Libraries, Knowledge Management, and Communities of Practice

By Cohen, Alex | Information Outlook, January 2006 | Go to article overview
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Libraries, Knowledge Management, and Communities of Practice


Cohen, Alex, Information Outlook


The library collection included many bound journals. There were stacks and stacks of items that had not been moved for many years. A brief examination of the materials in the compact storage area started to make my nose itch. Indeed, just slightly moving the materials created a dusty smell that permeated the small area and made it difficult to breathe.

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The materials were valuable and part of a rare collection of Federal Reporters, but is that a community of practice? Was this a valid use of floor space at $350 per square foot? Or did the program need more user-accessible space for collaboration, training, and ad hoc research? Were the materials more important than the community of users? What does a community of practice deliver to users?

If it were up to me, I would try to define a space where people share resources. From research on the Internet in information management and library periodicals, I've come up with this definition: A community of practice is an environment designed for dialogue in a subject-based, peripheral fashion (similar to an exchange at a meeting place) that generates organizational performance. The content captured is meant specifically for community memory and organizational consumption. According to Koenig and Srikantaiah, "[T]hose who perform similar functions but are in a geographically dispersed knowledge-sharing system could be a community of practice" (2000, p. 104).

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Libraries are challenged by the concept of knowledge systems and architecture. In the virtual environment, the library could be a content management system in which different members of a group have the authority to read, write, and edit information. In the physical environment, the facility plays the role of a professional host, with physical zones for collaborative work, groups of materials, technology, and tables and chairs. Librarians and information technology (IT) experts often seem to confuse how to measure the two environments. They do not share the same cost systems: One is IT; the other is architecture.

According to St. Clair and Reich, "[K]nowledge services is a management approach that brings information management, knowledge management, and strategic (performance-centered) learning together into an enterprise-wide holistic and wide-ranging function" (2002, p. 26). This statement implies that knowledge occurs on a network; on the other hand, a library is also a place.

Demonstrating Value

At a brainstorming session at the ALA Midwinter Conference in February 2000, participants from various academic institutions identified potential library functions in an effort to define return on investment for a library within an organization. The exercise gained attention in the field of library science because the participants provided quantifiable support for the library as an institution. The following library-related cost drivers were identified and posted on a Web site (Deiss, 2002):

Public Services

* Information literacy

* Circulation

* Faculty liaison work

* Electronic reserves

* Cost of delivering electronic services (i.e., one function)

* Reference services: traditional vs. online; internal vs. external customers

* Just-in-time vs. just-in-case services

Technical Services

* Serials check-in

* Cataloging process

* Acquisitions

* Serials: ownership vs. access (use studies)

Human Resources

* Personnel management

* Staff training and retraining

* E-mail use and general communication

Facilities/Automation

* URL and connection maintenance on Web pages: What are internal costs?

* Buildings: space/storage cost, physical and electronic

* Systems administration

Implicit in this discussion is the value of the library to the institution and the need for librarians to demonstrate their ROI and illustrate their strategic value.

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