Letters from ALCTS

bruce johnson, alcts president

From the President

Bruce Johnson, ALCTS President

“The times, they are a-changin'”

As we gathered recently in Seattle, I was frequently reminded of the 1964 Bob Dylan song that began,

“Come gather ‘round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a changin’.”

So much is happening that is changing the landscape of libraries and librarianship, and it is not limited to collection development, preservation, and technical services. In listening to our colleagues in RUSA, YALSA, and LAMA, the concerns about whether we will continue to be relevant are consistent and urgent.

If that is the bad news, the good news is that we are the masters of our own fates (at least if we let ourselves take on that role.) A particularly encouraging survey of the intellectual lay of the land was present in the ALCTS pre-conference, “Definitely Digital: An Exploration of the Future of Knowledge on the Occasion of the ALCTS 50th Anniversary.” Herewith are some random thoughts that percolated to the surface in Seattle, mostly from the ALCTS pre-conference but also from some other moments:

If it is not online, it will not be read. Just because it IS online does not necessarily mean that it will be read there either. – James Hilton.
You tend to think that others see your website as their sole focus. Library websites by in large are really tailored to the needs of library workers, not the “drive-in” user. – Lorcan Dempsey
The structure of libraries will continue to undergo chaotic, continuous change. Libraries should restructure access to reflect anticipated use. They will need to focus much more on personal and organizational development. – Lorcan Dempsey
Technology is no longer the “elephant in the room.” Technology IS the room.” – Meg Bellinger
Knowledge-sets needed for the future: knowledge management, technology, quantitative research methodologies, teaching and consultation and outreach, project management. – Meg Bellinger
“Don’t worry about what anyone else is going to do ... The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” – Alan Kay, 1971
The cost of making something available is in inverse proportion to the cost of obtaining it. Our processes are not designed to determine the level of effort that should be invested in making something available. – Bob Wolven
Traditional views of process (e.g. acquisition, cataloging) constrain how we conceptualize what we do. We need to focus on outcomes rather than process since this is not bound by past practice. – Bob Wolven
Staff who are unprepared for change will be left behind. We need to create an environment where process innovation is the norm. Our staff is currently very task oriented ... but they should be goal oriented. – David Nuzzo
Most libraries lack staff for digital preservation. Most libraries are doing digital “projects” rather than digital “programs.” All digital efforts should include preservation planning. – Tom Clareson.
The goal of searching is getting people to related “stuff.” Systems being developed now should support the way people search. Searching should be able to support exploration across data type boundaries: facet where metadata exists; cluster where it doesn’t. The discovery layer should resolve to the catalog ... and then to the information. – Taiga 2

If there is a single truth in the above, it might be that that comfortable spot that we have lovingly built for ourselves based on past experience, and which we know to be true, is in danger of becoming obsolete. The OPACs that we built in the 80s and 90s are now seen as digital dinosaurs since many feel that they only support how librarians work, rather than how hit-and-run library users seek information.

The temptation among those who are enamored with new technologies is to assume that traditional library skills have no place in the library of the future. Nothing could be further from the truth. Computers are able to do things much faster than human beings ... but they have less cognitive skill than the average two year old. Our ability to analyze and organize information is the basis for what most people interpret as “user-friendly” systems. Organization of knowledge enables people to find the RIGHT information, assuming that the system framework is able to connect the person to the actual information (as opposed to its surrogate.)

As Professor Arlene Taylor wrote in 1993, “The future is longer than the past.” Let us apply our hard-won understanding of information architecture to influence future system development that lets library customers search for information in a manner that is intuitive to them. That system has not been built yet, but we are just the ones to do it.

“The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a changin’.”