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Why libraries rock 2009-09-01

Posted by lukethelibrarian in Librarysphere.
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Yes, this weblog has been neglected for an awful long time.  That ends now.

My purpose in this blog was, is, and will be to look at all the new and amazing directions that libraries and librarians (by whatever they name they choose to call themselves) are choosing to lead and accompany their communities into new media, new places, new technologies, new literacies, and new opportunities for growth and participation.

There are so many examples of this to celebrate — and they’re too exciting to not celebrate.  So that’s what I intend to do with this blog: celebrate, marvel and ponder the possibilities.

And today provided me the perfect place and perfect reason to start that celebration anew: the Louisville Free Public Library and the LFPL Blogathon.

Reason number one why libraries rock: just take a look at all the amazing things that are going on at just one public library, the Louisville Free Public Library in Kentucky:

Reason number two why libraries rock: they’re full of librarians, who do things like this: when the Louisville Free Public Library was hit by a sudden flood earlier this month, librarians across the web got together and began contributing and raising money with a goal of sending $5000 to the LFPL by the first of September — and this culminated in today’s LFPL blogathon.

I’ve donated, and now I’ve blogged too.  I hope you’ll consider doing the same!


On taking things personally 2008-08-18

Posted by lukethelibrarian in Librarysphere.

Over the past few months, I have gone from being an occasional listener to the library podcast Uncontrolled Vocabulary to becoming a regular listener — even a fan.  The show is recorded live and captures real discussion of current events in librarianship, by a diverse group of librarians.  So, unsurprisingly for a group of librarians, the conversations tend to be informal, informed and passionate, frequently showing flashes of the truly better angels of our professional nature.  Or occasionally… not so much.

I just got done listening to last week’s episode, which included a discussion of Dave Pollard’s blog post “12 Tools that will soon go the way of fax and CDs,” and I came away pretty disappointed.  Despite the guest host’s setup, which introduced Pollard as “an environmental philosophy… I guess he’s a professor someplace, Stanford, possibly?” — Dave is, in fact, somebody who knows libraries and information services very well, and is exactly the kind of challenging, insightful voice that our profession needs to be listening to and hearing better (and some segments of our profession already are).  Dave was with Ernst & Young LLP for 27 years, first as a practice leader and advisor, then in the final ten years as Chief Knowledge Officer and Global Knowledge Innovation Director (he was, I believe, Canada’s first CKO).  He worked for some time as a consultant for the Ontario Ministry of Health, focusing on KM applications for emergency preparedness and early detection of disease outbreaks.  He is now the Vice President of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants (the Canadian counterpart of the AICPA) and is still heavily involved in the knowledge management and business information fields; you can find the slideshows from his excellent presentations to the SLA 2007 and SLA 2008 conferences, as well as KMWorld & Intranets 2005, 2006, and 2007 at his SlideShare page (I would particularly recommend the SLA 2007 presentation, “Librarians as Knowledge Managers: The View from the Executive Suite“).

As any regular reader of Dave’s blog will tell you, it is always provocative and radical, but it is also deeply passionate, thoroughly rational, and insightfully visionary — a combination that is not only particularly “librarianly,” but also that one simply doesn’t find very often except from individuals of great experience who keep their eyes and mind open every moment.  And thus it was with this post, which prods us to consider whether some of the fixtures we currently take for granted (as we once did fax and CD) could be swept away by one or more upcoming technological or informational sea-changes.  Dave’s posts are worthwhile starting points for good reasoned arguments around both sides of an issue, and I would have liked to see my fellow librarians take a hard look at Dave’s thought process and deconstruct his logic.

