D-Lib Magazine
December 2000

Volume 6 Number 12

ISSN 1082-9873

Information Services for Higher Education

A New Competitive Space


Carol Ann Hughes
Questia Media, Inc.

Red Line


(This article is based on a presentation made by the author at the 2000 LITA National Forum.)



In this paper I want to reflect on the "competitive space" that librarians now occupy and strategies that may offer the best chance to maintain services important to our user communities in the turbulent years ahead. The term "competitive space" is applied rather tentatively since it may be perceived as a mildly loaded term -- especially from someone who now works for a commercial firm. But for at least the last ten years of my professional life in academic libraries we have seen higher education recognize itself as an important economic sector for our country’s continued prosperity, and we have heard repeatedly that the new economy is based on knowledge. Life today in higher education is lived in "competitive space."

Higher Education as Competitive Space

In a presentation at EDUCAUSE in October this year, David Halberstam [1] gave an eloquent synthesis of the advantages that the United States has in a future in which the wealth of nations is calculated on the education of its people, not on its natural resources. He declared the United States to be an education "superpower." He pointed out that California or even the metropolitan area of Boston has more outstanding educational institutions than most countries in the world. Our public education system includes institutions that are as excellent as Oxford or Cambridge. I would add that our community college and public library systems are unmatched anywhere in the world for providing high quality education and information access to citizens without regard for social class, ability to pay, or geography.

In a world in which information forms the basis of economic wealth, there is going to be increased demand for all sorts of information goods and services. Demand rises because knowledge can lead to prosperity. Now as never before the investment in lifestyle and money which individuals are willing to make in acquiring education and information increases. In such an environment, the market for high quality and innovative services for the personal acquisition of information expands. With an expanding market comes a corresponding competition for market share among suppliers.

Any organization that undertakes an educational mission in our society is now and will increasingly be surrounded by alternative information service suppliers. The alternatives may come from the not-for-profit sector. Examples of new reliable sources of information services include individuals who mount high-quality information and tutorials on the web for free, traditional not-for-profit organizations like the university in a neighboring state which has a better library or a higher ranking in one’s chosen field of study, or not-for-profits who have perhaps reorganized into a profit mode for non-primary clientele, like Fathom [2] or the National Technological University [3]. If the Collaborative Digital Reference Service [4] project sponsored by the Library of Congress launches on schedule, even reference services may be offered to anyone via the web regardless of institutional affiliation.

It is even more likely that alternatives may come from the for-profit sector. Commercial entities are now seeking new opportunities to increase their products and services. Traditional publishers like Prentice-Hall [5] are beginning to offer their digital texts online direct to purchasers whereas before they sold only to libraries or through bookstores. Publishers such as Pearson Education [6] offer teaching support materials for lecturers and online self-assessment materials for students. Entirely new services like Questia SM [7] are emerging that offer direct to individuals online research tools, such as bibliography and citation creation tools, along with XML-encoded full texts of scholarly information for a subscription fee. Companies such as Smarthinking [8] offer information services, i.e., assistance with writing term-papers and real-time tutors, direct to individuals regardless of the college in which they are enrolled.

In this "competitive space," the role of the library as the primary aggregator and purveyor of content to its community is less and less unique. Local collections and staff are no longer the only source for information services to serious learners and support for faculty in their research and teaching. The future will require librarians to think creatively and adopt a new entrepreneurial spirit to advance the core services they wish to maintain as the "common good" for their constituencies. This statement may not be a radically new call to action for we have told ourselves this for the past decade. But Jerry Campbell [9] at the same EDUCAUSE meeting said it a bit more directly than I had heard it before. He asked: "Would the lack of librarians cause our system of higher education to crumble?" Librarians have to make sure that students, university administrators and faculty would all reply with a resounding "yes."

