989) Serendipity: Accidental discoveries in science, New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Schroeder, R., & Cahoy, E. S. (2010). Valuing information literacy: affective learning and the ACRL standards. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 10(2), 127-146.

Williamson, K. (1998). Discovered by chance: the role of incidental information acquisition in an ecological model of information use. Library & Information Science Research, 20(1), 23-40.