what can ICANHASPDF teach us about remaining relevant

Written on Dec 9, 2013

This morning I came across this article from @thelabandfield about the #icanhazpdf twitter hash-tag and it’s effects on Libraries. Specifically, the effects on Inter-Library Loans (ILL) services.

A quick summary for those who haven’t heard of the #icanhazpdf twitter hash-tag – which included myself until I’d read this article. While doing research, if you come across a citation which you cannot find at your institution’s library, compose a tweet with the citation and this magical hash-tag, and your helpful followers will search their library for it and send you the elusive article as a PDF. For more details, see the original article.

#icanhazpdfThis hash-tag, explains @thelabandfield, is routing traffic away from the (generally zero cost) Inter-Library Loans system, set up to resolve precisely this issue. The article argued that by avoiding the proper system, your requests were not counted which has a number of ill effects. (It should also be mentioned that doing this is also most likely in breach of the libraries terms of service.)

While all this may be true, surely more focus needs to be placed on why people are using the the hash-tag instead of the official (and legal) system. It might seem fairly obvious, but if users aren’t using your service, you really must ask yourself why.

A comment by Janne provides some insight into this. The hash-tag is most often faster, easier and the product is a searchable PDF as opposed to a hard copy or rasterised (read: unsearchable, unselectable and annoying) PDF.

Clearly, if people are presented with a faster, easier and/or better service, they are going to use it. Instead of complaining that people aren’t choosing your service, it is your job to ask what you must do to stay relevant.

I don’t wish to trivialize the solution to this problem, but applying this to ILL’s and the #icanhazpdf hash-tag, there are two things that leap out at me for Libraries to consider:

  1. Twitter has a free to use API. A strong theme in the original article is that Libraries use the data from ILL requests to help direct decisions on future subscriptions. This hash-tag is a gold mine for this type of data.
  2. Your clients are demonstrating the service they want, and it’s free for the taking. The competitor is not a business – hungry to steal a slice of the market – it’s an open and free ecosystem. Obviously this is not going to be the only challenge the Internet presents to the Libraries, but complaining that people are not using your service when a better option exists will only ensure that you slip further in to irrelevancy.