Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why and how librarians have to shape the new cloud computing platforms.

Photo property of iStockPhoto.
At the ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim, I gave the keynote talk at the NISO Update Session.  (It must say something that the fire alarm went off just as I concluded the talk, emptying the Anaheim convention center.  Either the talk inspired smoking hot ideas or I went down in flames. Or perhaps it was actually just an overworked popcorn machine.  In any event, it made for an memorable conclusion. :-)  

My goal was to give attendees some thoughts about how important it is that they  participate actively in the shaping of the new cloud-computing platforms which are are emerging from a number of organizations, including OCLC, Ex Libris, Serials Solution, Innovative and Kuali. I stated that the main reason for our participation as librarians is simply this: So we can ensure the value of librarianship is contained within, and amplified by, these new technological foundations

There were three key points I talked about us doing in order to accomplish this. They were:

1.  The mission and values of librarianship have to be embedded in the software you’re using.  Now, first this requires us to agree upon, to some degree, what is our mission? There is a much-discussed about this topic in today's environment and there is no shortage of opinions.  

R. David Lankes says: “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities”. Really, that’s a great, simple and inspiring statement. 

I also like this one by T. Scott Plutchak, Director of the Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences at U of Alabama at Birmingham: “We connect people to knowledge. We bring people together with the intellectual content of the past and present so that new knowledge can be created…. This is what we have always been about.” 

It's important to note that he’s absolutely right in making that last point. I went back to a library text book by Wheeler and Goldhor written in 1962 and it says: “The library’s functions and programs derive from the conviction that books (knowledge) are a powerful, indispensible agent for bringing enlightenment, new knowledge, encouragement and inspiration to every member of the community. … The quickest and easiest access to the world’s best thought is through the library.” 

Now all of those statements sound pretty compelling if not inspiring.  So given the lofty mission of those statements why are libraries struggling so hard today? My feeling is that as librarians, we’ve lost our focus. We’ve let the technology, the collections accessed and even our buildings define us. And that has been very, very unfortunate for our profession. 

This is being compounded by a couple of other factors. They include: 

The entry of equity investment.  While an entirely expected and logical step in for businesses serving our market, the result in my opinion, has been that this has resulted in many of the companies that provide our technology platforms becoming refocused in ways that are not advantageous for libraries.  For instance,  I’ve pointed out in some of my other talks/posts the very obvious fact that libraries are NOT a rapidly growing market.   Over the last five years the average annual growth of the market has been around 5%. That’s not a big number. So for companies with equity owners looking for higher growth objectives, it means they must either acquire their competitors (which will limit choices within the market) or they must look for revenue in adjacent or different markets. And we’re seeing that happen. The inevitable consequence of this will be that that their focus on understanding and representing libraries becomes diluted. 

Equity investment also represents a different flow of the profit made by these technology firms.  Typically, it means the profit goes to areas outside the profession of librarianship rather than staying internal to the profession as can happen with collaboratives or open source software. Now, does this mean equity investment is bad? Not at all, they bring distinct value to the table. However, for you to decide what is best, you need be aware of the differences and align your organization's mission and values accordingly.  Check my blog post on equity investors to better understand these aspects. 

Directly related to this, we have to be aware of the likelihood of “disruptive innovation”, i.e., the likelihood that we’ll be replaced by companies and technology that comes from outside our field. For instance, in academic libraries, we’re seeing firms like Pearson, McGraw Hill and in public libraries firms like Amazon and others who are moving to offer end-user what they call library services directly to professors and to end-users. So, for us to preserve and promote our value as librarians, it’s time to get back to our core mission and make sure it's embedded in the technology products we use. We also need to step back and realize what others are doing better than us in meeting end-user needs and thus we should leave those areas to them.  Meanwhile, we need  to find new places for us to add value that is consistent with our mission. I’ll mention some specifics later. 

