Perpetual Beta – The Real 21st Century Library Model?


For many months now I have been writing and contemplating about what the 21st Century Library is, does and looks like. I began with a “model” that essentially only describes various external social factors that influence the environment of a 21st Century Library (technology advances, societal changes and education reforms) that surround the fundamental elements of librarianship, and uses technology to provide customer-centered services. On its face it doesn’t mean much on its face, without considerable detailed explanation, which could be why it met with thundering indifference.

I moved to a more ‘squishy’ (meaning ill-definable characteristics) model of a 21st Century Library as being more appropriately defined by local circumstances, local customers’ needs and local strategic partnerships to determine what and how to deliver customer-centered services using new 21st Century library skills like crowdsourcing, open innovation, planned abandonment, and customer targeting. While this was closer to fitting the real world conditions and the uncertain future, it wasn’t quite complete, especially for implementation purposes.

I am now beginning to think that ‘perpetual beta‘ might be as close as anyone can come to a model for a 21st Century Library. Just as it sounds, perpetual beta implies continual evolution and constant change - the ONLY certainty. Considering that the various external social factors that influence the environment of a 21st Century Library are in perpetual evolution, it seems reasonable to think that the appropriate response would be a ‘perpetual beta’ model of the 21st Century Library.

According to publisher and open source advocate Tim O’Reilly:

“Users must be treated as co-developers, in a reflection of open source development practices …. The open source dictum, ‘release early and release often‘, in fact has morphed into an even more radical position, ‘the perpetual beta’, in which the product is developed in the open, with new features slipstreamed in on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. It’s no accident that services … may be expected to bear a ‘Beta’ logo for years at a time.”

… O’Reilly described the concept of perpetual beta as part of a customized … environment with these applications as distinguishing characteristics:
• Services, …, with cost-effective scalability
• …
• Trusting users as co-developers
• Harnessing collective intelligence
• Leveraging the long tail through customer self-service
• …
• Lightweight user interfaces, development models, and business models.

[Wikipedia: Perpetual beta]

I have advocated adoption of business principals to run the 21st Century Library because we can no longer afford to believe that the library has no competition. We are drowning due to the competition, as well as due to our own lack of vision and innovation. We didn’t recognize the future and now it is upon us with all its implications, demands, and consequences. Not only is the future NOW, it is in a state of continual change and advancement to the degree that next year will be significantly different from this year, just as this year is significantly different from last year. The failing economy only exacerbated the technology advances, societal changes and education reforms factors. Conventional approaches to library operations and librarianship are no longer useful or appropriate.

Monika Hardy proposed in her Post of Aug. 1-11, Wanted (And Needed): ‘Radical’ Collaborations, that education needs to change to embrace an essential 21st Century thinking.

To succeed in our fluid/agile world, we need to think less about defining/measuring a fixed content/curriculum, (less about worrying and playing defense), and more about creating some overarching patterns evidenced in the process of learning to learn. Not only does that make learning/life more fun, intellectual learning and affiliated capabilities are amped as the motivation is intrinsically driven by the pleasure of finding things out and by understanding wicked problems. [Emphasis added.]


Hardy’s Detox, from the InnovationLab in Loveland, Colorado.

Librarians need to ‘think less about defining … a fixed content … and more about creating some overarching patterns evidenced in the process‘ of librarianship. In order to address the ever changing future, librarians must create and adopt more overarching patterns that guide library operations, as opposed to the conventional principals and practices that the profession has always advocated. Remember futurist Alvin Toffler’s Forward to Rethinking the Future, 1999, “The illiterate of the 21st Century are not those that cannot read or write, but those that can not learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Librarians should be the VERY LAST profession who might be considered illiterate because they are incapable of unlearning those conventional principals and practices and relearning the unconventional ideas and innovations that are necessary to keep the 21st Century Library relevant, thriving and providing 21st Century Library services.

Perpetual beta means that what worked yesterday will need to be reassessed tomorrow in light of the changes in the external factors that occurred overnight (figuratively speaking), and revised practices applied to meet new challenges.

Perpetual beta means library organizations MUST adopt business practices, such as:
• Continuous Assessment
• Service Oriented
• Marketing Strategy
• Innovation
• Efficient
• Flexible
• Responsive
• Nimble
[ The 21st Century Library is More: Business-like ]

Perpetual beta means reinventing your job, and your library – continuously.

Perpetual beta means that librarians must “learn, unlearn, and relearn” their profession every year through continuing education and self-education, because…..

Perpetual beta means that the practice of librarianship is evolving well beyond higher education’s capability to stay current with curriculum that will teach librarians what they need to know to practice their profession in the future.

Perpetual beta means that conventional librarianship principals and practices MUST give way to unconventional ideas and continual innovation.

Perpetual beta means last year’s Blog posts are obsolete.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Perpetual Beta – The Real 21st Century Library Model?

  1. Librarians CONNECT TO People & Info. — Right On!

    I’ve always seen the library & the librarian sitting between the User and the Resource, our jobs = connecting them. In other words, the librarian CONNECTING people and info.

    In this picture, the User occupies one side, with a question, a need for information, requiring a service, wanting something to enhance her/his quality of life, seeking entertainment, whatever.

    On the other side, the Resource contains the creative thought of an author, the research of scientists and advice of experts, the performance of academy award winners, books and pictures of how to hang drywall, how to plan a funeral, the history of the universe, the life of Elvis; also, the Resource includes the address for the IRS, the phone number for Planned Parenthood and the next meeting time of the community council and the local AA group.

    The library and the librarian, patiently wait – in situ – to connect the User with the appropriate Resource. Through our professional training and vast experience, we analyze the User’s articulated need, we dig deep and discover the “true” need and then make appropriate connection or referral.

    But I now believe this model is wrong, it doesn’t work any more. The librarian needs to step outside the library walls “Notice the unlikely. Dream boldly. Connect to people and info. Do what matters most.” Hardy’s got it right — Librarians CONNECT TO people and info.

    We cannot afford to sit in the library and wait for the questions to come. We need to be connecting with our customers out there where they are. We need to be connecting with the resources out there as well; seeking the info and the agencies that provide the info and services. I believe when librarians make the effort and connect with people the info will naturally flow and satisfy the “real” need.

  2. Steve,
    This is one of my mantras:the status quo is that there is no status quo. The future success of libraries rests on their ability to adapt and change, to search for new audiences and opportunities as well as fulfilling the needs of those who comprise the current audience and assessing current programs. “Perpetual beta means that what worked yesterday will need to be reassessed tomorrow in light of the changes in the external factors that occurred overnight (figuratively speaking), and revised practices applied to meet new challenges.” Amen! We will be constantly searching for the Promised Land!

  3. Oh, yes, figuratively speaking!

  4. Pingback: Perpetual Beta « Wei-Hsuan Chien

  5. Pingback: “Perpetual Beta” « s86190andy

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