What is making this information economy possible? Information technology. And especially the Web technologies. But we have not seen anything yet. John Seely Brown, Chief Scientist at Xerox Parc, wrote an interesting article in the March/April issue of Change entitled "Growing Up Digital" [10]. In that article he made the point that the web is in a development phase right now; it is by no means mature. He likened it to the adoption of electricity. The first generator was developed in 1831. But then it took 25 years or more to get the power plants' delivery infrastructure to every home, and commercial billing systems set up. Not to mention the invention of a critical mass of electric appliances. But after that development, electricity had an exploding impact. Nothing we do is the same as it was before electricity -- everybody’s daily life is different. Seely Brown predicts that the Web is going to have a similarly profound effect on everyone’s daily life in just a few years after this development phase is completed.

And what is the attraction of the Web? Ubiquity, convenience, speed, and customization of information. These "drivers" are not new. Remember the "Principle of Least Effort"? Librarians may bemoan the fact that students only do the minimum amount to get an assignment completed, but one must admit that this is a human trait to which all human beings, librarians included, are prone. Marcia Bates, faculty member of the UCLA School of Information Studies, made what may be a hopeful comment at a recent California ACRL conference [11]. She indicated that perhaps the simplicity and ubiquity of the Web is approaching the point at which the effort required to search for information equals the "least effort" that most people are willing to expend. If this is the case, then we might be headed for a true information age. But nothing more than minimal effort must be required for people to incorporate more information searching in their lives. Increasingly, the reward must be great indeed to inspire people to take the extra effort for non-ubiquitous, geographically bounded, slow, "one size fits all" information services, even if it is free.

User Characteristics

What are some of the characteristics of users who are going to be making significant choices within this new service space? Starting with the students, one of the most important characteristics to note is that of preferring to be self-sufficient in their information gathering.

That people increasingly use the web first was brought home to me by a recent CNN news spot that I saw in the airport. The reporter was talking about a personal research project that they were undertaking on the Web. After describing the various websites visited the reporter stated: "then I hit a dead end. So I went to the library." It seems that users are beginning to perceive the library as something used at the end, or at best the middle, of their information search. This has important implications for our user education programs, as well as our understanding of how those users who come to the library decide to do so. They do not come to the library first for the problem definition and information gathering phases. They prefer to dive into the problem alone first rather than coming to the common space.

Users want control of their own information environment. It is important to them to have some items owned for convenient personal consultation. They know the texts well enough to be able to consult them by remembering that the passage they want is on the left hand side below the photograph. They prefer to use a private good rather than a common good if they can. Users don’t want to be dependent on anyone else if they can afford (in terms of both time and money) not to be.

And can they afford it? Data reported by some market analyst firms that specialize in the undergraduate market indicate that personal disposable income for discretionary purchases is growing at over 10% a year. More than one in three students recently reported discretionary spending of more than $150 per month. Agreed, having discretionary income does not mean that students will spend it on educational services and information. But it depends on the quality of life that it provides to them for other obligations they have. Students do indeed have obligations other than attending class. The convenience factor and the value added by the functionality of the service itself will be key in how choices about service providers are made.

Do users mind the blending of individual commerce and academe? Perhaps not as much as students in an earlier time. In the last few years we have seen the need for many libraries to offer unsubsidized, for-fee document delivery services to individuals requiring quick access, with the understanding that the user will pay the fee. Every web search engine and some databases that libraries subscribe to include advertisements continually as part of the page. Students are used to this and basically ignore them. Many library websites include links to [12] or commercial search engines.

The new student intranet software MASCOT [13] provides colleges with a complete student intranet tailored to the particular institution's data. But one page of the site is an e-commerce page created in collaboration with EDU.COM. Marketing directly to the students is part of the university’s environment for managing communications on a broader scale. No longer are all academic resources bundled together and provided free of individual charge through institution-based overhead. There are more commercial alternatives offered and self-support requirements included in student life every day. Students are not necessarily nostalgic for a "purer" age based on the total provision of all required goods except textbooks. They have never known such a situation.

Another salient characteristic of the new student is that they don’t enjoy having to go to the library when they need human assistance. Users want to use whatever information is "at hand." William Arms, editor in chief at D-Lib Magazine, was recently quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education [14]. He commented on the fact that the amount of information used in one’s professional work that is available openly on the Internet is dramatically greater than it was in 1990. He went further to point out that it is his impression that the information available free on the Web is the information that gets used. He used his own experience in searching for copyright information. He said, "We looked up Section 407 [of the U.S. Code] and away we went. We would never have gone to a library."