But they missed their chance — largely because they couldn’t get past item #7: “Corporate Libraries and Purchased Content”:

The only people who really care about taxonomy and boolean search are librarians, and unfortunately they usually don’t know enough about their employer’s business to know what to do with the esoterica that requires such tools anyway. With luck, they’ll learn the employer’s business and morph into subject matter specialists, producing real research and analysis and adding meaning and value to information. But they won’t need a proprietary library for that. Nor will they have to pay for the content they add value to much longer. “Information is always trying to be free”, as Marshall McLuhan said a half-century ago. And they won’t sell their research and analysis either: They’ll give it to colleagues to use first, and later they’ll give it away to clients to show how smart they (and their employers) are.

This was the post’s only specific mention of librarians (and the only part actually read aloud — in a rather bemused/mocking tone — by the guest host), and it was immediately received with a stream of ridicule, instead of analysis.  First one participant accused Pollard of both misquoting and misattributing Stuart Brand’s quote “Information wants to be free…” as well as removing it from Brand’s (originally economic) context — and goes on to say that as a result, “right off the top, I’m kinda discounting a lot of what this guy says.”  Then others take issue with the notion that librarians “usually don’t know enough about their employer’s business to know what to do with the esoterica that requires such tools anyway;” they immediately conclude that someone who could make such statements obviously knows very little about the reality of corporate libraries — and spend so much time ridiculing Pollard that they never get around to considering the actual scenario that Pollard presents: that those of us who resist or miss out on the shift from “corporate librarian as information gatekeeper” to “business expert as specialty researcher/analyst/strategist” do so at our own peril.

Not only does Dave Pollard know plenty enough amount about corporate libraries and information services to qualify him to make that kind of statement, but I’m quite confident he knows the difference between (fellow Canadian) Marshall McLuhan’s notions of the evolution of media toward free flow of information, and Stuart Brand’s notions of the economic value of information; it’s possible that Dave was paraphrasing to try to capture one of McLuhan’s Big Ideas instead of attempting a quote.  Later in the conversation, the participants briefly discuss Pollard’s item #3, “Best Practices” (which Pollard puts between quote marks). The participants insist that the sharing of best practices is certainly something worthwhile in our profession — look, it’s what we do at conferences, workshops, etc.  In doing so, they seem to be unaware that they are actually making Pollard’s point about the need to move from the “Best Practices” as a static corporate document or institution toward communication of best practices (lowercase) as a collaborative process that involves storytelling and interaction.  But by that point, Pollard’s post had been called a “pile of crap” several times, so perhaps it didn’t matter much.

Surely this can’t be about a misquote or misattribution — does that really matter enough for us to utterly discount the rest of what the man has to say?  If so, I would invite us to consider another quote that is most certainly McLuhan:  “The specialist is one who never makes small mistakes while moving toward the grand fallacy.”

Instead, I suspect it’s something else.  As a profession, we are sometimes not so good at handling criticism in a constructive fashion.  We first focus on whether the criticism is coming from within our circles or from without; we can occasionally have useful and collegial conversations among ourselves, but if the criticism comes from “outside” we tend to “circle the wagons” against it.  Then we start picking out the trees around which we ultimately lose the forest.  We saw plenty of this in the aftermath of Andrei Codrescu’s keynote at ALA Midwinter 2006.

We tend to fail at the kind of empathic listening and critical thinking that require us to step outside ourselves and look at the world from the position of others to better form/inform our own defensible position — whether those “others” are executives, law enforcement officials, taxpayers, government officials, or opinion leaders.

The same pattern reappeared recently when librarians took notice that Google had not updated its Librarian Central Blog in nearly a year, and that when they did update it, it was to officially end it in favor of a periodic newsletter.  We saw lots of terms like being thrown about the biblioblogosphere (and elsewhere) that librarians had been “used” and “discarded” like “chumps” — but I failed to see any librarians actively discussing how libraries and librarians could better position themselves as potential strategic partners for Google on an ongoing basis.  It’s as though we just expected Google to somehow, intuitively, understand the inherent value that an ongoing relationship with our profession would represent for them strategically — even though we seemed unable (or at least uninterested) to articulate that strategic value ourselves!  Google, after an extended courtship, obviously perceived a distinction between cultivating relationships with certain specific libraries and cultivating a relationship with the profession in general — and they saw clear long-term value in the former, but not in the latter.  But instead of trying to counteract that impression, we spent our vitriol on accusing them of being just another self-interested company — and then walked away in a collective pout.

