Academic journal article Journal of Library Innovation

The Academic Library: Cowpath or Path to the Future?

Academic journal article Journal of Library Innovation

The Academic Library: Cowpath or Path to the Future?

Article excerpt


This paper relates the traditional academic library to the expression, "don't pave the cowpath". Originating in the IT world, this expression means to not integrate technology into an established practice without assessing whether the process is still effective or still needed. Even though sustaining technologies have simplified information retrieval and library tasks, library organizational structure and processes remain pretty much unchanged. This article discusses the cowpath that academic libraries have followed for decades and the challenges disruptive technologies pose to the traditional model. It looks at how one academic library rejected tradition, got offthe cowpath and created a different kind of academic library-one that is innovative and fits the mission of an experimental new college.

The expression "don't pave the cowpath," popular in the IT world, is often interpreted to mean that technology should not be applied to an established practice without thinking about whether that process is still effective or still needed. The technological solution may be the path of least resistance, but it may not be the best way. Perhaps the process needs to be changed or even eliminated. This saying can be applied to the library world with regard to sustaining practices (i.e., practices that improve a process without changing the underlying methods) versus disruptive practices (i.e., practices that radically change or eliminate the underlying process). The library has faced significant technological changes over time, but many of the changes have been more of a sustaining nature (Lewis, 2004). For instance, libraries replaced traditional card catalogs with online MARC records that allowed for faster and easier retrieval of library information; however, these MARC records were based on the same fields used in the card catalog. This is an example of paving the cowpath. In this instance, technology was applied, but the underlying structure remained the same.

Jerry Campbell (2006) states that even with the introduction of new technology, "academic libraries have continued to operate more or less as usual" (p. 20). Lewis (2004) argues that disruptive technologies are the biggest threat to the academic library today, but these technologies are revolutionary and have the potential to blaze a new path for the academic library, whether wanted or not.

This paper first examines the theory of disruptive technology innovation and the future of the academic library and then presents an overview of a library model created specifically for an experimental new community college started in 2012 by the City University of New York (CUNY). Guttman Community College had the opportunity to start from scratch and create an innovative library services model built on the pedagogy of the school and the uniqueness of the student population. By implementing innovative technology and practices, Guttman's library hopped offthe cowpath and forged its own unique path.

Sustaining vs. Disruptive Technologies

There is a distinction between a sustaining technology and a disruptive technology. Christensen (as cited in Lewis, 2004) states that even though "both types [of technologies] result in change, they have different characteristics, and bring very different kinds of change" (p. 68). Lewis (2004) explains Christensen's definition of a sustaining technology in the following way:

Sustaining technologies improve the performance of established products along dimensions of performance that mainstream customers in major markets have historically valued. Sustaining technologies improve products or processes, and they can be driven by new, and sometimes even revolutionary, technologies, but what is important is that the improvements result in accomplishing the same thing, only doing it better. (p. 68)

Sustaining technologies are an example of a cowpath, where technology was applied, but the path remains the same. …

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