ALCTS National Conference: 50th Anniversary Reports

Two Markets: Libraries in an Attention Economy

Gregory Wool, Iowa State University

The Opening General Session featured Richard Lanham, Professor Emeritus of English Rhetoric, University of California Los Angeles and author of numerous works including The Economics of Attention. His topic, “The Two Markets: Libraries in an Attention Economy” challenged the audience to face the implications both of a major shift in how documentation of all types is presented and delivered, and of a growing competition for attention between traditional library resources and new media that offer more “flash” and flexibility. Presenting the challenge to libraries in terms of market economics, Lanham contrasted the give-and-take economy of exchange with the “free market of ideas,” an idea being something one can give to others without actually giving away. The establishment of copyright in the eighteenth century, however, gave rise to the notion that ideas, too, could be traded and possessed on an exclusive basis.

While it may be debated whether ideas and knowledge can actually be “owned,” another intangible, a person’s attention, is surely something that can only be one place at a time. Lanham highlighted the processes of packaging and branding as tools for gaining attention. Saying that “information never comes without a package,” he maintained that “the wrapping matters as much as the content—don’t despise it” (a notion with special resonance for technical services librarians). He also noted the importance of brands as attention getters, and the lengths to which organizations and enterprises will go to protect their brands. This was illustrated by the case of the song “Barbie Girl” and Mattel Inc.’s claim of copyright infringement, based on the notion that the company somehow owned exclusive rights to public “discussion” of the Barbie doll. Lanham also used this case to show how the new interactive media are making art a participatory experience on a mass scale, citing such phenomena as Star Trek fan festivals, the television series "Lost" (which he called a “wiki soap opera”), and Second Life.

To Lanham, the Internet embodies the “free market of ideas” in which one can give something away and still keep it. At the same time, however, he sees the growth of interactive culture as diminishing the role of books, as the competition for attention is relentless. Even so, he thinks books will continue to have a place alongside interactive media in the emerging multi-dimensional thought culture.


Collecting Conversations in a Massive Scale World

Miriam Palm, Librarian Emerita, Stanford University Libraries

David Lankes, School of Information Studies, Syracuse University, began his lecture by describing “how much trouble we’re in” in our mission to collect and organize information, as the growth rate is phenomenal and will only increase. The terms now used to describe data include terabyte (the collection of the average academic library), petabyte (all United States academic libraries), and exabyte (every word ever spoken by man). We are dealing with an exponential, rather than linear, increase, and this is a predictable change. Lankes mentioned Moore’s law, that computing power doubles every eighteen months, and storage capacity is exceeding this.

He then moved on to outline some options to deal with this explosion:

  • Ignore it–but then data stewardship (storage and access) will be commercialized, and librarians will become only niche players;
  • Limit what we collect (selection versus intellectual freedom), despite unlimited storage; or
  • Catalog it all.

Lankes suggested is that we need to embrace it, because it is our ethical responsibility. The vast majority of new information is digital and dwarfs what is not, and most of it is not text. Even Google assumes information is text. We need to go beyond artifacts and items, and see richness beyond metadata. Rather than organize it, we need to focus on what users need. The concept is “participatory librarianship,” where we have conversations with our clients as learners. We have begun to integrate our services and information, but have farther to go.

Comparing Amazon.com to our catalogs, our records are an inventory rather than a finding aid. Examples of “conversation” are bibliographic instruction and interpreting citations; our skills are there but we need to expose and better publicize them. He then described Web 2.0 at Syracuse: users’ personal Web pages containing citations and annotations that can be shared with others. He also mentioned “thinking in threads” and connecting nodes via the shortest path.

Lankes concluded with several recommendations:

  • Libraries must be active participants in this networking, and must be at the core rather than the periphery;
  • Ignoring this concept is dangerous, as it abdicates decisions and their consequences to others.

Lankes challenged attendees to define our communities and establish norms. Our conversations may fork but each participant should be able to follow threads back to the part that interests them. Conversation means participation.


Genetically Engineering Our Future

Susan Davis, State University of New York at Buffalo

Dianne van der Reyden, Director, Preservation Directorate, Library of Congress, ably filled in for the ailing Susan Nutter. Ms. van der Reyden conveyed the new directions in preservation at LC during a whirlwind tour of the directorate whose mission is to assure long-term uninterrupted access either in the original or reformatted form. LC was established in 1800 and has approximately 90 million items in special collections. It was not until 1967 that preservation activities were centralized, and today the directorate has a staff of ninety.

Knowledge of materials science plays an important role in preservation. The original chemical composition of items plays a big role in authentication and restoration. LC has been using infra-red image analysis to undercover hidden lines or “pentimenti” and to reveal carbon-based inks that might be found on the underside of a cartouche, for example. Ultra-violet image analysis can distinguish different compositions of media such as pigments and binders and may uncover evidence of mold damage.

The Preservation Directorate is also responsible for assessing the longevity of the library’s collections. They need very specific information on the nature of current acquisitions to accurately project longevity. In addition to traditional materials, they are ramping up their efforts to deal with audiovisual materials and looking into what will be needed to preserve digital materials.

