The phrase “digital transformation” is getting thrown around a lot lately. Apparently if you, your employer, and your professional association—maybe even your dog—isn’t being digitally transformed, you’re just not good enough for the 21st century. The absence of digital transformation equates to failure.
But what does digital transformation mean for information professionals? There’s no ready answer to this question. Ask anyone who uses the phrase to define its meaning, and you won’t uncover much in the way of consistency. Is it digital transformation when libraries move books to offsite storage facilities to concentrate on work areas for collaboration and access to electronic resources? Is it when our information literacy efforts concentrate on how to search Google, rather than subscription files, effectively? Is it when we embrace open access and abjure purchasing anything from for-profit publishers? Is it when we trust algorithms more than human vetting? Is it a fundamental change in how we operate?
Stalwarts of library databases are those grounded in aggregation. Think ProQuest, EBSCO, LexisNexis, Factiva, and Web of Science. But digital transformation is atomizing these aggregated resources, as individual publishers move to put their materials on their own platforms and as new databases spring up as individual sites on the web. This makes our job harder and more time-consuming. New platforms require learning how to use them and how to effectively teach their use to others.
Little resembling digital transformation is obvious in aggregated databases. Yet machine learning helps correct misspellings and suggests alternative search strategies. Open source search technology is now powering traditional databases. Video and other non-textual material are coming to the fore. The emphasis is switching from bibliographic databases to preservation and digitization.
Although we may think of web search engines as synonymous to traditional aggregated databases, the underlying search technology is quite different. It’s not about finding articles indexed by a thesaurus, where you enter the correct terms and retrieve the desired result. It’s about algorithms—algorithms that are not transparent. We have no idea why the search engines return the results they do. This makes it difficult to determine if retrieved information is biased, whether relevant data is not surfaced, and how much is created by bots. The ethical implications of the lack of transparency are critical to the value of online searching and to the values of the library and information science profession.
Digital transformation can affect libraries as well. Libraries can no longer build services based on the assumption that information is a scarce resource. It isn’t, not anymore. So where does the value of the library, its staff, and its physical presence lie? Electronic resources are part of the answer, but maximizing space is another. Every library will have a different approach to digital transformation, based on the populations they serve, but all need to rethink their mission, figure out where new technologies provide benefits, and act on their conclusions. Digital transformation means investigating what that phrase means to you, your library, and your association—maybe even your dog, although I doubt it.