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Magazines > Online > July/August 2004
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Online Magazine
Vol. 28 No. 4 — July/August 2004
Disruptive? Who You Calling Disruptive?
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 form—our ability to know and understand events would be severely compromised.

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 point—and why libraries were early adopters of online and Internet technology. It parallels the information professional's ethos of free and unfettered access to information—all 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.

Marydee Ojala [] is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to

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