Here was my second key point: 

2.  Defining our future is a task of participation, NOT representation. I can’t emphasize this one enough. If you want to be sure the core mission and values of librarianship are properly designed into the products you use, you have to be part of the process. Do NOT leave it to others to represent you in this process, because ultimately, they have to represent their interests, not yours. 

Furthermore, if they’re not trained in librarianship (and increasingly the leadership of these technology firms are NOT) the result will be diluted librarianship. Some of the existing ways to participate include working in the area of standards development (yes, I know, it can be slow and tedious, but it IS important!).   NISO is a great place to do this and has work underway in the areas of Demand Driven Acquisitions, the New Bibliographic Framework, SIP and NCIP, ERM and Open Discovery Initiative along with many others. 

We also need to be involved in demanding and specifying standards covering API’s (see my blog post on API's for more about this) and the ability to migrate data into and out of cloud-computing environments and at reasonable costs and in reasonable time-frames. 

All of these things can and will play key roles in shaping the new platforms being built and we need to ensure they’re done in a way that creates a good platform for the promotion and provision of librarianship based services. But that will only happen if you’re at the table. If you’re not, for all the reasons I’ve already cited, it’s not likely to happen. 

Other places you can participate are in: 
  • focus groups, 
  • development partnerships, 
  • usability testing, 
  • conferences and certainly by 
  • reading, researching and contributing to our professional literature. 
Yes, I know, your days are already packed, but remember we're talking about our future here. We make time or we'll be finding new jobs.  (I'll give you some thoughts on how to make time below).

Participation however, is not performed solely in the area of the vendors or organizations whose products you use or plan to use. It is also done through “radical collaboration” between libraries. Now Libraries are already good collaborators. However, because we lack a clear national statement of the mission of librarianship we’ve got a diffusion in our focus and resources that results in creating silos and competition where cooperation and collaboration are needed. 

Jim Neal, when he spoke on Radical Collaboration at the Future of Academic Libraries Symposium a year ago (2011), identified some areas that would benefit from radical collaboration, and just I’ll mention a few from his list: 
  • “Advancing a repository network 
  • Developing the National Content Licensing Program 
  • Creating a national strategy for website and content capture and curation 
  • Developing a National Preservation Strategy for analog, digital, etc."
I’ll add to that list cloud computing.  One of the real benefits of us moving to cloud computing is for us to build enough critical mass to make our data driven services worthwhile. When we move towards true cloud-computing solutions, where data from all participating libraries can, with their permission, be shared and utilized with other institutions, it enables us to drive analytics, recommendations, reviews, reference and long-tail based services in meaningful ways for our library members. This also means when we're buying cloud computing platforms, taking a close look at the number of libraries using it. Consider it a powerful multiplier of your ability to provide excellent librarianship-based services. 

At the same time, a worrisome trend to watch for as we see these new cloud computing platforms develop, is the desire of the organizations providing them to cast a net around us, to lock us into silos that will make it far more difficult for us to: 1) quickly move or migrate in adopting new solutions as they come forward, 2) integrate the best solutions together, 3) avoid being locked into content silos where choices are made for us, but not by us.  We’re seeing this played out on large scale by companies like Amazon and Apple and we’re seeing a lot of troubling signs of the same thing happening within our profession in some of the new platforms and services being developed. 

Rich suites of easily used API’s (see the blog post mentioned earlier on this topic), open discovery interfaces and content features that are not locked to a specific supplier, but instead to the content they enhance, are things you should demand before signing contracts. 

My final key point in the talk was this: 

3.  For our services to have value they must offer differentiation. Organizations succeed by carefully analyzing those they serve and taking a broad view to get an understanding of where those end-users can get their needs met and therefore, where their organization fits.  It is important to realize in some areas, there are organizations that are going to do some things better than us and we simply can't compete with them and we should stop trying, it's a waste of our resources..