This is not engagement, this is hubris — it is homophily.  No profession is an island.  We need to be trying to touch more, see farther, and listen more carefully.  The good thing is that we have, as a tribe, always been generalists by nature, constantly seeking to connect and relate all of human knowledge instead of just our own province.  Now more than ever, that nature — and the skills and worldview that go with it — will save us if we dig deep and rediscover its core.

Seth Godin 2008-06-18

Posted by lukethelibrarian in Librarysphere.
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Since Vint Cerf was so kind as to drop me a comment in response to my liveblog from the opening keynote of SLA 2008, I figured I’ll try it again for the closing keynote by Seth Godin, which is about to start. This post should progressively develop as the session goes along…

Seth Godin:

I’m going to argue over and over that everyone in this room — and your customers — are marketers.  And the basic principle of successful marketers is: “Ideas that spread, win.”  Do *we* need to spread ideas?  We like to think three is some element of “the truth” that we are simply uncovering — but “the truth” doesn’t matter if no-one actually gets “the message”.

It all starts in the birthplace of marketing: Chicago.  Jolly Green Giant, Charley Tuna, it all came from Chicago.  Marketers figured out in the 50s that if you yell at people often enough, you earn enough money to yell at them more.  The TV-Industrial Complex Cycle: Buy ads -> Get more distribution -> Sell more product -> Make a profit -> Buy more ads… repeat.  This is the classic history of marketing from the very first advertisements, but it focuses on “average stuff for average people.”  Why? because you have to interrupt *everybody* to get your message out, so you’d better have a message/product that is for *everybody*.

Marketers were trying to solve problems for people that didn’t feel they hadn’t problems, and the volume just progressively escalated.  The Internet has opened up the floodgates of truths, half-truths and messages.  I am here to tell you your organization no longer has the right.  You can’t command people to read your message — and you’re still trying to solve a problem that people don’t know they have.

Salad water, diet water — we’re just dealing with clutter by creating more clutter.  We’re branding ourselves to death.  Medusa, you look at her & turn to stone — this is the patron saint of marketers!  We try to put ourselves in front of people with the hope that they will simply freeze and do what we want them to do.  Problem is, the response rate to direct marketing is not 2% any more, not 1%, but a fraction of 1% — and response rate of spam is far smaller.

Every mass medium in recent history has existed for one reason only — to make money for advertisers.  The Internet is the only medium that wasn’t built for marketers!  But it’s porous, so marketers are using it, politicians are using it, and more.  So we can look at the current state and say it’s over — but I’d like us to look at it and say, “This is our Industrial Revolution.”

The symptom of a revolution is: somebody playing by a totally different set of rules gets radically superior results.  Idea behind my book Meatball Sundae: we work for meatball-making companies, good, substantial, nutritious stuff.  But the Internet is a sundae: whipped cream and cherries.  There’s nothing wrong with meatballs, unless you’re trying to make a sundae.

Case study: Wedgewood pottery.  Josiah Wedgewood saw a revolution and died with more money (in real money) than Bill Gates and his fortune funded the voyages of his grandson Charles Darwin.  His brother died penniless.  Josiah knew there was a revolution and he seized it: factory automation, lobbying, direct-delivery sales, health insurance for employees, much more.

I’ve picked 14 of the 150+ trends that make up this revolution.  You can either keep doing what you’re doing, into the wind, or you can change and take advantage of the wind at your back.

1. Direct communication between people who make stuff and people who use it.  Didn’t used to be true. Case study: Sonos home sounds systems — instead of going through middle parties, installers, marketers, they interact directly with the public.

