Monthly Archives: November 2007

Attempt at Midwinter

In youthful naiveté, I assumed being a new member of the profession (and ALA) that I would just go to Midwinter, attend some stuff, get involved, etc. My brother moved to Philadelphia a few months ago so it sounded like a great time to make a visit to him and attend my first ALA conference as a professional. So why do I get the feeling I’m not actually invited?

ALA does make a big deal about saying that Midwinter is for “handling the business of the association” so I wasn’t in the dark about that; I just somehow assumed that by being a member I was therefore a part of said “business.” Now, I’ve never been to Midwinter of course, but it seems from looking at the bits of program information I can see online that there are plenty of meetings going on hosted by various sections – but am I allowed to go to any of them? I am a member of ACRL of course, and even of a specific section as well, but I’m not even sure if anyone would let me in the doors of their business meetings. Would it be a waste of my time (and travel budget) to go at all?

Again, I’m new here, so I’m still figuring out how all this works. But it does seem to me that more could be done to encourage new members to get involved. I have received a newsletter and invitation to events from my section (thanks, LES), but I don’t really know if I would have anything else to go to if I made the trip. From this distance it almost seems like Midwinter is an exclusive club closed off with bouncers and a velvet rope – Sorry, Josh, you’re not on the list.

I joined ALA and ACRL as a new professional specifically because I wanted to get involved. I’m aware that there are grumblings in the blogosphere (and regular-sphere) about how ALA doesn’t actually return any real benefits to its members, and I’m also aware of the discussions of how virtual conferences and committee participation need to be embraced by the Association. I’m not old and cynical enough about the profession to think things like Midwinter are pointless yet – I’m here, I’m new, I have energy, and I’d like to get involved, so why is that so hard to do? It took a good deal of poking around to even find the ACRL New Member Wiki, which did have some decent information, but I feel like all the Associations could do a better job of telling their new members (once they’re in the door) how exactly it is they can really get involved. Perhaps a more pointed email could be sent to new members describing the workings of the Association, how committees are structured, what they do, how to get involved, and what exactly goes on with the “business” of Midwinter. I feel like I know nothing about what I can do at this conference, yet it’s the only one I can go to this year (Anaheim? Are you joking?)

So, seasoned friends, should I bother taking the train (12 hours, though it is my preference) down to Philly? Will you let me lurk in your meetings or will beefy librarians toss me out on my ear? I have this platform to query the ACRLog readership, but what about the rest of the MLS class of ’07 that has the enthusiasm but no clue how to get started?

How Libraries Might Once Again Become Technology Leaders

Joe Lucia, Villanova University’s University Librarian, made some interesting suggestions about open source development in a recent post to NGC4Lib, a mailing list dedicated to “Next Generation Catalogs for Libraries.”

What most frustrates me in a general sense is the degree to which in libraries our human capital and our financial resources are tied into commercial software that rarely meets our needs well. That is old news. The issue is how to break free of the inertia that keeps us in a technologically paralyzed state….

What if, in the U.S., 50 ARL libraries, 20 large public libraries, 20 medium-sized academic libraries, and 20 Oberlin group libraries anted up one full-time technology position for collaborative open source development. That’s 110 developers working on library applications with robust, quickly-implemented current Web technology…. Instead of being technology followers, I venture to say that libraries might once again become leaders….

Yes, we’d need to establish sound open source management protocols and we’d have to guard against forks and splintering of effort that might undermine the best possible outcomes. But I keep thinking about how successful Linux has been, with developers around the world. Surely librarians and library technologists could evolve a collaborative environment where we’d “play nice” and produce good results for all.

I think it’s great to see a library director (and board chair of PALINET, an OCLC regional service provider) talking about this sort of thing. And it’s not just talk: he pays Andrew Nagy, in part, to lead the development of the exciting VuFind open source OPAC project.

It seems that Lucia has bought into the idea that open source development can disperse effort and expenses fairly and efficiently. For that reason, open source is an excellent model, especially for academic libraries, who have enough money to pay really good programmers, but not enough money to pay them to duplicate each other’s effort. In general, Lucia’s vision makes so much sense to me that I view something like a commitment to shared software development among academic libraries as all but inevitable.