What we have to decide is what are our “core” services, i.e. what is it that we do that creates differentiation that leads to our being the preferred source of a knowledge/information service  for our users? Because these core services are what sustains our organizations, this is why our jobs exists, this is what we do. Everything else we do, while maybe very important, is “peripheral” service. It’s obviously related to our core but it doesn’t have to be done by our organization. It only needs to get done, so look at having it done outside of your organization.  (Cloud-computing can offer a lot of assistance in several key areas in doing this.) 

For us to move forward in doing new things, we have to squeeze and extract from this periphery the money, time, people resources they consume and redirect them towards our core services. That place is where we add value, where we create differentiation and thus value for our members. 

So, what are some new things we could do along these lines? Consider these ideas: 
  • We have to provide knowledge creation platforms, not just knowledge discovery platforms. This means providing tools to make it easier for the user to take existing knowledge and build new knowledge. To copy text, pictures, videos or sound recordings into a new work while automatically handling copyright clearance and/or creating the footnotes and bibliography. Tools that allow us to reach beyond the research and use a variety of analysis tools to work with the data behind the research, to create our new works using standard tools and to seamlessly feed the results of our efforts into the open access processes for review, publication and further distribution. 
  • We need to provide contextual support, the ability for library members to, when they’re working with existing knowledge, easily understand the environment in which it was created, the funding sources behind it, and to be able to say, through our technology: “Show me an opposing point of view, or show me other critical commentary on this view” We don’t want to place our user’s in a “filter bubble”, we want to place them in a “learning bubble” a place above biases, above unspecified and un-modifiable filtering. 
  • Our services also need to pay a lot more attention to the users needs and experiences. This is another place where aggregation of data about users, their lives and where they are in the continuum of their life can be used to help us know what they’ll need and when they’ll need it. Like so many business sectors, we need to use this data and analytics to provide our members with better, customized and very pro-active services. Because if we don’t do this, businesses will provide it direct to our end-users. Our future rests in providing unique services that our users want, need and value. 
I trust you'll find some of these ideas useful.   These are, to my way of thinking, really important steps for us to take. Why?  To answer that I want to borrow another quote from  T. Scott Plutchak the Director, Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences, University of Alabama, Birmingham when he says:
“While the great age of libraries is coming to an end, the great age of librarians is just beginning.”
These new cloud-computing platforms are the technological foundations of that great age of librarianship. They're going to let us define new and better librarianship based services that will truly give us the capability to differentiate ourselves from other information end-user services.  

Let's participate in making sure these new cloud computing platforms are not only a foundation, but an amplification, of the mission of librarianship so that our value in the days ahead is clearly understood.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Actually, it's the same leadership at OCLC, at least for now...

In a stunning announcement yesterday, OCLC publicly announced that they weren't proceeding with Jack Blount's appointment as CEO and that Jay Jordon was staying on while a search continues. A mere 12 days after the announcement of the appointment, a reason for a reversal of this nature screams out for discovery like a person lost in the woods. However, we won't likely get one. Thanks to our litigious society and outrageous jury awards, the phrase that will likely get uttered is: "We don't comment on personnel matters" and the OCLC PR people will tell us what can be said can be found in the announcement.

Clearly something went very wrong somewhere in this process. It outwardly appears that not enough due diligence was performed by someone and that once the announcement of the appointment was made, something occurred or surfaced that caused things to quickly fall apart. Given my conversation with Jack mentioned in my last post and another I had with him again on Monday of this week, I have to personally believe this came as a surprise to him (I have no inside knowledge here and am purely speculating based on those conversations and the wording of the announcement which said: "The OCLC Board of Trustees has concluded that rather than moving forward with the appointment of Jack B. Blount as its President and CEO, it is in the best interest of OCLC to have Jay Jordan continue serving in these capacities." Emphasis is mine.). 

The timing of this announcement is terrible as it hits with thousands of librarians descending on Anaheim for ALA Annual, the largest library conference of the year. Of course the Board knew this, so whatever happened meant they truly felt they had no choice. Having formerly Chaired the Board of a non-profit organization, I know taking an action like this is a extremely measured one and therefore, the consequence of proceeding as planned were weighed to have been of far greater consequence. So, to a library conference that is already wildly unfocused, we add this. It will, unfortunately, commandeer many a conversation. 