2. Amplification of individual consumers.  Case study: Joanne Cates, food editor for Toronto newspaper.  They have her picture in every kitchen in Toronto.  New reality: *every* customer is Joanne Cates.  Comcast installer falls asleep on guy’s couch, guy videotapes him, uploads it to YouTube.  Guy has bad experience at Taco Bell, creates “Run From The Border” website to collect Taco Bell horror stories.  “Wanna See My Socks” website for girls.

You need to tell stories if you want them to spread.  If somebody else is doing the telling, it might not be the story you want told.

3. with props to Chris Anderson: The Long Tail.  When you have “infinite shelf space” (digital goods), you don’t have to limit your stock.  There’s a long tail of information too — every library is as big as the library wants to be.  What happens when the car dealer goes away, when you can go online, design every detail of your car, and they deliver it to your house in 3 days for the same price as a mass-produced car?  Google has blown up the context world.  Every Google search delivers information with no context.  What are you going to do?  You can’t just whine about stuff with no

4. Connecting consumers to each other.  PayPal.  Kiva.  Now — by connecting people

5. Difference between “who” and “how many”.  Most marketers are obsessed with “how many”.  But what’s important is “who”.  If there’s a blog about deep-water petroleum exploration and you sell deep-water oil drill bits, that’s a great place to advertise even if they only have 4 readers.  Have you taken advantage of that asset?  If the top 5 people in your company waited every day for a 4-line email from you analyzing the most important new information that has come out, imagine the influence you have.

6. The Seinfeld Curve.  If you love Jerry Seinfeld, you can either: (a) see reruns of his show every night for free, or (b) spend beaucoup money, fly to Vegas and see him in person.  There’s nothing in between — the experience is either scarce or ubiquitous.

You may not demand my attention any more, because I won’t give it to you.  Look at replacements.com and zappos.com for examples of the new paradigm. In a good company experience, you will never hear the recording, “your call is very important to us,” because your call is *so* important, that they answer the damn phone!

Key questions:

Are we in the business of building customers for our products, or building products for our customers?

Are we trying to achieve success before we make a commitment? or are we prepared to make commitment first and then build success?

The new cycle — The Fashion/Permission Cycle:  Be Remarkable (if you can’t, start over) -> Tell a Story to your Sneezers -> They Spread the Word -> Get Permission from their Friends -> Be Remarkable some more… and repeat!  If you view your job as delivering information nuggets to the same old questions, you’re not being remarkable.

Question & Answer:

Q: We’ve had a lot of controversy about our name — we’re named after a building (the L word), does that make sense?

A: Rules of thumb: don’t appear with children, dogs, or talk about the name of the organization that hired you!

Names don’t mean something inherently — they come to mean something.  “Let’s name our coffee shop after a minor character in Moby Dick ?!”  Starbucks has nothing to do with Moby Dick.  You’ve got to understand and shape what your customers associate with the term “library” and “librarian” by what you do.

Q: I read your book on my PDA — the book you gave away.  What can you tell us about the future of books

A; I have made more money from the book I gave away than any other!  Books are souvenirs now, not informaiton artifacts.  Even in specialized information areas we will have this divergence: what people will pay a premium for will be special/unique, i.e. custom, very quick, etc.  Tim O’Reilly said it best: the enemy of every author is not piracy, it is obscurity.

Q: What if we really are selling meatballs, the information that people actually need — we can’t turn our back on that and sell sundaes?

A: There’s nothing wrong with meatballs, people will always need meatballs, it doesn’t make you a second-class organization, but it will have a pattern of growth and development that will tend to be more slow and steady.

Q: What do your ideas have to say about the state of political discourse in our country?

A: In politics, anonymous discourse tends to be harmful, and we’ll see a lot more of it.  At the same time, non-anonymous stuff becomes much more possible and much more effective.  I’m hoping that part — getting the permission and making the discourse civil and effective — is the one that happens.