If students do need to ask a person for information help, they go to a friend or co-worker because that person already has an understanding of that person’s context for either the problem or their level of understanding. So there is less explaining to do. Or they Ask Jeeves [15]. Because, as Janice Koyama expressed it, "Users are more in control of the process, choosing the web exactly for its speed, convenience, anonymity, and lack of personal contact. With a keystroke, users might send the same request simultaneously to a number of providers and end the reference encounter at will." [16] Face-to-face reference interviews that are conducted within the physical space in which a person is researching and writing no longer describes the users’ world of reference services. Students don’t want to be constrained by traditional hours of library service or participate in what Chris Ferguson characterizes as a Ptolemaic model of reference that "overlay[s] new service after new service [like email reference] without fundamentally altering underlying service models." [17]
Another characteristic of users today is that they are used to having a choice of formats for information that support different types of access. They want to interact with texts in different ways depending on the type of task, the stage in their research process, who they are. Researchers [18] have been investigating this issue for a long time. Sometimes users want paper and sometimes they want electronic formats. A recent exploratory analysis [19] done at Columbia University indicated that 3 times as many people used the electronic versions of monographs as used the paper. Yet the paper circulation of the titles did not decline. People preferred the electronic versions for certain kinds of quick study -- highlighting paragraphs, getting a feel for what the argument of the narrative was, etc, -- but preferred paper versions for longer, linear readings. Offering undifferentiated access to texts is perhaps less useful than it once was.

Are people who share the characteristics described above willing actually to pay for ubiquitous, convenient, fast, and customized information access? Perhaps they will be more willing than at any other time in history because more is at stake, if you believe Halberstam. If a family’s survival or advancement depends on education, people will be willing to look for alternatives that fit their time constraints, their preferences and pocketbook. The library will be only one of several options. They will have choices.

What about the faculty users of library services in this new service space? How is their common space changing?

Faculty also want control of their information environments, especially for teaching. Concern for setting up reserve readings at the library has evolved into the use of course management software like WebCT [20] with links to electronic information integrated into the syllabus and support pages. Course management software packages are proliferating on campuses, as Donald Beagle pointed out in a recent C&RL article [21], as part of a larger academic agenda to address the need to support information technology in both distance education and campus-based learning. Beagle also notes that libraries have an uncertain role in web-based learning environments. Although students expect wide-ranging resources to be part of the course, the software is not really designed to support an approach in which information resources exist outside of it. He states: "That libraries should be marginalized during the onset of such a potentially transformative process is disturbing." I agree, and I am confident that the set of features faculty now have in course software will be greatly enhanced in the near future. If that is not the case, the course support "common space" occupied by libraries now may be greatly reduced.

A second change in learning environments is that of a greater emphasis on the public scrutiny of teaching and learning. The quality of someone’s teaching is no longer a personal matter or departmental matter. In a June issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education there was an article about the state of Virginia attempting to measure "the value the institution adds" for all its colleges [22]. The standard of value is to be how well a student masters core competencies like math, reading, and writing. Virginia is not the only state that has discussed how to measure the effectiveness of the investment that states make in higher education. Moreover, accreditation agencies such as Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) have developed specific criteria for accreditation [23]. One of WASC’s goals is to develop better evidence of effectiveness and student learning. To that end it specifically includes in its new standards for accreditation a requirement for evidence of effective student learning at the faculty/individual course level. The focus on student learning is, on many levels, a welcome one. But it brings faculty behavior in the classroom out of the dimension of a personal contribution, to a service that is evaluated for its quality, just like other paid services.