It is further unfortunate for OCLC, who doubtless has spent a great deal of time preparing for this conference and timing many important events to it including Jay's retirement, announcements about Linked Data and I'm sure many others. They will now see many of those announcements paid significantly less attention in favor of discussions about this single event. 

One has to feel awful for everyone involved from the profession at large, to those that are members of the collaborative, to the Board and on to Jack and Jay, both who've seen their future plans changed dramatically and unexpectedly. At a time when many are looking for OCLC to define its new directions, to start charting those pathways and thereby to allow many other segments of the profession to move forward based on those new foundations, instead we get more wait-and-see. The word "mess" doesn't begin to describe the situation. It certainly isn't what is needed by OCLC or the profession of librarianship. A smooth transition was clearly the goal. Clearly, we'll be waiting for that to happen. 

But here's the thing we will have to remember. OCLC has a Board of Trustees and if you review that list, it consists of some really top notch people. We have to trust their judgement, even though there will be those that think this is cause to question it. However, knowing some of these people personally and having worked with them in various capacities, I know many of them to be of very high integrity. Something blindsided someone here and the exact reasons we'll likely never know. Rather than us wasting conference time speculating on what happened, let's accept that what was done was in the best interests of OCLC. Then let's spend our energy and conversations on moving the profession of librarianship forward at this conference. This is a very unfortunate situation but let's not make it more so by wasting resources we don't have to waste.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

New leadership at OCLC. Some thoughts...

Jack Blount being named as the new CEO of OCLC brings with it much anticipation concerning new initiatives and directions as well as organizational behavior that will occur under his leadership.   Certainly the track record of Jay Jordon, whether you liked all of it or not, will be hard to match, so Jack comes to the job with a very high bar to clear.

Marshall Breeding posted a summary of commentary and newsbits concerning  Jack on his site and it’s an interesting list to review.   You'll come away with the following observation I'm sure: Jack is clearly an accomplished individual.  At the same time, he is clearly not one to let the grass grow under his feet.    Since 2000, Jack has held 6 jobs, not counting OCLC.  As an average, that’s about 2 years per job (to be fair, some were longer, some were shorter and I'm certainly not one to throw any stones here).   It should also be noted that according to Library Journal’s coverage, Jack is 60 right now.   Taking these facts together, it seems safe to assume we’re not going to be looking at another tenure on the order of Jay Jordon’s, which lasted some 14 years.   What does this likely mean for us?  One suspects that the Board, obviously knowing these facts as well, probably felt that while Jack is the right man for the moment, some fresh thinking in another 3-5 years might be good for the organization. Of course, at the same time, one wonders if Jack will be able to substantially change OCLC in that short a time frame?  It’s certainly not an organization known for exhibiting urgency in that area, so Jack will impress a lot of people if he succeeds in doing so.  (Note:  See addendum at bottom!)

Of course, the other interesting facet of this choice is that Jack is clearly a businessman or as he bills himself, a “serial entrepreneur”.   There was a lot of guessing, prior to this announcement about whether the next CEO would come from a primarily academic, non-profit or business background.  There were strong advocates in the passionate discussions that I heard for each of those  backgrounds or, at least some combination.   However, Jack’s background is pretty much pure business, which again, allows us to draw multiple conclusions.   First, clearly the Board sees the value of a business background in dealing with the challenges that OCLC faces.   At the same time the business focus of the past has lead OCLC to acquire many for-profit businesses and as a result, it has created some considerable distrust and dismay with the privately owned, for-profit vendor side of the profession.  Here, one will have hope that Jack will do a better job of defining the rules of play for all of the for-profit organizations serving the profession to work with (including making sure they're the same rules for those owned by OCLC).   Secondly, having competed with Jack in previous corporate lives, I know he can be a strong and fierce competitor and thus this is a place where I think any conclusions drawn will have to be accompanied by a wait-and-see attitude.  It will simply be a place where actions will speak much more loudly than words, both because of OCLC’s past behavior as well as Jack’s career background.   However, in the total, one would have to think a person with a background as a "serial entrepreneur", will be very good for OCLC.  As I’ve noted in a past blog post, OCLC has, in my opinion, largely found itself trapped by its current revenue model and some of the decisions that resulted, precisely because the organization hasn’t been aggressive or fast enough in developing new products and services and the associated new revenues that go with them.   Here, I’m very hopeful Jack will be able to have a very positive influence on the organization.