Vint Cerf and Charlie Rose 2008-06-16

Posted by lukethelibrarian in Librarysphere.
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Since we do have real live Internet here at SLA, I’m going to try “liveblogging” the opening session’s feature: Charlie Rose interviewing Dr Vint Cerf. This post should progressively develop as the session goes along…

CR [to audience]: You guys are my heroes, I should be here listening to you. In my profession we depend on good information. I just didn’t know you had an association…

CR [to Vint Cerf]: Take us back to the beginning, give us a sense… of the role that you played, that ARPANET played…

VC: ARPA founded when Sputnik launched and shook up the administration. ARPA created to put us in space but also in computer science, how to do military command & control in nuclear situation… [mobile was an essential component almost from the beginning] because military command & control had to work for mobile & satellite communication as well as wireline. It took Bob & I about 6 months to develop the basic idea, a couple of years to roll out to academics, and then another 25 years for it to become what it is today.

CR: And Al Gore did what? [laughter]

VC: We love to laugh about that, but … while he was a senator, he helped to get the World Science Network … then sponsored legislation to allow commercial traffic to traverse governmental network, which is what opened up the possibilities to the world beyond just academics, so he did have a very important role [applause]

VC: As Google’s “Internet evangelist” I have only converted 1.3 billion people, I have 5+ more billion to go.

CR: He’s not kidding, that’s his ambition.

VC: I’d like to hope by 2010, we can double the number of people on the internet to 3 billion

CR: Because of the prevalence of mobile devices…

VC: Exactly… We have a long ways to go, but the physics are with us, so I’m feeling very positive about everyone on the face of the planet having access to the Internet within about 10 years.

CR: So the mobile phone is the platform.

VC: Well, new platforms don’t supplant the previous platform

CR: Talk to us about the values that underlie Internet development.

VC: Such a perceptive question. The Internet design was intentionally *completely* open — remember this is at the heart of the Cold War, but we were allowed to share our protocols with everyone. Over 30 years this openness has created an incredible cornucopia of applications. Nobody has to get “permission” to try something out…

CR: Where are we going with new developments, with social networking?

VC: I tried SL once. Tried to fly, ended up just jumping up & down. A very buxom avatar came up to me… she said “are you staring at me?” I said “yes” and … she flew away [laughter] Classic geek…geek-orthodox

CR: That’s his religion after all…

CR: Digitizing of libraries, where are we on that?

VC: Google has tried to help with digitization and OCR, but we have so far to go… as time goes on more will be born digital… we need to stop thinking of digital objects as analogous to physical things — digital objects are very complex things. You don’t get the value of a spreadsheet just by looking at it visually. As these complex digital objects proliferate, I’m very very worried about where it’s taking us. These digital objects require specific software to be understandable – what happens when that software is no longer supported, when it goes away? I call it the “bit rot” problem.

CR: Can Google help with that?

VC: Google can try, but many software companies need to consider looking for web-based/online implementations, esp. of software that is no longer supported, that will allow these digital objects to continue to be usable.

VC: Some people say information is power. Baloney. Information-*sharing* is power.

CR: And information *discovery* is power.

CR: When we look at the future, will we see the Internet go beyond our planetary system?

VC: I certainly hope so, because my colleagues at JPL and I have been working for over 10 years to make it so. We now have the protocols — Delay & Disruption Tolerant Networking Protocols — next year we’ll test them on board the International Space Station, and then we will make it available to every nation that is traveling to space.

CR: What are the implications?

VC: You’re already seeing them. When we talk about reprogramming satellites to handle transmission of signals from planetary rovers (like Phoenix) back to earth, we’re talking about “store-and-forward” messaging, just like what the Internet is based on.

CR: What’s the danger of cyberterrorism?

VC: Certainly there’s a risk, but it’s not just terrorism. All the pieces of our infrastructure have vulnerabilities — we need to be plugging those holes more and more, because we’re depending on this infrastructure more and more. There’s work to be done at every level — down to the browsers on our own machines.

CR: How can we combat spam?

VC: In part by the processes I’m talking about

CR: What is the Internet Café project?