Many technology companies already work this way to some degree. For instance, the software described in the excellent post, A Day Without Open Source—Linux, Apache, Bind, Firefox—exists in part because Google, IBM, Sun, and thousands of other large and small companies encourage their developers to help maintain and improve open source code. And it’s not just code: W3C, which maintains open Web standards, is organized into committees, and those committee are composed primarily of employees at for-profit companies. We’re starting to see that same sort of encouragement for open standards and software echoed in libraries, most of it centered around code4lib.

One concern I have about Lucia’s statement is that he may be applying standard software development thinking to open source development. As Eric Raymond has documented in The Cathedral and the Bazaar and The Art of Unix Programming, there are fundamental differences. For one thing, forking can be incredibly useful: Firefox is a fork of Mozilla. For another, many believe that open source works in part because people tend to work hardest on projects that excite them, such as transgressive technologies that place them in direct opposition to entrenched organizations like Microsoft and the Recording Industry Association of America. It may be hard to find programmers who are excited by the sorts of projects that committees of library directors would vote to approve and fund.

Another concern I have is, while it’s great that PALINET is partnering with LibLime to support Koha, what about OCLC? When do we get to see the code for the software that we pay OCLC to support for us? As Karen Schneider points out, “If we built a 66,000-member association, it would look an awful lot like ALA.” I strongly suspect that if we build a huge new technology cooperative for libraries, it’s going to wind up looking an awful lot like OCLC. Only the new one might not feature people with the talent and success of Karen Calhoun, Roy Tennant, Andrew Pace, Lorcan Dempsey, etc.

My hope is that Joe Lucia and the folks in the preceding sentence are working to change OCLC from within. It isn’t that OCLC is evil, but there are reasons that LibraryThing’s Tim Spalding tried to talk Tennant out of going to OCLC, why the Library of Congress’s Dan Chudnov joked that Tennant’s move to OCLC made him his mortal enemy, and why it made sense for Tennant to explain his move. Some of the concerns expressed in Steve Oberg’s “OCLC: the Microsoft of the Library World?” and “Answers to Roy Tennant’s questions” ring true, as do some of his readers’ comments: OCLC is a monopoly and a vendor.

It would be helpful, at least when it comes to creating and sharing open source code, if OCLC could play a role similar to the one played by the Apache or Mozilla Foundations. Having a superstructure like Lucia talks about could be a good thing, though ultimately it may not matter whether it’s OCLC, another organization, or simply a commitment by academic library directors to hire more programmers. The members of code4lib and oss4lib are already doing their part. It will be interesting to see how many of Lucia’s fellow library directors are as motivated as he is to make sure libraries again become technology leaders.

Every Librarian A Leader, But…

There were two comments to my post about this profession needing to do more to develop its future leaders. Intentionally, my post was intended to speak to the need for upper echelon administrators, and the importance of developing our next generation of leaders who will take over those posts. Now perhaps that caused some umbrage among those who see themselves as leaders at their chosen level of service, or I connected with the inner skepticism and general eye-rolling reaction that front liners and middle managers have when someone suggests their administrators are leaders.

Well, like it or not, your library director has a different type of leadership role. Yes, I believe the “every librarian a leader” credo. It’s essential that all staff, professional and support, do their best to take a leadership mentality and apply it to whatever they do. But that’s not quite the same as being in a leadership position where a critical judgment call with enormous cascading consequences for the future, be it immediate or long term, is a regular part of the job. That responsibility lies with your library’s top administrators. That’s not to say those leaders make their decisions in a vacuum. Smart leaders depend on the knowledge, counsel and insight of those who lead from below. That’s the type of leader/administrator to which I referred in my post.

If you need further convincing that there is a difference take a look at some recent research by management experts Warren Bennis and Noel Tichy. Their new book titled Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls is the subject of an article in the October 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review (p. 94) and there is an excerpt in the November 19, 2007 issue of BusinessWeek (p. 68). They write that we all make judgment calls throughout our lives and careers – and so do all librarians. But the difference is that our top leaders’ judgment calls are “magnified by their increasing impact on the lives of others.” And unlike the many decisions made by librarians at every level, the administrator’s decisions are long remembered, especially if they turn out badly. Leaders make decisions in three areas that impact on the outcomes and survival of the organization: people; strategy; crisis.