However, my personal largest concern remains this:  Will Jack be able to change the core culture, the bureaucratic framework and the committee-laden decision making processes of an organization that often, at least from the outside, seems to lumber under the very weight of those factors?    OCLC has been on a clear trend of late in hiring some really excellent people, especially notable are some of those connected to the WorldShare product.  There are also a lot of excellent people in the management team and he will want to be sure to keep a lot of them. However, entrepreneurs aren’t known for their patience, or often, their nicety.  They want to get things done – yesterday.  Anything that stands in their way often gets blown by like a checkered flag at a racetrack.  However, these behaviors will fly in the face of many long-standing traditions that exist in a library owned and governed cooperative, like OCLC.  

So, do we have a formula for success and new directions with this announcement of new leadership?  We’re about to find out.   However, as I’ve said before and will say again:  The profession of librarianship needs a strong and successful OCLC, so I for one am going to wish Jack Blount every success in his new role.

Addendum:  This afternoon (Tuesday, 6/13) I received a personal phone call from Jack and we had a very pleasant conversation catching up on times past, current events and during which Jack said that he thought it was important for people to know that he and his family were buying a parcel of land in the Dublin, OH area and they are in the midst of planning the house they are going to build.  All of which is to say that he is planning on staying a lot longer than 3-5 years and that as long as the OCLC Board is happy, he has a commitment from them that goes well beyond that window.  

I appreciate Jack reading this blog and I thank him for the personal call.   It was nice to talk with him directly again and confirms my hopes that OCLC has some very promising days ahead which will be good for them and good for the profession of librarianship. 

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Are librarians paying enough attention to the open education movement?

In the world of education, the open education movement is gaining a lot of attention and momentum.   The May 4th, 2012 issue of “The Chronicle of Higher Education, has a supplement on The Digital Campus which has an article titled: “Open Education’s Wide World of Possibilities.   Some of the numbers in this article are pretty impressive. 
“MIT which started making its course materials available online in 2002… from 2100 undergraduate and graduate classes, they estimate 125 million people have looked at its course content since 2003.”  Let me repeat that - 125 MILLION
“Apple’s free iTunes U Program has logged 700 million downloads of course material…”
That article is followed by one titled “Supersize the College Classroom: How one Instructor Teaches 2,670 Students” which reports on a class taught at Virginia Tech.  Again, very impressive.

Then, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times issued an opinion piece that got a lot of attention because he said: “Let the revolution begin” clearly implying that this train has begun to roll and no one is going to stop it.

Of course, in reading all this I wonder how libraries and librarianship are supporting this growing change?  Scanning the Web, I quickly found another blogger, Rebecca Hedreen, over on “Frequently Questioned Answersvoicing the same concern.   She points out that there are a number of efforts (Questia, Udini, JSTOR) underway to supply knowledge into these environments.   She closed her post by noting: 
Universities and libraries are no longer the gatekeepers of knowledge, but could be instead the guides and mapmakers. We need to start seriously considering what that means.”  
Certainly I’m in agreement with that statement.  I continued exploring.

