Dispatch From the LITA Forum

By Daniel A. Freeman |

Greetings from Cincinnati, the Queen City! After my bad flight experience in Anaheim, it was nice to be able to hop in the car and head to a conference that’s just a few hours away from home in a city that I know quite well (my fiancé grew up here, so I’ve been here a lot). 

For those of you who might have experienced the accommodating but sterile environment at annual, LITA is a nice change of pace. We’re lucky enough to be here at the Hilton Netherland Plaza Hotel, an ornate and absolutely breathtaking historic building. If you were intimidated by the size and scope of Annual, you’d be right at home at the Forum, which is the small town to Annual’s metropolis. From the moment I walked into the hotel, I began seeing a lot of familiar faces and names, and an introduction to an unfamiliar one required nothing but a friendly hello.

Of course, LITA is a small and specialized association, so it was no surprise to see an enthusiastic audience that was receptive and involved throughout. LibraryThing founder Tim Spalding electrified the crowd with his opening Keynote on Social Cataloging.  There was a palpable excitement as Tim talked about how Web 2.0 has ignited a revolution in cataloging; changing the very definition of the practice.

When I attend a specialized library conference like LITA, I always find myself asking what the conference said about the current state of that specialization. This is a meeting of library technologists from around the U.S., so before I came to the conference, I asked myself this question: Here in October 2008, what is the mood of the American library technologist.

I got my answer during a poignant moment earlier today that beautifully illustrated the contrasts and contradictions in our profession today. After the excitement of Spalding’s opening keynote, I went to hear my ALA colleagues Larra Clark (from the Office of Research and Statistics) and Carrie Lowe (from the Office of Information Technology Policy) discuss the current state of technology funding in Public Libraries.

As you can imagine, the picture they painted for us was not pretty. While web and library technology continue to grow, expand and demand more bandwidth, librarians all over the country are struggling to keep up with a rapidly growing demand for better equipment and higher speeds. In short, library technology budgets are shrinking across the board at the worst possible time, and with the current economic situation, this doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon. There was a particularly poignant moment where Larra asked the audience to tell her what they felt was their library’s biggest challenge in keeping pace with patron technology demands.  Simultaneously, without any hand-raising, a number of people in the room said “funding”.

As this was going on, just on the other side of the artificial partition, there was a presentation on how to crowdsource more efficiently to what was clearly an excited and enthusiastic audience. As we sat, anxiously exploring some of the very serious funding problems that seem to be getting worse, we heard spatters of excited applause and an upbeat Q & A session coming from the other side of the room.

When the presentations were over, it hit me—this was it, this captured the mood perfectly. We are excited and we are anxious, separately and at the exact same time. On the one hand, we are wowed by new technology and proud of our colleagues who have done so much to innovate and stay in front of the countless new trends that are constantly emerging. At the same time, we are all too aware that innovation and technology often come with a price tag, and currently most library administrators are at best, discount shoppers.

This is a serious problem, and while there will be no easy solution, we at ALA TechSource are trying to do our part. This January, Larra, Jason Griffey and a number of other experts are collaborating for a special issue of Library Technology Reports that will address both the current state of library technology funding and how you can maximize your technology budget no matter how strained.

We’ve worked so hard to get to where we are and we have such a strong desire to keep going, but there is genuine and well-founded concern about whether the means to do so will be available.