Monday, April 28, 2008

TLA 2008 Conference Notes, Day 3: General Session II

The session, once they were done with the usual adminstrative stuff, was a panel on the topic of "Transforming Libraries."

Moderator: Roy Tennant (OCLC)
Speakers: Stephen Abram (SirsiDynix), Joseph Janes (University of Washington, I-School faculty), Karen Schneider (College Center for Automation, consultant, Tallahassee, Florida).

(This was one of the highlights of the conference for me. It left me with a lot to think about, and I took a lot of notes. Since it was a debate, there is no handout, so I hope my small set of notes catches at least a small part of their thinking; this was very much in a rapid-fire style, so not easy to take notes. I sort of had an epiphany while listening to them, which was reinforced later in the conference, but that, is another story. I will be using initials to identify who said what. Warning: This is a long post.)


  • RT opens with the question: What keeps you awake at night?
    • KS: The reemergence of reference. Reference becoming a specialized tool; students will use online reference when needed.
    • JJ: Reference is a small fraction as search engines will win. You want them (patrons) to think of you for specialized information. There is more to what we do than ready reference. We are useful when important things are needed. What keeps JJ awake at night? The question of what a librarian is. The nature of a librarian changes. The conversation is fine. The problem is that the conversation has heated up and it wants to lock down the definition of what a librarian is. It is a bad time to lock down that definition given all the change going on.
    • SA: An information professional (I think he was referring to the idea or definition of this, responding to JJ). Notice that library schools have changed, and many librarians did their MLS 20 years ago. Get a grip! (He is telling this to those who still want to type card catalog cards). What keeps SA awake? Overdone coffee (from Starbucks) that takes too long to make. Seriously, what keeps him up is: are our colleagues capable of making change? "Put your meat in the game" were the words SA used.
    • KS: How we are not an evidence-based profession (as I think it about it, this is something that keeps me up at night as well. Irks the heck out of me, but if I say it, no one listens. If one of these guys says it, maybe people will listen). Facebook as an example (of course, keep in mind that it often gets blocked from public computers). We have dogmas but mostly without evidence.
    • SA: Replies to the above: we are a social institution refusing to use social tools? (the irony writes itself, huh?)
    • JJ: This makes us look dumb. It's not about the tool, but how you use it.
    • SA: Loss of a Third Way (given all that will be left is Google and Microhoo, or whatever merges). Who will put quality information campaigns, etc. in place? Us, but we "poop" all over new initiatives.
  • Roy Tennant asks: If you could change one thing?
    • SA: Big picture confidence of our colleagues (this, for me at least, goes with Alire's presentation). We need more confident people. We need advocacy at the state and national levels.
    • KS: Put a software developer in every library. If we had a Manhattan Project, we could do anything (apps., our own software, OPACs that don't suck. And tell me about. My OPAC sucks big time).
    • SA: Invest in user experience. We need to be local and develop the local user experience as it is driven by context, not content.
    • JJ: Go and change collective professional attitudes from "no" to "yes." (that may be a little bit easier said than done)
    • SA: How to stop conflict and the old guard vs. new folks issue.
    • JJ: Meanwhile, those in the middle just cross their arms and wait (in the interest of disclosure, I am one of those in the middle. To be honest, I am of the philosophy of letting others kill each other, then deal with whoever is left standing. If both of them kill each other off, so much the better. I am really a bit tired of the whole "us vs. them" in librarianship.). The message often is don't fight the old guard. When it comes to patrons, "where the start is up to them, where they finish is up to you" (this is in reference to things like IM reference). Make a "fail blog." Try new things, when they fail, share it (again, another thing easier said than done. I have pondered once or twice such an idea, and I happen to like my job security as well as my future prospects well enough. Be honest, how many potential employers would look at a "fail blog" and see it as learning experiences? I am not holding my breath, but I think it can be a worthy idea still).
    • SA: Not supporting someone trying something new is sick ('nough said).
