The librarian at the centre

One common theme that came up a few times on my second day at OLA 2008 was the idea of the library and/or librarian being at the centre of information discovery and literacy. The professional expertise of the librarian as the bulwark against information and media illiteracy was demonstrated as not only of ongoing value, but is increasingly recognized as such by those outside the field. This is especially significant because of the dramatic rise in the use of information tools (such as Google) that in some ways compete with library services, diminishing the perceived values of libraries and librarianship. However, the persistent and demonstrable relevance of librarians is based on the cultivation and promotion of the core values that librarians have maintained over the years: equitable access, promotion of information and media literacy (in addition to basic literacy), and respect for privacy.
I was the convenor for my first session of day. Rochelle Mazar of the University of Toronto Mississauga gave a presentation on her work as the librarian integrating library services with the university’s new courseware software, Blackboard (also called an LMS, or Learing Management System). The driving concern was that awareness of library resources was not present in the initial rollout of Blackboard. As Rochelle indicated (and this is something I’m quite passionate about), the library should not be just a destination (an isolated tab or a buried link on a web page) but should be right there on the first page, or the page of relevant course information for students or faculty. My own view has been that our user interfaces and catalogue interfaces have to provide the right connections to the right content or the right contacts or the right kind of assistance– at the right time. As Rochelle indicated in her presentation, what is needed is to have librarians pooling their ideas and experiences to arrive at best practices. And it needs to be librarians driving the process. The task of implementing these library services is not just a technology issue– in fact, IT people often don’t desire and don’t have the professional and multidisciplinary expertise to be the drivers for the actual design of online library services, because these services involve listening to and talking to all the stakeholders, and understanding the information literacy issues that go beyond the technology. In forming the task group that implemented this project, Rochelle was pleasantly surprised that not only was her role as a librarian greatly appreciated, but it added an aura of legitimacy to what was in fact an information literacy project that contributed directly to the success of the school program.
My next session on Ottawa Public Library’s experience with the OverDrive ebook service was canceled, so I took in a spotlight presentation given by Joseph Janes, an associate professor and associate dean at University of Washington’s Information School. He writes the “Internet Librarian” column in American Libraries. He did look familiar to me, and he mentioned he had been at the 2004 joint CLA/ALA conference in Toronto (the one affected by SARS), and so I might have seen him then. His primary concern is the affect of technology on reference service. In many of the newer Internet web 2.0 services the process is more important than the product. Sites like Wikipedia and Second Life are not about providing definitive information services, but are vehicles to test and define new processes of information gathering and sharing. These sites, along with e-mail, bring people into the library, and this should be considered a good thing. Ultimately though, libraries need to be where the users are– but not at the expense of giving up on what we as librarians stand for. We need to be present and relevant in people’s lives, but we need to stand for intellectual freedom, privacy, and equitable access. Maybe libraries should produce their own blogs, but librarians can be better perceived if they participate on important existing community blogs. “The library has to be somewhere and everywhere.” There needs to be a physical space for the library, but the library needs to be in the minds of our users and support what they are doing– socially, culturally, economically, or for personal development. Libraries make humanity more human. Librarians keep, cherish, and organize human knowledge through the records produced by people– all in the name of bettering everyone. At the end of his presentation, I realized I had absorbed this message quite deeply before– that of the library and the librarian having presence in the community, and so Joseph Janes was likely one of the first I heard from about this message back in 2004.
I stopped by at a poster session on the exhibit floor after lunch. I spoke with Shuzhen Zhao, the chief cataloguer at the University of Windsor. Her poster session was on RDA and Library Cataloguing. The posters outlined the implementation issues with RDA, and its possibilities for future improvement to both catalogue records and the workflow processes of cataloguing. My conversation with Shuzhen centred on the problems of system migrations, and how so many cataloguing issues crop up with each move. Part of the problem lies in juggling the myriad complications such as maintaining local decisions and customizations, ensuring backward compatibility with older methodologies (such as printing catalogue cards), incomplete implementations of MARC by system vendors, subtle variations in indexing and MARC mapping in different systems, and the legacy of the convulated development of the MARC standard itself. RDA and the possibility of all-new encoding methods will probably result in more of the same juggling– a problem somewhat made worse by the lower number of professional cataloguers working in libraries, particularly university libraries.
thu_rda The new logo for RDA. I think the green colour means ‘new’, and the blocks convey a sense of index cards, card catalogue drawers, punch cards, and binary codes. I think that reflects that RDA is a bridge between old and new. RDA hopefully will be able to function as a code for legacy data and card catalogues, and be a basis for new encoding schemas for catalogues that will function on the web.
