Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Rock-Star Librarian and Objective Selector

You probably can't name any musical performers from the 18th or 19th century. But you've probably heard of Enrico Caruso. Caruso had a sharp business sense to go along with a legendary voice, and he took advantage of cutting edge technology to make his voice heard by more people than perhaps any other human before him. He earned millions of dollars from the sales of his recordings before his untimely death in 1920. He was the first rock-star opera singer.

In my article about the changing role of public libraries in the ebook economy, I observed that libraries would have a diminished economic role when most books had become digital. How will the the role of librarians change when this happens?

Librarians have already seen their roles change drastically as library operations have moved onto the internet. Cataloging has changed profoundly, reference has been googlized and pre-internet licensing was almost nonexistent. But these changes have occurred in the context of relatively stable institutions. In what ways will the technological shift to ebooks transform both the role and the context of librarians?

Here's one possibility: objective selection.

I mentioned tropical fish farmers as an example of a group with distinctive information needs, and thus in need of a specialized collection of ebooks. Someone needs to do the selection. But why limit the luxury of customized collections to obscure trade groups? Shouldn't knitters be able to support a custom-selected ebook library? what about bass guitarists? Erlang programmers? Hula dancers?

Some book publishers imagine that their future is tied to the development of "verticals", or units that specialize in a single subject and thereby develop strong relationships with their audience. They imagine developing libraries of digital content to satisfy market needs and selling these libraries by subscription. And while this is likely to be a sensible strategy, it is at the same time rather limiting. It seems to me that the libraries that best serve the consumer's needs will be built by objective selectors, not marketing mavens.

The importance of objective selection is borne out in today's book business, in which the the most powerful person is Oprah Winfrey. Her viewers trust her to select books based on their merit and her good taste, rather than their profit potential. A book selected for Oprah's Book Club will rack up hundreds of thousands of sales.

The reason the transition to ebooks could amplify the role of selectors is that new models for selling books are possible. In the print world, you would never think of buying a collection of 1000 books at any price, even if it was selected for you by Oprah herself. In the e-book world, one could easily imagine wanting to buy subscriptions to 1000-book collections- not so much to read, but to keep on the computer and the iPhone just in case.

If you accept the idea of the thousand ebook libraries and how you would market them, you are inevitably led to the concept of rock-star librarians. Collections can't be marketed by specific content, or else there would be cannibalization of single-item sales. Marketing of collections would have to be centered around the selectors. Think how much some people would pay to have Warren Buffett's librarian selecting their thousand ebook libraries! Selectors would no longer be anonymous John Does. They would develop their own followings, their own brands, their own communities. These communities would not be bounded by geography; a top selector would reach patrons around the world, just as Enrico Caruso's voice did.

If you're a publisher, your first reaction is probably that this is nonsense, and that publishers would be better positioned to develop brands and communities. Why would publishers ever offer discounted ebooks through objective selectors, let alone allow a percentage for the selectors to live on? The reason, of course, is the demand curve. Objective selectors will earn their economic keep by helping to aggregate demand and segment the market. Their libraries will provide access to books that the consumer needs but wouldn't buy on their own; those are the sales that publishers will try their best to keep to themselves.

Having an objective intermediary between consumer and publisher could have other types of benefits, most notably privacy. Librarians have a strong code of ethics surrounding the rights of patrons to read without fear of having someone looking over their shoulder, and these values could be built in to a ebook selection and collection platform. Publishers may well find it easier to sell certain kinds of content when it comprises part of a discreetly selected library.

It could happen. The other possibility is that punk rock stars could take jobs now and then as librarians. That could happen, too.
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  1. Your future sounds plausible to me -- but what's to say librarians are the ones who end up being those selectors? And how to maximize that probability?

  2. I only got as far as the first paragraph before hitting the "Post a Comment"...

    I'd be a damned poor librarian if I COULDN'T name a musical performer from the 19th century ((and yes, I could name a few from the 16th, 17th and 18th, too!)...

    Caruso wasn't the first "rock-star opera singer" but obviously, he's the first one that comes to mind for you. Musically-speaking, there were many who were as shrewd and had an impact that rivals what you call a "rock star."Franz Listz had women swooning, yes, fainting away, long before Caruso was practicing his vocalise...

    Now as to "Librarian-as-rockstar"...I think you're idea is going be more likely to evolve in the academic libraries, particularly in special collections, since there is an historical precedent for just what you have described. Many of the founding collections w/in SCs are the result of the bibliophilic curatorial expertise that many collectors had achieved...Public libraries have long since moved away from that kind of collection building and I'm not sure that you will see the kind of "star" level of collecting there.

    Interesting directions, though...

  3. Maxwell- your comment is exactly the type that makes blogging fun! As to where rockstars might come from- I think the important skill is understanding the consumers, and that might not be so bibliophilic. Duck- there are editors buried in the publishing houses who might make great selectors; as to whether selectors come from publishing backgrounds or library backgrounds probably depends a lot on business conditions in libraries vs. publishing houses.

  4. Hi Eric, You mention that "cataloguing has changed profoundly." But many of us in the cataloging community feel that it hasn't (at least not yet). I think our complex bibliographic standards and structures make it difficult to be agile in responding to change.

  5. Chris- When I visit libraries, I hear that original cataloging is no longer done or that the cataloging staff is a small fraction of what it used to be. That's what I meant by profound change- you're right that the cataloging that's done hasn't changed a lot.

  6. But this is already happening, and it's not librarians who are doing it. The people who are going to be successful in telling others what to read are the people who are already successful in telling others what to think. No-one will want to hear from Warren Buffett's librarian, they will want to hear from Warren Buffett; the brand has been built, and it wasn't through book selection.
    You're right that curation is the new creation, but it won't create rock stars. Rather, current stars will have leverage in this area (think Oprah's book club), and others will become trusted by relatively few, devoted, fans (think punk-rock, not rock).

  7. Nick, You may be right about brand extension, but librarians have never really told people what to read. What they do is figure out what books people should have available to them. It's a small difference, but an important one. Unknown what the market for that will be.

  8. I think that's a good point, but it seems to me that the novel part situation we're facing is that everyone will have potential access to everything. So, rather than deciding what books people will have available to them, these new "rock stars" will highlight a small subset of this wealth, benefitting people by reducing their search space. I think the effect will be far closer to trusting a reviewer to recommend good stuff, than someone selling you a package of books. People don't even buy albums by their favourite artists anymore.