Another change in the learning "commons" has been brought about by university administrators who may assert university ownership over the development of courses designed to be offered over the web. There is great concern on many campuses about faculty being allowed to teach courses they have designed for online delivery for other universities. In some cases I have heard university counsel staff asserting university ownership of online courses on the basis of the course having been developed using university infrastructure, like computing centers and library materials. In other cases I have heard university ownership asserted because faculty paid at one institution should not be assisting another institution that may offer a cheaper charge-per-credit-hour for its students -- a claim of unfair competition. Whichever argument is advanced, faculty courses, especially those offered over the Web, are on the verge of being considered no longer as "share-ware". Course content is intellectual property that has competitive value for the institution.

Implications for Librarians

So what are the implications of all these changes? The Web is driving huge changes in the stakes for librarians, learners, and faculty alike as they work in their established not-for-profit "common space". Expectations for how services are offered and delivered to individuals are changing profoundly. Librarians will have to respond to shifts in higher education that move the entire institution toward greater involvement in corporate-university partnerships, increased outsourcing, and promotion of commercial services and products for both the professoriate and students.

As new technologies mature, a number of new opportunities will present themselves as challenges to librarians who wish to sustain their role as a provider of a common good in an increasingly heterogeneous and competitive space. Changes that bring the private and public sector closer together do not necessarily violate "our enduring values" at least as far as Michael Gorman has expressed them in his recent book by that title [24]. Ranganathan’s Fourth Law, "save the time of the reader" does not go on to qualify that statement by excluding the use of services paid for outside the institution’s budget. Joey Rodgers, President of the Urban Libraries Council, commented on a study released in October by stating, "This is an exciting time to be in the information business. Consumers have more choices than ever before, and they’re taking advantage of them. It’s equally exciting to learn that there’s still an important role in today’s New Economy for the neighborhood public library." [25]

The digital divide remains a concern. As Carolyn Denny pointed out in her recent Public Libraries article [26], "a clear correlation exists between race/ethnicity and computer ownership…National Telecommunications and Information Administration figures indicate that libraries and community centers are used for Internet access by blacks at a rate nearly double that of whites." However, hope is on the horizon. Singleton and Mast, in the November/December EDUCAUSE Review, claim that "internet technology is spreading to the general population far faster than did automobiles, telephones, radios, electricity, television, VCRs or microwave ovens." [27]

The real problem to tackle may be that of cultivating in the general populace a suite of literacy skills, from basic reading and writing to what Andy Carvin from the Benton Foundation terms "adaptive literacy", i.e., can one develop new skills in new situations [28]. It is in this arena of equity of access to not only equipment and telecommunications, but to culturally diverse content with protections for intellectual freedom and support for the acquisition of information literacy skills that librarians may be able to do the most to preserve the common good in a competitive market. Consumer education in terms of information services is vital for the future.

How does a group of librarians accomplish their goals in an environment of fast-paced technological change and deep-rooted change in users’ preferences for the use of library-based services? How can one hope organizationally to sustain the library and its services in a competitive environment?

Stoffle, Allen, and Fore have promoted "ten axioms to live by" taken from Jerry Campbell’s thought-provoking essay published earlier this year [29]. The axioms include statements like: "Your instincts are your best guide: trust yourself" and "Dare to take risks: action cannot wait for painstaking discussion." Although the axioms are presented as based on years of managerial experience, there is actually a body of research that supports similar types of strategies for survival in turbulent and uncertain environments.

Such a set of strategies has been suggested by the research of organizational psychologist Karl Weick, Rensis Likert College Professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology, University of Michigan. When faced by an uncertain future full of turmoil, his call is for organizations to: "complicate yourself." With that phrase he conveys his sense that developing detailed plans and focusing on a few strategic goals might not be the best strategy for the future lived in chaos [30]. He writes about how organizations and people are successful in times of chronic ambiguity in terms of "the law of requisite variety." The law of requisite variety would indicate that, in order to thrive in times of ambiguity, a person or an organization must stay attuned to multiple trends in the environment and must attempt multiple experiments to see which ones work, even though the temptation may be to simplify tasks and reduce overload.