VC: This is a project of mine… my colleagues and I want to put Internet in places where there is no power. We want to enable solar-powered access points that reach the Internet via wireless/satellite technologies. It reaches two goals: it’s a point of access to information, and it’s a source of revenue for an entrepreneur.

CR: In this project of expanding internet access to 6.5 billion people, what about censorship?

VC: I don’t think you can stop information from its flow from one person to another…

CR: Will it be a democratizing agent?

VC: I hope so, but we must acknowledge the commercial factors that can interfere in that.

CR: How will search change?

VC: We need to go beyond the simple matching of text to true understanding of the semantics behind the content.

CR: A semantic web?

VC: Yes, that’s what Tim and others have been working on.

CR: Natural user interface and voice recognition, where’s that headed?

VC: Voice recognition is progressing well, but a challenge is understanding natural discourse instead of just expected phrases. Google made an important breakthrough in translating natural discourse last week — on the BLEU scale of accuracy of translating natural discourse it surpassed the 0.5 threshold which represents the point at which a knowledgeable translator can do cleanup without necessarily referring back to the original recording.

CR: Artificial intelligence?

VC: As soon as you can make it work, it’s not really artificial anymore. To understand us, an intelligence must actually live in the world with us and be able to perceive/sense to some extent as we do.

CR: Will the US continue to dominate Internet development?

VC: Many countries were involved in the original development of the Internet — the idea that it was created by the US is a myth. Will the US continue to provide leadership? I believe so —

CR: What makes you optimistic about the Internet and what do you fear?

VC: Optimism: if the Internet continues to remain as open as it has the last 30 years, the possibilities are endless — software is a boundless frontier. My fear is that it will not remain open due to commercial or other interests.

CR: Today’s New York Times looks at a possible threat to that…

VC: Some Internet providers are thinking about making you pay by the number of bits transferred, not by the speed — that’s a big mistake. When we go on the Internet we don’t know what we will find, so we need to structure pricing so that we pay for the possibility, the rate, of data transfer, instead of for the actual bits, which would cause people to curtail their internet use because of fears of out-of-control bills.

CR: What’s the next big idea?

VC: Dealing with mobiles because there are so many…

CR: …and because they have such small screens?

VC: Here’s my Blackberry, it has a screen the size of a 1928 television and a keyboard for people three inches tall. The key is, however, that when a mobile device is connected to the network, and the other devices around it — projectors, audiovisual equipment, and so on — they are able to merge their capabilities with those other network-connected devices, to become something else.

Stephen Abram: [Thanks & acknowledges both]…. In a world with 6.5 billion internet users, who’s going to help them use those technologies to connect to the people and knowledge they need? Bricks & clicks are important, but it’s our *tricks* [as librarians] that help to connect people through these technologies.

SLA 2008 in Seattle 2008-06-16

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I arrived in Seattle today for SLA 2008, and already it has pushed my boundaries.  I have become increasingly aware of Twitter over the course of the past year, but have held it at arms’ length out of fear that it would be one of those technologies that would simply Take. Over. My. Life.

However, what finally got me to take the plunge into the Twitterverse was #sla2008, which is turning around to be a killer way to experience a conference.  Not sure if it will take over my life, but if it does, it might just be a good thing.

And how about this: a library conference with Free Wireless Internet Access, Everywhere. Yes, read that again — everywhere throughout the Conference Center, provided by SLA.  I am actually sitting here blogging from the main ballroom as the opening session begins.  Way to go SLA.

Tear down the wall 2008-04-18

Posted by lukethelibrarian in Librarysphere.
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So besides my day job, I moonlight as a virtual reference librarian, providing after-hours and Spanish-language coverage for a wide variety of libraries offering round-the-clock online reference services.

One morning recently, a student from a prominent northeastern university connected, seeking help locating material on a particular event in early 17th-century European history. In the reference interview, she indicated she had already searched JSTOR but needed more, and was somewhat surprised that there seemed to be so little available online on a topic she felt was so historically important. As I considered the database options available, I observed that the university in question had an ample history database collection — but much of it looked at more specific aspects (American history, women’s history, Renaissance) that wouldn’t help this student.

