Disruptive? Who You Calling
By Marydee Ojala Editor
Disruptive technologies, those that
require a complete rethinking of an existing business
model, are endemic to the library and information world.
Probably the first technology to affect information
acquisition and dissemination was Gutenberg's printing
press. It democratized knowledge sharing and gave people
a reason to become literate. Without the printing press,
libraries would not exist in their present formour
ability to know and understand events would be severely
Although there have been disruptive technologies
between Gutenberg's age and the present century, only
the Internet comes close to being as democratizing.
Many new technologies, although perhaps being disruptive
to established businesses and industries, don't involve
a radical rethinking of how people live and work. The
Internet has the potential to make everyone a researcher,
a communicator, a publisher, and a student. It cuts
through time and geographic barriers. It causes us
to rethink how we deliver education and how we operate
libraries. It lowers information costs, expands the
amount and types of information available, and creates
a more level playing field for serious research.
Online began as a disruptive technology, but it was
not nearly as democratic as the Internet. The earliest
online bibliographic databases rewrote the rules on
how indexes were published and used. Full-text databases
rewrote the rules on how librarians purchased, accessed,
and delivered information to clients and patrons. Today's
emphasis on open access and the unbundling of journal
subscriptions has the potential to further challenge
existing publishing models. But it was Internet information
and Web searching that democratized online research,
not traditional online.
Clayton Christensen, in his book The Innovator's
Dilemma, says, "The Internet looms as an
infrastructural technology that is enabling the
disruption of many industries." Viewing the Internet
as a disruption enabler rings true for the library
and information space, particularly since it's
not a profit-making industry, which is the lens
through which Christensen views disruptive technologies.
Does the Internet disrupt how libraries operate?
Yes. Does it alter their look and feel? Yes. Does it
afford opportunities libraries lacked before? Yes.
Does it disrupt the basic reasons why libraries exist?
No. That may be the most important pointand why
libraries were early adopters of online and Internet
technology. It parallels the information professional's
ethos of free and unfettered access to informationall
information, not just the information deemed acceptable
by one group or another.
Can people be disruptive technologies? Christensen
suggests as much when he identifies nurse practitioners
as disruptive technologies (physicians were the established
technologies). I find the notion of librarians and
information professionals being disruptive technologies
extremely appealing. What a wonderful role to assume!
I'm not just a librarian. I don't just work in an information
department. I don't just perform research using online
tools. I'm a disruptive technology. If information
professionals are disruptive technologies, and we are,
I suggest we enjoy this pivotal role, relish our power,
rethink our priorities, and assert our distinctiveness.
Ojala [firstname.lastname@example.org] is
the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters
to the editor to email@example.com.