If librarians are committed to sustaining their role as providers of an important common good in the emerging turbulent and competitive space of higher education, it can be done. But it will take energy, an in-depth knowledge of our users’ preferences and the changes they face, and a willingness to grapple with ambiguity and complexity on a daily basis. Rather than focusing on one or two comfortable long-term strategies, it may behoove librarians to experiment more, get out of the library building and talk to people who don’t use the library, and get involved with the issues that are shaping higher education in general. The ground rules are changing, but the value of libraries and librarians to the academic enterprise is enduring, and the opportunities now are nearly limitless -- especially for chaotic action!

Maybe some comfort can be taken in the fact that we librarians no longer have just one chance to influence the lives of the students with whom we come in contact. In a recent address to the Research Libraries Group, Hamish McRae, a London-based economic journalist and commentator stated: "Learning [is becoming] a lifetime activity, not one shot early on in life. One of the great opportunities of the knowledge industry is creating second chances." Both libraries and companies like Questia Media are part of the knowledge industry. I look forward to developing services, hopefully in partnership with librarians and educators, that offer innumerable second chances [31] for thousands of people in the coming years.

Notes and References

[1] Halberstam, David. "America then and now." EDUCAUSE 2000, Nashville, October 2000.

[2] < >.

[3] <>.

[4] <>.

[5] <>.

[6] < >.

[7] <>.

[8] <>.

[9] Campbell, Jerry. "On the future of libraries in the digital revolution." EDUCAUSE 2000, Nashville, October 2000.

[10] Seely Brown, John. "Growing up digital: how the web changes work, education, and the ways people learn, " Change 33(3):11-20 (March/April 2000).

[11] Bates, Marcia. "Shaping our own future." Librarians Are Us: Images & Realities, CARL 2000, Long Beach, October 2000.

[12]< >.

[13] <>.

[14] Olsen, Florence. "Open access is the wave of the information future, scholar says." The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 18, 2000. Available at: <>.


[16] Koyama, Janice. "http://digiref.scenarios.issues". Available at:<>.

[17] Ferguson, Chris. "Shaking the conceptual foundations too: Integrating research and technology support for the next generation of information service." College & Research Libraries 61(4):300-311 (July 2000).

[18] See for example: MacMullin, Susan E. and Taylor, Robert S. "Problem dimensions and information traits." The Information Society 3(1):91-111 (1984); and Oddy, Robert N. et al. "Towards the use of situational information in information retrieval." Journal of Documentation 48(2): 123-171. (1992)

[19] Summerfield, Mary, Mandel, Carol, and Kantor, Paul. The online books evaluation project, Columbia University. Final report. Available at: <>.


[21] Beagle, Donald. "Web-based learning environments: Do libraries matter?" College & Research Libraries 61(4):367-379 (July 2000)

[22] Schmidt, Peter. "States set a course for higher education systems," The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 30, 2000.

[23] WASC standards addressing the core commitments to institutional capacity & educational effectiveness. Available at: <>.

[24] Gorman, Michael. Our enduring values; librarianship in the 21st century. Chicago: American Library Association, 2000.

[25] "Research shows dawn of public libraries-internet partnership." Available at: <>.

[26] Denny, Carolyn. "Redefining librarianship: the case of the Eastside cybrary connection," Public Libraries 39(4):208-213 (July/August 2000).

[27] Singleton, Solveig and Mast, Lucas. "How does the empty glass fill? A modern philosophy of the digital divide." EDUCAUSE Review 35(6):30-36 (November/December 2000).

[28] Carvin, Andy. "More than just access: fitting literacy and content into the digital divide equation." EDUCAUSE Review 35(6):38-47 (November/December 2000).

[29] Stoffle, Carla, Allen, Barbara, and Fore, Janet. "Reinventing academic libraries and librarianship," College & Research Libraries News 61(10):894-897 (2000) and Campbell, Jerry. "Clinging to Traditional Reference Services," Reference & User Services Quarterly 39(3):223-227 (2000).

[30] Weick, Karl. The social psychology of organizing." 2nd ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 1979, and Weick, Karl. Making sense of the organization. Oxford: Blackwell Business, 2000.

[31] RLG News, No. 51, Fall 2000.

Copyright© 2000 Carol Ann Hughes

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DOI: 10.1045/december2000-hughes