I turned to the library’s catalog and found that they had a substantial collection of print and microform materials on the subject, including important primary and secondary sources — mostly in their rare books & special collections department. All of this, however, was meaningless to the student — she couldn’t get to the library at all, much less visit during the limited hours of the special collections department.

Casting my net wider (okay, actually, starting to grasp at straws), I suddenly came across a startling find: many of the very same 18th and 19th-century secondary materials that this student couldn’t get to at her own library were actually available to her in full (for online viewing or for complete download) on Google Books, having been scanned from the collections of Harvard University, New York Public Library, Univ of Michigan, Univ of California, and others.

Bottom line: If we had taken many librarians’ recommended search strategy and had stuck by the library catalog and databases as our finding tools instead of broadening out to free online materials, that student would have missed out on some of the best sources available — and would have walked away with very little indeed.

In order for our online catalogs and databases to be effective finding tools that meet our students’ and patrons’ needs, we need to stop building a wall between our tools and high-quality, freely-available material. We need to be actively tearing down that wall.

In the age of Google Books, the Open Content Alliance, and many other full-text digitizing projects, we need a way to harvest links to those materials in such a way that we can include them as access points in our online catalogs and databases. (Yes, I’m also talking about databases: in cases where one of those Google Books is cited in a JSTOR article, there is a link from Google Books to the JSTOR article. Why isn’t there a link in the other direction as well?)

We could spider and crawl and screen-scrape, and maybe we’ll have to in some cases. But there should be a better way — the Open Content Alliance has committed to exposing its metadata via OAI-PMH. Now libraries and database publishers need a pretty simple, straightforward method that would allow them to take that harvested metadata and add it to their own finding tools.

Each library can decide whether it will just link to freely-available copies of material it already owns, or actually go further to link to additional material it doesn’t own. Either decision is a win. To choose the status quo, however, and to ignore the world on the other side of the wall, is to disregard our users’ needs and how we can help them. That path would lead us from ignorance to irrelevance to obsolescence.

Raison d’être 2008-04-08

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Elie Wiesel’s contribution to NPR’s This I Believe essay series appeared on yesterday afternoon’s All Things Considered, and landed like a cannonball in the center of my chest. An excerpt:

When we endure an experience, the experience cannot stay with me alone. It must be opened, it must become an offering, it must be deepened and given and shared. And of course I am afraid that memories suppressed could come back with a fury, which is dangerous to all human beings, not only to those who directly were participants but to people everywhere, to the world, for everyone. So, therefore, those memories that are discarded, shamed, somehow they may come back in different ways — disguised, perhaps seeking another outlet.

Granted, our task is to inform. But information must be transformed into knowledge, knowledge into sensitivity and sensitivity into commitment.

How can we therefore speak, unless we believe that our words have meaning, that our words will help others to prevent my past from becoming another person’s — another peoples’ — future. Yes, our stories are essential — essential to memory. I believe that the witnesses, especially the survivors, have the most important role. They can simply say, in the words of the prophet, “I was there.”

What is a witness if not someone who has a tale to tell and lives only with one haunting desire: to tell it. Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.

As librarians, as knowledge managers, we tend to think of ourselves as being at the service of our patrons, of our students, of our research clients. But Wiesel reminds us of a deeper imperative: we live and work at the service of witnesses. We find those witnesses, with their haunting desire to tell their tale, not only on our shelves and in our wires — but also walking in and out of our doors every day, passing us in the halls, sitting at the next table at lunch. Building information literacy means much more than training people to be information consumers; it means empowering them to witness, to create, to share with the rest of us.

To paraphrase Ranganathan: we serve not only readers in search of a story, we also serve stories in search of a reader. What if some those stories have not yet been written down or spoken aloud? Does that make them any less our responsibility?