    • KS: First failures is where much learning occurs (very true. It's how scientists do it. How many prototypes do they go through before they get it right? Why the hell can't we do that in librarianship without some administrator giving us grief when something goes splat?)
(For me, a lot of this has the usual catch: these are people in positions with nothing to lose. Of course they can say a lot of this. I am not saying it makes what they say less valuable.).
    • JJ: Change is unpredictable. Hard to predict new tools and what we'll do with them, speaking on new digital texts, scholarship, and creativity.
    • KS: Librarians are the curators of the world. We can be embedded. We have to see opportunity and seize it.
    • JJ: Embedding and partnership. Librarians are in communities, so use your local and professional knowledge and membership (Idea: look for local blogs. For us here on campus, could we find student and faculty blogs and link to them and interact with them? This is one of the things that intrigued me. My catch is time, but I think it could be done. More on this might come later.)
    • SA: Libraries with a diffusion problem. Why is a good idea in one place is not spreading elsewhere? Why are library governances still in the 1800s?
    • KS: Not so much a management structure. People need to change; if this does not happen, management structure changes matter little.
    • JJ: The new people are different in their thinking, more tech savvy, and different in their interactions. Yet they are very much like the old guard in wanting to do "traditional" things: reference, RA, etc. Go with the argument that given new tools, you can be a better librarian in 2008 than in 1988. But this takes work to work collaboratively.
    • KS: Do not fall into the trap of categorically denying/dismissing what a group (old or new) says.
    • SA: Can we create a 12-step program for librarians? And why are new librarians treated like children (sounds like my workplace in some ways. Can you say "locked down computers" children? How do you expect me to learn and innovate if I have to ask permission to install anything basic? And that is just one example.) The old guard is not mentoring us (and this, in my estimation, is a major failure in the profession). Concern: so many new librarians saying they do not seek higher level/leadership jobs (guess what? I am one of those, and I can give you a lot of reasons why. That I landed in this job that has some management to it--notice I did not say leadership-- is a combination of luck and miracle. This was the trigger to the epiphany that was to come for me later this evening).
    • JJ: But we need to make management/upper level attractive. (It's like public schools. This is not new or revolutionary, but it is still a cause for concern. Be honest, if you are a good teacher, why in the hell, other than maybe a little more money, would you leave the classroom you love to be an administrator? Same principle in our profession. If you ask me. . .well, no one is really asking, so I better quit while I am ahead.) Positive: we are drawing people with broad interests and experiences (my classmates in library school were a pretty good example of that). We have to see librarianship as a profession of leadership (I think this is highly debatable, but let's leave that to another post, shall we?)
    • SA: If we don't invent a Third Way, we are ("toast" was basically the implication).
  • Roy Tennant asks: What one thing do you want to know about?
    • SA: How did information become knowledge? Reading and text-based is only one of them. Go back to Bloom's (taxonomy). We need to understand this in order to base decision on our end users, if we want to do this.
    • KS: Where will Google be in 20 years? When will their time pass? (Think of restrictive content agreements some people and libraries are signing with them now)
    • JJ: Not difficult to imagine a future in which libraries lose, so he wants to know how it will happen. Note: it can go either way now.
    • KS: How do we get to the transition from print to digital? It will happen; and who willing are we to embrace a world where we curate collections we don't own. (I personally don't think print will die, but will they be mere museum pieces?)
    • JJ: Idea of library bigger than the building. Also, we have to offer better services online.
    • SA: Those that come to the library vertically are not the same as those you see in the building. We need to understand this. In an information knowledge economy, we are the ones with the tricks, and we need to convey this. We are the last objective, civic, open community space and resources. (We are the last line of defense.)
    • KS: People love librarians, and we need to tap into that.
    • JJ: Talk to those in library schools, in a constructive way. Teach for them as well as learn from them.
    • SA: When we study something to death, death was not the original goal. Librarians need to remember this.

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