The plenary session for the day featured Ethan Zuckerman.
Ethan Zuckerman is the founder of Geekcorps, which is an organization that sends Western geek volunteers to the developing world where they help with technology. His most recent creation is GlobalVoicesOn-line, which “seeks to aggregate, curate and amplify the global conversation on-line– shining light on places and people other media often ignore.” The mission for this organization is essentially that of librarianship– the aggregating, curating, and amplifying of resources that broaden our sense of humanity even while offering basic services of information access.  The term Ethan Zuckerman used to indicate what his efforts are fighting against was “homophily”– the tendency for individuals to associate and bond with similar others. According to Ethan we need to counter homophily both by serendipity and by being xenophiles. A library’s goals are similar. There will always be a need for filters, guides and contextualizers to explain what is happening around the world, and to make sure our values and beliefs don’t exist in a vacuum. Again, the importance of librarian values at the centre of the information world is what Ethan Zuckerman’s presentation boiled down to.
Ethan Zuckerman at SXSW2005 Ethan Zuckerman. He began his presentation at OLA 2008 by asking if people remember the Usenet. I certainly do remember using and being a big fan of the Usenet (also known as newsgroups) while in library school. But I wasn’t on the Usenet in 1984 when the Soviet Union sent out a Usenet message seeking greater cultural contact with the rest of the world. Much of what Ethan Zuckerman has done over the years is to use technology to build communication bridges around the world.
Later in the day I heard Andrew Keen speak.
In some ways, Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur, put librarians back in the centre big time– he put forth a prediction that the professional information expert will be back in the limelight, countering the social networking world that respects everyone equally, but disrespects the value of true talent and true professional expertise. He traces the source of this current Time Magazine Person-of-the-Year “YOU” focus of Web 2.0 as coming from a late surge in influence of the West Coast hippie culture, with its anti-establishment, anti-authority, and libertarian mindset now infiltrating the information-based economy. The problem with the appeal to everyone thinking they can become a writer, reporter, filmmaker, or photographer as a result of wikis, blogs, YouTube and Flickr is that the traditional methods of finding, honing, and selling talent is eroding. This means that people who have worked hard to develop their skills and talents are losing their jobs. This means companies like Google aggregating “free” content are making a few people very wealthy, but no one else is being paid for their work. This means anonymity reigns and responsibility diminishes. This means that the process of vetting, selecting, editing, and curating information [this reminded me of what Ethan Zuckerman is accomplishing] is less prevalent and so we are awash with mediocre, biased, and disintermediated information. Now Andrew Keen fully acknowledged that the Internet is not bad in itself– he uses the Internet and technology like most other people, and the Internet is a great communication tool and distribution medium. The problem is the effect of this libertarian culture or cult of the amateur on our traditional cultural economy. Andrew Keen was generally optimistic that we will see more efforts to use the Internet well. I think the efforts by Ethan Zuckerman and Stephen Heppell (who I saw speak on Wednesday night) demonstrate the best and most responsible use of the Internet as a tool that both gives people a voice and promotes excellence.
A great comparison point was raised by someone in the audience after Andrew Keen’s presentation. Many young people and parents who are paying a lot of money for education are pressuring schools to equate paying the bills for education with automatically getting an ‘A’. Perhaps this too is a manifestation of the cult of the amateur, and a devaluation of the work it requires to develop talent and expertise.
As mentioned, I saw Stephen Heppell on Wednesday night at OLA 2008. Stephen Heppell is an educator extraordinaire, and he has made great strides in improving schools around the world. He showed some astonishing web videos of school success stories. He made the point that libraries embody some great educational principles: there are no age restrictions, no boundaries in learning, no time limits. His web site is: I found a good video on YouTube that captures the same enthusiasm that I saw at OLA:
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