Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The new ALA Draft “Strategic” Plan

While at the ALA Midwinter Conference, I took time to review the recently issued ALA Draft Strategic Plan. I think it’s a disappointing document if you’re looking for a clear vision statement, an expression of strategy to be used in achieving that vision and/or if you’re looking for goals and objectives by which to measure the organization’s success in moving that plan forward.

The “Draft Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG) expressed in the document is “ALA builds a world where libraries are central to life-long learning and where everyone is a library user”. Really? That’s our big hairy goal? It's out of touch with reality. They must not have attended the ALA conference that I just returned from in Boston. Because what I heard was libraries are, at best, facing a harrowing future. Libraries are being closed; funding slashed, staff reduced, collections purged, programs eliminated and the list goes on and on. Beyond the financial crisis libraries are already dealing with, are the much larger country wide issues of a failing commercial real estate market, growing unemployment and numerous states that are facing bankruptcy. If any of these happen it will require more federal bailouts and almost certainly means we’ll all be facing inflation and further devaluation of our currency. Each and every one of those crises will have a continuing major negative impact on libraries as we know them today.

In addition, I heard how academic libraries “no longer have a seat at the big table” on campuses and how a recent panel of retired academic provosts, when asked about the future, could agree on only one thing: “never build another library”. I see ALA issuing a press release indirectly confirming that by saying that college and university libraries reported more visits (but since that number is not tied to the use of an information service, could mean they were only there to use the coffee shop, computers, study carrels and learning commons, something which could just as easily be done in the Student Center), they're providing a growing number of group information services (just as easily done in a classroom or webinar) and they provide library reference services by email or web (also doesn’t require a library building). One hardly must wonder why provosts think they no longer need to build new libraries.

When I look at what was happening at the just completed ALA conference, I walked away thinking we’re dealing with micro issues when we should be dealing with real macro issues (BHAG) containing real substance. But I don’t believe that is what ALA has defined in this document.

BHAG’s should be statements that illustrate the transformation needed in libraries today. It should say that librarianship is far more about the critical thinking, analytical skills and information service needed by end-users than it is about libraries. Yes, collections will continue to have a role, but as one panelist pointed out at the RMG President’s Panel on Friday, our end-users don’t see libraries the same way librarians do – librarians see them as collections and then build services around those collections. End-users see information and libraries as only one small part of that landscape. Our job in librarianship is to help users locate among the ubiquitous information they can access, that information which is authoritative, appropriate, authenticated. Then we need to place it into the context needed to answer their information query. To do that, we need to realize librarianship, not libraries, is the key to achieving a BHAG. Librarianship is a structure that encases libraries and information, not the other way around, and it will be driven by librarians. Librarianship represents substantial value-add to information, especially when that information is so vast and growing so rapidly.

An equally important BHAG would be to start defining a scalable method of processing all the vast amounts of information that make up that which we consider authoritative, appropriate and authenticated. We can’t do that with today’s current models of library or librarian services. Yet, if we look around, we see that this is a place where studying how community developed or enhanced software works, how things like Wikipedia work (and numerous other community based initiatives) and how we can actually begin to define scalable models of distilling, from the vast information available, the best information that will serve end-user needs. At the same time we can underscore and promote the value add of librarianship.

I look at the plan ALA has issued and I find it leaves me as parched as I was before it was issued. I still don't see ALA laying out a clear vision and strategy for the future of this profession. The document issued, ends with a “5 Year Planning Horizon – Mega Issues” that only asks questions. It answers none. One question in the list says “How should ALA effectively partner with its chapters and affiliates to implement its vision and strategic plan?”

Perhaps they should start by actually developing something that resembles one.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Why don’t user groups include end-users?

Over the years, I’ve been involved with a number of different user groups. Those in the library field are certainly modeled after, and share many similarities with those found in other software industry segments. Yet, I continue to feel that the library software user groups are missing something very important, especially given the make-up of librarians at large. What's missing is end-users.

Admittedly, a tremendous amount of the work done in libraries using software is backroom, internal operations. Yet this is all theoretically in support of providing access to end-users. User groups have created elaborate democratic enhancement processes; frequently work with companies through focus groups and other mechanisms in order to provide detailed input to those developing their software in order to make sure the most important needs for the largest contingent are met. User groups elect boards from among their ranks and these folks set policy and guidelines and propose the mechanisms by which the group is run and financed and handles enhancements. However, the results, really through no fault of the people involved, have proven questionable with regard to addressing end-user needs. Why does this happen?

Perhaps it is the following:

1. When a software product is new, it by default, gathers much interest and if it offers truly a ground breaking capabilities, it draws interest from the highest level of the library organization – the Library Director or CEO’s office. They initially become involved with the user group and because these tend to be the same people defining the overall vision of the library, the conversations involving them tend to lean towards that visionary level. The results are that initially, this benefits the products immensely as large leaps of functionality are required to fulfill that vision.

As the product matures, the Director moves on to new arenas of development and cedes the user group participation to the leader of the systems office or the systems manager. These people, as defined by their job descriptions, are focused on supporting their immediate peers, those running the library operations. Consequently, the developments and functional needs they express are more internally focused. Product enhancements, as a result, follow suit.

2. Librarians are (with clear exceptions) quiet, introspective people. They don’t market their skills sets aggressively within their constituencies or across their campuses and most have moderate to minimal interaction with end-users. They know library operations with tremendous precision, but, for example, have problems understanding why end-users are not excited by multiple search interfaces that allow them to extract information with tremendous precision from multiple databases. Clearly there is tremendous room for disconnect between the wants and needs of the librarians versus the wants and needs of the end-user.

So how can “user groups” ameliorate these outcomes? I’d like to suggest that user groups should expand their membership to take in at least a panel of end-users. They could then involve them in the user group activities in a couple of ways:

1. For example, at the next user group meeting, they could invite two or three end-users, representing for instance, faculty, staff and students, to talk about what libraries could do to better serve them; to help them deal with the massive amount of information they’re searching/using? Then use these talks to serve as a framework for at least a track of the user group meeting that is focused on end-user needs and how to address those needs. They could ensure at least a portion of the pool of available enhancement resources is used to address those end-user needs.

2. Users groups could also work to educate their membership to address product procurement processes. Procurement of an end-user facing product should include evaluation by actual end-users as part of the process. Depending on the product involved this evaluation should be appropriately weighted in the final decision to ensure that end-user needs are met. This should not be an option. It should be a requirement in these procurement processes.

I’ll admit that I quickly tire of library software vendors being blamed for products that don’t meet end-user needs when I see such a dearth of end-users involved in the decision making processes concerning functionality and enhancements desired by libraries. This is a trend that can be altered and for the benefit of all. One step in doing that would be for user groups to include end-users.