Sunday, February 1, 2009

“A View From The Top”?? That is exactly what IS missing…

I was invited by Rob McGee to participate again this year in his “View From The Top” seminar at ALA Midwinter in Denver.   Over the years, I’ve been on this panel and always find some aspects of it interesting.   If you want to read a pretty accurate account of the session, see Leonard Kniffel’s blog post.    If you do, you’ll see that I took major exceptions to what was being said on a couple of issues.  I expand on what I said about the first issue in this post, which was the idea of pointing to individual and unique efforts at innovation as either the way or means of reinventing library automation systems and/or the library automation industry.   As I indicated on the panel at ALA, this is not how library automation systems, or the industry will be reinvented.

Library automation exists to support a larger agenda; librarianship. That is what needs to be reinvented.   What I found most distressing about this whole conference was that libraries and librarianship, once again, seem like a rudderless profession.  We’re being buffeted by the hurricane force winds of economic chaos, we’re headed for the rocks, totally adrift and we seem unable to find anyone or any organization to captain the boat, grab the wheel and lead us to safety.  Rob’s session gave me a chance to voice my frustration about this and I did.

While sitting on stage, I flipped through the ALA Conference Program and could find no theme expressed.    The program’s session list is the usual array of thousands of descriptions of things done (largely in the past), all without any real connection or support to a larger agenda or program (beyond the vague description of “librarianship”).  The vendors, who believe they have developed products and services that offer solutions for some of the problems the librarian profession faces are, of course, there to offer these products for sale but are also available for a dialogue on what other problems need to be addressed.   Once again, some conference attendees avoided the vendors because they were “turned off” by the selling aspect but this limits them from exploring all the available solutions and being knowledgeable about what may be coming soon not to mention asking the vendors to solve problems not yet addressed.  Where was the leadership to guide us to that level, to challenge the membership to use the show floor to address the larger goals of librarianship?  So, at best this just completed ALA Mid-Winter was a missed opportunity because once again, there was no real leadership in evidence.

Rob brought together a panel of talented and creative librarians and then asked us vendors to respond to the individual librarian presentations. I responded by pointing out that while these were excellent examples of innovation, we, as a profession were missing the point; that we’re aiming too low; that ALA and our other national association/organizations are failing us by not seizing the opportunity before us. That opportunity has been massively underscored by a crashing economy. My point then and now is that no one is articulating a clear definition of what librarianship should look like in 5, 10 and certainly not in 20 or more years.  So while we had some interesting presentations in front of us, there was no cohesiveness in how all these efforts would come together to fill the gap left by the overall lack of a definition of librarianship today and in the near future.

Leonard Kniffel, of American Libraries, took the microphone and asked me to clarify: what do I think it is that librarianship will become?   In the interest of time and my co-panelists, I responded with my brief description of what I believe librarians offer, which is Triple-A information.  That is, libraries offer information that is: 1) Authenticated, 2) Appropriate and 3) Authoritative and that is what distinguishes us from that which you can get in Google or any of a variety of other search tools.  I could expand on this point, but it really is a separate post all by itself.  For an example of what I’m talking about, see a post I did on the FederatedSearchBlog here.  Until we fully convey that very specific value-add across the Web, we fail to differentiate our profession in ways that can be translated into a monetary amount and justified to those who write checks that allow libraries and librarians to exist.

Let me expand on that.  My feeling is that our previous financial scenario, while certainly not one of untold wealth for libraries, was one that permitted us to serve wildly divergent interests, often on a very local level (campus/community) and frequently in the interest and support of seeking local funding.  It was not a long-term approach.   It was simply the model that existed and worked at the time.  The real downside of that model is that we only infrequently sought to actually cooperate in meaningful ways and most certainly our ability to serve a national agenda was largely and totally compromised by the funding model.  (See also Andrew Pace’s excellent post about vendors catering to the “unique approach in this environment).

I heard on the Today show this morning (February 1st, 2009), that the new administration’s stimulus bill includes funding for 10,000 new libraries.  That’s wonderful, but if all it does is provide for more of what we’ve been doing, it will again result in another missed opportunity.  I want to see us adopt and use a more cohesive, more widely supported and certainly a far more visionary role for librarianship in the years ahead.

Here are a few points about what I’d like to see.

1.    A forward looking, modern definition and set of criteria by which to measure, good library service.  The leading thinkers in our profession; Cliff Lynch, Lorcan Dempsey, Don Waters, James Neal, Brewster Kahle and yes, let’s include the Google guys (and others of similar caliber) should form this definition.  It should underscore the value of librarianship (I go back to my “Triple-A” rated information) and place emphasis on us, as a nation, competing on a global basis and support out need to produce a more highly educated and literate workforce and population. It needs to recognize that librarianship in the information environment we find ourselves today is a radically different set of skills and behaviors than it was in the past.  As a result, it should measure not only the results of academic libraries, but certainly national, public and school libraries.  It should put an emphasis on cooperative efforts, national branding and collaboration in goal achievement.  It will need to be accompanied by clear and concise objectives that provide a definition of how success can be measured to ensure that we’ve reached it.   Those criteria must measure results on a nationwide basis and against other countries around the globe.

2.    We should then approach the new administration, through the DOE, IMLS, key political representatives and/or whatever other agencies are seen as appropriate and ask that we work in partnership to create and define how the new (and for that matter, the old) funding will be allocated to support the achievements of those objectives.   Disbursement of the funds to any library must be contingent on achievement against goals and below an 80% achievement level, should not be disbursed at all.

3.    All national library/academic and information associations and organizations should be requested, indeed charged with (and possibly provided financial incentive) to support the achievement of the national definition of library service for all citizens.   Conferences (ALA, are you listening??), educational programs and training that supports the achievement of the goals of the national definition of library service, should be spotlighted, supported by federal money and used as examples for others to follow.  Training programs, degree achievement and other instructional programs in librarianship should also be similarly measured, reviewed and funded.

I’m sure there are a million details, problems and obstacles in trying to achieve what I’m describing.   But, we’re a nation and profession in crisis.  On a global basis, we’re in peril of seeing our leadership further eroding on numerous fronts. Most worrisome is that of education, literacy and thoughtful analysis - even as other countries continue their marches towards goals established in light of the new global and competitive environment.  The new President, Barak Obama, said it well to the world on inauguration day when he said, “We’re ready to lead, once more.”   I hope he is right.  But I wonder about librarianship.  Are we ready to lead?  Because with that comes a need for us to focus, to sacrifice and to work together towards goals set on a national rather than local basis.  Of course, that absolutely requires a change in our funding models as well, something else that will require our work and joint efforts. But I think we have that opportunity in front of us if we ask the leaders in our profession to create a real “View from the Top” and then to seek the government funding to support it with everything we’ve got at our disposal.   Including library automation.