Sailing on

By Karen G. Schneider | "A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea and do new things." -- Grace Hopper

Several years ago I had a lovely power lunch with Don Chatham, Patrick Hogan, and Teresa Koltzenberg of ALA Publishing. They asked me about blogging, and I happily prattled away as I forked up free food in a fancy restaurant.

About an hour into the lunch it dawned on me they weren't just looking for background on this new thingy called blogging. They were thinking about establishing blogs for ALA, which for an organization that not too long ago was operating from a late-1980s framework (faxing: they did that well, at least), was mind-blowing.

Heck yeah, I said, I wanna be on your bus. Let's do it! Pretty soon, under Teresa's firm but cheerful direction, we had a blogging team together, and for the last two years (two years? how did that happen?) I've posted nearly every month on whatever burned in my belly. I had great latitude, tremendous encouragement, and a lot of fun.

We may not be Boing Boing, but it's remarkable how many times this blog has been the first to explore new territory. I got to write about technology lessons from Hurricane Katrina and sucky OPACs and libraries that were post-Dewey and RDA (which some of you still think has something to do with vitamins) and open source and David Weinberger's dangerous new book.

But times change and life happens. Like most of you, I'm a working librarian, which means that my writing happens on my personal time, squeezed in and around family-housework-church-hobbies-bills-OMG-taxes and the rest of life. I get maybe 20 hours a month of truly sterling writing time--those blocks of time when the rest of the world goes on hold and you write like a banshee--and at that, only due to an understanding partner who lets me take my laptop and disappear to Panera's many a Sunday afternoon.

I turned 50 this month, and as Roy Tennant has remarked, it's a wake-up birthday. When I turned 40 I could imagine that I was not halfway through my life; I can see myself living well into my 80s. But at the half-century mark, I'm far more acutely aware that time is a finite resource.

Trust me, if I'm still around in 2057, I will be writing; I'll write until they pry my keyboard from my cold, dead hands. But with one eye on the sand trickling through life's hourglass (faster and faster it runs), I have made some tough decisions about where and how I write.

I've had some minor successes publishing articles outside LibraryLand for the technology press, and these are important to me in part because I believe we all have a mission to go forth and be "embeds" in the rest of society, representing the best of librarianship to the rest of the world. Some librarians represent us at Rotary meetings; I write. It's what I do. I've also had some minor successes publishing on topics other than technology, and that writing is important to me for purely selfish reasons (though again, it always amazes me how much street cred librarians have in the real world).

So it is time to move on from Techsource... and yet the topic that is inspiring me to leave--the question of life choices--makes me want to leave you with a few last thoughts.

Time is not on our side

One thought is that some of us are worried that librarianship has a very narrow window of opportunity for survival--maybe a decade, maybe more, maybe a little less. It's the kind of discussion we have in cabs, or in late at night at the bar of the conference hotel, or one on one; you may not get a memo at work saying, "Oh by the way, we're running out of time, kthxbye," but there are enough of us who have come to this conclusion to make you stop and think.

OCLC has convincingly demonstrated that most people associate libraries with the paper-based book "brand," and while we can all point to libraries that have successfully extended this branding, I worry that it's a very thin thread to hang by for the long run--particularly for libraries that do not do an absolutely slam-dunk excellent job at this business.

We can get away with being branded as buildings that provide print-based books for a while, but only if we're really good at it. The point I was trying to make two articles ago about Maricopa was that this system was recognizing how users behaved and adapting its library services to what it had good reason to believe were optimal services for their community. This is as much about survival as it is about service.

What you don't know can kill you

I'm also worried that we haven't taught ourselves well enough in the areas of digital rights management, and that we're going to wake up someday in a world where the idea of fair use only applies to a format no one reads any more. People go on and on about ebooks being hard to read, and I agree. I'm baffled that five years after the Rocketbook died, Sony came back with something just as clunky and ugly.

But the first few airplanes had trouble getting off the ground as well. We're just one or two innovations away from a major format shift. It's one reason Apple bugs the heck out of me: they get a free ride from some folks for being a "cool" company, and yet they practically pioneered the idea of the heavily-locked, proprietary biblio-thingy, assuming we all understand that a musical recording is not that different from a book. (Three cheers for Amazon!)

I also worry we're not paying enough attention to the big players such as Google. I liked what one librarian said after I sent him a link to Cory Doctorow's story about a Google-dominated society: "O.k., Karen, now you're scaring me." If you aren't scared, you aren't paying attention. Speaking of free rides, I'm also irked by all those libraries jumping into bed with Google to digitize their books without imposing hard rules about public access to this material. The Open Content Alliance offers a sensible alternative. Why would you undo in less than a decade what it took a century or more for your library to build--a great collection accessible to the world? (The tax-paying world that actually owns your collection.) For common-sense advocacy, we need to look outside our profession--such as at Siva Vaidhyanathan's work-in-progress, The Googlization of Everything. Where is our internal leadership on these issues--are we so flattered by attention that we're unable to see what we're doing?

I never metadata I didn't like

In general, we aren't that good about time and choices. Recently I heard Michael Norman, a cataloger at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tell an audience at the Symposium on the Future of the Integrated Library System what they needed to hear about cataloging, which is we need to let go of the old ways and look to automated metadata creation, Onix, and other strategies for generating metadata.

Here's a respected cataloger telling us what I said earlier--that we have a narrow window of time to address these issues--and I worry there were five of us in the room paying attention, and we were already on his page before he started speaking.

I believe attention to metadata is one of our gifts to the world--the idea that there can be information about information that enhances discovery and retrieval is very powerful--and yet we seriously undermine ourselves by stubbornly clinging to old methods. If we were inventing libraries today, we wouldn't come up with library-by-library institutional silos filled with hand-created metadata (not to mention metadata funneled into a format only used in our profession). It's an unworkable business model, and yet it seems we cannot let it go.

(And to the person at the Symposium who asked me no fewer than three times if I was correct that people don't do call-number searching, if Karen Markey's two-part series on twenty five years of user search behavior wasn't enough, consider this: out of nearly half a million searches last year in one large system, barely one thousand were call number searches. You don't design systems around a speck of sand.)

The Big O

Then again, I want to embrace the notion of One True Catalog--the concept that OCLC is promoting--but I'm concerned about the same issues we have with Google. We need to trust someone or something. Yet do we trust an institution whose board of trustees--where the real power sits--is largely self-appointed, and which is so proprietary about its members' content that it got its shorts in a bunch when a hotel designed its floors around the Dewey system? Is it time to take a page from outside our profession and look to an open model? (I've been called insane for even thinking that Open Library could work, but I didn't believe the Web would work the first time I saw the CERN line-mode browser back in the early 1990s. If OL even pushed OCLC toward more openness, that would be a Good Thing.)

Choices, choices. The sand runs quickly through the hourglass. What are we willing to give up to move forward? Who do we break bread with? Can we be tough customers? Can we make hard decisions?

How do we sail out to sea?