Move Forward or Sink?

Guest blogger Scott Hargrove, Director of IT and Support Services at the Fraser Valley (BC) Regional Library reflects on the future of the institution and of the profession.

Do we move forward or sink?

Thirty years ago, libraries were the dominant player in the information industry, with limited competition including the media, professional analytical firms and institutions of higher learning. For the average citizen, the library was the first and only choice to meet information needs. To say that the growth of the Internet and the knowledge economy has changed the situation is a drastic understatement.

For the first time, libraries face strong competition in traditional core service areas – including lifelong learning, community programming, and access to both content and information, to name a few.

It could be argued that the competition is doing a better job, at a lower cost. Given the environment of fiscal restraint in which we currently live, is it any wonder that our funders, communities and our profession itself are looking at the relevance of library services with a sharply critical eye?

Gartner Inc. justifiably bills themselves as “the world's leading information technology research and advisory company”. They are quoted in the media almost every day for their analytical expertise in tracking and predicting the vagaries of the technology marketplace, and the relative dominance of the companies who are at the leading edge of the knowledge economy.

Gartner Magic Quadrants

One of the many tools they employ is the Gartner Magic Quadrants model.

In a nutshell, the model is a simple square representing the axes of a line chart:


An industry player is rated on both the completeness of the vision and the ability to execute the business.

The intersection of these two qualities indicates in which of four categories the business falls:

  • Niche Player: An organization that can be relied upon to serve a small market segment, or which is unfocused and unable to present strong competition
  • Challenger: An organization with a solid track record and dominant position within a market, but without a clear understanding of current market direction and focus
  • Visionary: An organization with a clear understanding of where their market is going, but which have not demonstrated the ability to execute that vision
  • Leader: An organization which has a clear vision of where their market is going, and a clear, proven capability to execute that vision

Gartner Inc. uses an exhaustive array of data, including market analysis, historical economic success and potential for future profitability to determine where a given player sits within their industry.

Their analysis drives investments, corporate direction and the market itself. Many of their evaluation indicators are not available in the library industry, itself an indication of our difficulty in properly assessing the value of our services.

The libraries of 30 years ago were unquestionably in the Leader Quadrant of the information industry. Now, most library leaders would likely place the library profession in the Challenger Quadrant, or perhaps in the Niche Player Quadrant.

Our vision and strategies moving forward are unclear, and while our ability to execute our business is historically excellent, we are not currently as fiscally efficient as many of our competitors at providing our core services.

From Leader to Challenger – to Leader?

Google’s “good enough” approach appears to have won over many of our customers in information services, and Parks and Recreation departments are able to offer story time programming at significantly less cost than libraries.

Meanwhile, we cling to practices and values which have become obsolete, such as the reference interview and customer privacy, while our customers increasingly choose competitors that provide a better value proposition for the services they want.

As an optimist, I would place us in the Challenger Quadrant, and I believe I can justify our inclusion in that quadrant, but I regularly wonder – will the profession move forward to become a Leader once again, or will we continue to sink into the Niche Player Quadrant?

What do we need to do to become a Leader once again?

How must our value proposition change?



About Scott Hargrove

Scott Hargrove is the director of IT and support services for the Fraser Valley Regional Library, and a presenter on digital competition at the Future of Libraries Institute.

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2 Responses to Move Forward or Sink?

  1. David Parker November 29, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    Looking in from the outside, I see two likely outcomes that will shape where the library and librarians go: the convergence of IT and Information Services (the “library’) and the compression of roles of media librarianship, collection development, and discovery services into the uber reference librarian. Herein lies, potentially, the “Leader” role for the library on campus and the librarian as the subject master across broad information assets.

    • Scott Hargrove December 3, 2013 at 6:08 pm #

      Curious – in contrast, I see the convergence of IT and Information Services leading to more specialized roles for librarians, as opposed to greater compression of roles. My background is in IT and public libraries, so perhaps things are different in this world than in the academic, but within the IT field, we are seeing a steady progression to more specialized roles. Some of the IT consultants we work with at FVRL spend their entire time working on one brand of one type of platform, and view generalized IT roles as the path to extinction. In the words of one of the consultants, “generalists don’t know enough about any one platform to accomplish anything useful”. IT departments are following suit as well, with increasingly defined specialities within the department. I had assumed that academic librarians were moving toward more specialized roles as well. By “subject master”, do you mean that the reference librarian would perform all of the tasks within a defined subject speciality, such as microbiology, for example, or be a subject expert across multiple disciplines?