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The Amazon Gorilla and the Future of the Academic Library
July 28, 2010 - 8:32pm

Great discussion around Scott McLemee's concerns around the power of Amazon and a superb list of the top 10 things to keep in mind about the future of the academic library, as shared by Tracy Mitrano.

Can we combine these two threads to come up with one (potentially very bad) idea? I'll give it a shot.

In the pretend university that I'm constructing in my brain we co-create with librarians the following set-up:

--Put the academic librarian at the intellectual center of the university, but physically embed this librarian in the departments.

--Separate out the task of "collections" with those of "services," with a goal of maximizing dollars spent and investments in the librarian who provides the services (fixed costs) and moving collections into a variable costs model.

--Partnering with cloud providers such as Amazon (and hopefully others) to provide the collections as a service, allowing patrons (students, faculty, staff) to use Amazon's (and others) advanced web and mobile interfaces to order books and materials themselves (or in consultation with a librarian).

--Be agnostic about the format that the book is delivered, letting patrons choose if they want paper, e-book, or audio format. Develop a partnership with Amazon (and hopefully other providers) that allows for either "borrowing" of materials or more likely purchasing but return to "library collections" once the patron finishes with the item. If a student orders a Kindle book, that book reverts to the "Pretend U" collection once a certain time is elapsed - and is available for someone else to "check it out." This would all have to be seamless on the page that Amazon (and hopefully other providers) offer when the patron signs into the web site.

--Set the physical library up like the Apple Store with the Genius Bar (as Mitrano's list recommends) - or maybe a better analogy would be a really wonderful book store. Have a good selection of current physical books (ones that have been pre-bought or returned by patrons once they have read after self-ordering), displayed like a book in attractive racks and displays (as opposed to hidden in stacks). Learn from bookstores how to create an inviting study and collaboration space around books and information.

--Allow the collection to grow based on demand and usage. Have the "books on demand" printer just like the Harvard Book Store - hooked up to your cloud based collection provider (Amazon and competitors), so the patron has the choice of instantly downloading the e-book, downloading the audiobook, or printing the book on demand. Again, the print book (and the digital books) revert to the collection once the lending period is up.

--Use the digital and physical set-up to stress the social nature of learning and library usage. Provide opt-in opportunities for sharing and community building around the materials.

Okay… I realize that this is a fantasy (or a nightmare!). Amazon does not have any sort of program in place that would allow libraries to work with them to move as much of collections to an on-demand and cloud based system. And right now Amazon looks like the only company that could pull this off (as they own Audible for audiobooks and they have their Kindle and e-book program), so Pretend U would be locked in to one provider.

The real question is whether this is an appealing fantasy. What would we lose? What would we gain?


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