Ms. van der Reyden reported that approximately 12 percent of the library’s collection is in urgent need of attention, while 11 percent is considered in need. Meanwhile, they do not know the condition of about 50 percent of the materials in the library.

Ms. van der Reyden noted some other interesting activities in the Preservation Directorate. They have begun to use haptic technology to assess hand skills in staff and as a way to train staff in a simulation mode. Haptic devices allow the user to virtually feel and touch objects. The IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, etc.) machine is a prototype developed in collaboration with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. IRENE is a system that can make a digital image of a vinyl or wax phonograph record as well as extract sound from an image of a fragile or damaged disc, "heal" scratches or digitally "reassemble" a broken phonograph record. (See http://irene.lbl.gov/ for more information.)

The Directorate’s website provides much more information about its activities; more than Ms. van der Reyden could present in the time allowed or this reporter could capture in her notes.


End Note: Social Libraries: The Librarian 2.0 Phenomenon

Susan Davis, State University of New York at Buffalo

Stephen Abram spoke as fast as the rate of change happening in the information world today. It was quite disconcerting to hear him explain that the world had just come through a period of slow change and that the pace is going to pick up rapidly. As he put it “shift is hitting the fan,” and there will be one hundred times more change in the next five years than in the past fifteen.

Abram listed some predictions of what the world will be dealing with in five years:

  • Google dominance
  • Global change (China, India)
  • United States debt increases to $1 trillion
  • Oil shock (gasoline topping $4.50/gallon)
  • Major technology shifts (Personal Digital Assistants, broadband
  • Millennials and learning
  • Stock market and equity capitalists

Abram provided some thoughts about technological developments such as:

  • e-paper
  • pens as laser keyboards
  • iPhones, Google phones
  • iReaders
  • credit card sized devices as web browsers
  • projectors the size of a sugar cube

Abram gave the audience ten critical pieces of advice:

  1. Go XML
  2. Understand Java Specification Requests 168, Portlets and RSS as ways to put the library where people have information needs
  3. Get on the Visual, Open URL and Federated Search Wagon because today’s users prefer a visual interface
  4. GPS (Global Positioning Systems) and Broadband are here to stay, so deal with it. SEO (Search Engine Optimization) Local can put library resources where the users are located. Libraries need to build in format agnosticity
  5. Be Library 2.0 Interactive and Relate with a goal to be a sustainable social network for life
  6. Get Social (or risk irrelevance). How many of these top ten most influential web tools is your library already using? YouTube, Second Life, MySpace, Facebook, Wikipedia, Ning, Twitter, Mozes, NowPublic, MyBlogLog
  7. Get Political
  8. Reorganize to be ready for the Millennial generation who operate very differently then previous generations
  9. Get Conversational; librarian 2.0 plays
  10. Increase Your HR Capacity to Adapt, and consider reimagineering the library

In spite of all these potentially scary changes, Abram did leave attendees with some positive thoughts. He believes that libraries’ core skill is not in delivering information; instead, it is improving the quality of the question and the user experience. Libraries are social institutions and what matters is our relationship with the user. Stephen Abram capped off a most stimulating, invigorating, and thought-provoking conference by demonstrating that the future is indeed interactive.


Closing Panel: Nancy Gwinn, Karen Calhoun, Peggy Johnson, Brian Schottlaender

Elizabeth Brice, Miami University of Ohio

A successful 50th Anniversary conference concluded with a panel moderated by Olivia Madison, Iowa State University, which provided personal perspectives on the conference message. Panelists were: Nancy Gwinn, Smithsonian Institution; Brian Schottlaender, University of California, San Diego; Peggy Johnson, University of Minnesota; and Karen Calhoun, OCLC.

Gwinn summarized the message of the conference as “Innovate, go social, become Librarian 2.0.” She used a tag cloud, projected on the auditorium screen, to illustrate some of the more prominent keywords of the conference, including: Google, participatory librarianship, and massive scale world.

Schottlaender quoted speaker Richard Lankes, who asked, “Who better than librarians to help us find our way?” as both a comfort and a challenge. He concluded from the breakout sessions that we need to position libraries to innovate by encouraging play, risk and “failing forward.” He also noted that the units of intellectual consumption are getting smaller and concluded this forecasts a “tsunami of information management.”

Johnson described David Lankes’ presentation as a “jeremiad,” an exhortation to see the light, repent and follow the new path. She reminded us that there is a massive flood of information coming, most of it digital, and we are not ready for it. She quoted Lankes: “This is an opportunity to actively position librarians at the forefront of the information field,” and added a fervent “Amen.”

Calhoun noted that the path the speakers encouraged us to follow is not an intuitive one and cautioned we may need to steer our course in very unconventional ways. She noted the emergence of both discomfort and realization among conference participants and counseled our inward facing profession to “integrate outward.” She underlined the sense of urgency Stephen Abrams raised and concluded by observing that librarians can indeed participate in our users’ social networks if we are willing to uncloak ourselves.

Following a brief question and answer session with the audience, Madison summarized this challenging, exciting, and inspiring conference in this way, “We are in the right place at the right time with the right skills... Be of good cheer.”