So are all librarians leaders? Let’s just drop the first two; librarians at all levels deal with them although the top administrator tends to have final decision-making authority on those matters. What about the crisis situation? A student is assaulted in the library. Faculty are up in arms about a decision to cancel journals. The provost is on the phone and needs an on-the-spot critical decision. We need leaders who can step up and make the right judgment call in those crisis situations. To do so requires some combination of experience, authentic practice, mentoring and a knowledge of the facts and data. To get back to my original question – is this profession doing enough to identify and prepare our future leaders with the right skills?

So if you are your library’s leader for information literacy or scholarly communications, you’ve got a significant role in shaping future services. But when that critical decision must be made about an important hire in your department, or whether to allocate constrained resources to a new initiative, or any decision that takes the library down a path from which there may be no return, you want a top administrator with the right experience, preparation and leadership skills to get it right. That’s the person that I want to see our profession developing. Those are the people this profession needs to secure a successful future.

Kindling Debate

It’s a trifle ironic that, on the same day that the new NEA jeremiad, er, report on how reading is going to hell in a handbasket (again) Amazon finally released its e-book reader, Kindle. So, if nobody reads anymore, is Kindle – or, as Newsweek puts it in swooningly glowing terms, “the future of reading” – doomed?

According to the NEA, using a Kindle isn’t reading. As Linda Braun points out at YALSA’s blog, reading online texts does not count (and, in fact, the report expresses astonishment that using the Internet to find information correlates positively with reading proficiency. How can that be?) Also, the report continues to lament the decline in reading without really looking at it historically. Only half of Americans between 18 and 24, the report says, read a book for pleasure. (The only reading that counts is in print and for no particular purpose other than pleasure; I wonder what the faculty who assign all those books would think about that?) They note that’s a decrease in the past ten years – but is probably higher than fifty years ago. Steve Wasserman said in an article in the LA Times last August that a 1955 Gallup poll found only 17% of Americans “read books.” Oh – and multitasking is bad. So stop it. Right now. Get off the Internet and go read something.

All in all, there seems to be a bit more skepticism about the NEA’s doomsday scenario than the last time they reported the sky was falling. And given the vigor with which the Kindle gadget is being debated, the death of reading – and books – seems to be greatly exaggerated.

Warming Up To The Idea Of User Education

Reading the latest (November 2007) issue of Against the Grain brought two surprises in one article. In his regular column (In My Humble But Correct Opinion) Rick Anderson takes up a public service issue, not his usual fare. So surprise number one is that he’s taking on the problem of the reference desk and the need to create some change. He’d like us to be “more motivated to try harder to put our desks out of business”. Perhaps he’s been reading ACRLog posts, the Chronicle or Library Issues more recently. But the big surprise is that Anderson may be warming up to the idea of the benefits of user education. In the past his writings and presentations have come down rather hard on library instruction. I believe he referred to it as “eat your peas” librarianship – forcing our students to become mini-librarians. So imagine my surprise when one of his suggested alternatives to sitting at the reference desk is “Couldn’t that hour be more fruitfully spent in front of a class somewhere else on campus…”.

Yes Rick, librarians can achieve positive outcomes when they educate users. I know our research systems should be so easy to use that no one ever again needs to think about what words they should use in a search, or whether it makes a difference if you use a business or humanities database or whether an article comes from a popular magazine or scholarly journal. But until that time it may be that getting out into the classrooms – or having the students come to the library’s instruction center – is a constructive strategy for equipping students with the knowledge and skills they need to conduct effective research. Not only might it eliminate the need for a stop at the reference desk, but it’s a good thing when students get to know librarians through user education experiences. They actually learn who their friendly, departmental librarian is, and in many cases the next time that student needs help he or she will go right past the reference desk and down the hall to that librarian’s office for a consultation. Think of it as “pre-emptive reference“. Great suggestion as well about integrating library services into the curriculum (and courseware and social networks). Some of us call that the information literacy initiative.

As always Rick’s writing is first class and thought provoking – and when it comes to how one views the future of the reference desk – he and I might finally be in agreement about something. If you aren’t reading his IMHBCO column regularly you need to get a copy of Against the Grain - which is always chock full of great stuff. Now I will REALLY be surprised if Rick joins the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community and shows up for our next webcast about information literacy.