I quickly found Connextions a repository of materials for Open Education being backed by Indiana University and RiceUniversity among others.  The site states: 
Its more than 17,000 learning objects or modules in its repository and over 1000 collections (textbooks, journal articles, etc.) are used by over 2 million people per month.” 
I also found a YouTube video, “Top Priorities for Academic Libraries in Advancing OpenEducation” which covered topics like the need to correct imbalances including financial, intellectual property rights and quality mechanisms.  They reported that when users were surveyed, they wanted things like a digital preservation repository, print on demand, online book publishing and format conversion (including for mobile devices) and other topics. 

Then I read an excellent chapter written by Clifford Lynch, located on the CNI website: “Digital Libraries, Learning Communities, and Open Education”.  This chapter highlights some of the very real problems that must be overcome for libraries to fully support open education.  Cliff points out the following (italics are mine):
  1. “While a vast amount of historically interesting (digital) source material is going to be available, most monographic scholarship and most textbooks from the last three quarters of the last century will not be publicly available.  Huge swaths of the primary documentary evidence of the twentieth century—audio and visual, as well as textual materials—are locked up by copyright and often inaccessible even to students and researchers at our leading universities through their research libraries, as well as to the broader public seeking information on the Web.”
  2. The isolated and self-directed learner will find “There is a great burden in evaluating available information resources, determining what is likely to be obsolete, how well various materials have been vetted and the like.” Also noted: “Consider the difference between deciding that a specific document expresses a credible opinion on something and being able to conclude that the collection of documents that you have examined constitutes a reasonably comprehensive sample of the diversity of opinions on the topic.”
  3. Also noted are the challenges of social interaction as part of the learning experience and the importance of that component.  “In a learning experience, it is likely that the learner will seek social interactions only to the extent that he or she finds them helpful…”  Furthermore he asks: “How big should a learning community or cohort be?  How long should it be kept together?  How important is cohort coherence?  Should people be able to join an existing community on a rolling basis or wait for the next one to be launched?” Many more questions are posed as well.
  4. Next, noted is that “our digital libraries and knowledge spaces will not fully meet the societal need for enhanced and broadened access to educational opportunities.” “But we must be mindful of the overwhelming scale of the unmet need, particularly from a global perspective.”  Finally Cliff notes: “If we are going to see this potential fulfilled, we must be able to articulate clearly the differences between access to information resources and access to education.”
I believe these questions, comments and findings are extremely important, for us as librarians, to answer.  In doing so, we will address this opportunity to confirm and insert the value of librarianship into a rapidly growing facet of education.    

Now, this is not to say that libraries aren't already doing some important things that support MOOC’s, distance ed. and open education.  We are.  They include: a) providing access to licensed resources, b) preservation of the digital content and data, c) metadata creation, supply and increasingly, through movements like linked library data, new ways to move library resource data into the Open Education environment, d) discovery portals that allow search of the library collections to be easily inserted into courseware and other Web based software, e) chat reference services and f) LibGuides, just to name a few.

However, clearly these won’t be enough by themselves.  To the list of questions posed in all the above, we might add:
  1. What is being done to establish standards to ensure consistency and quality of library services/collections being provided into these environments?  
  2. Are all of these efforts being done in a coordinated and collaborative manner so as to ensure wider adoption and support?  
  3. Is an examination being done of the unique values provided through librarianship and are we making sure those values can somehow be replicated in the open education environment?  Things like personalized recommendations on next steps, narrowing down what the user actually wants and needs, providing both the point-of-view sought and contrary points-of-view, places to debate/discuss and socialize around not only course content, but collection content?  These too are very important in an education and they should also be available via online environments.
  4.  Of course, all of this needs to be provided in the mobile environment that is growing even faster than the numbers of students taking open education courses.
Today, I started looking at my ALA Conference program and the sessions I want to attend in Anaheim.  It appears that few of the sessions there are focused on addressing the questions above.  I find myself landing in the same spot that Rebecca Hedren did in her blog: “We need to start seriously considering what this (open education) means.”    

If we don’t, others will, and I’m betting they won’t be librarians.  Which is why I am wondering; Are librarians paying enough attention to the open education movement?