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Sailing on

Submitted by Karen G. Schneider on September 30, 2007 - 3:03pm

"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?

Comments (20)

I went to your blog from the

I went to your blog from the ALA web newsletter just because I knew your name. As a retired public librarian/reference librarian I knew little of the latest technological advances. Thanks for the alerts on coming problems. By the way from 72 I can say that the 50's were my best years, both physically and mentally. Enjoy them and all those that follow.

Karen, I\'ve never met

Karen, I\'ve never met you, but have long admired not only your writing, but your ideas and your energy. In your final TechSource column, you\'ve articulated a lot of what I\'ve long felt, and then some! Good luck with your next writing adventure, and thanks for all you do.

Thanks again, all!

Thanks again, all!

Karen, we need your voice.

Karen, we need your voice. Whatever it takes to keep you writing and thinking, I'm in favor of. Best of luck and looking forward to reading whatever you write next.

Centuries from now, when

Centuries from now, when they pry the keyboard from your hands, they'll probably say: What the heck is that thing?

Karen, you totally rock. I

Karen, you totally rock. I haven't read much of the ALA techsource blog (Circ Supervisor here) but I caught the link from Michael Stevens and I totally admire your work in Free Range Librarian... ...50 isn't old, but it is one a good time to make life choices and head down a road not taken (or maybe a track that is more comfortable....) good luck and goddess bless.

Jon, the blog will be

Jon, the blog will be migrating to WordPress in the near future, so fear not. Formatting will be here soon....

I am newish to the library

I am newish to the library field, and fantastically and ridiculously new to following blogs on subjects such as Google, metedata, libraries and technology, etc. (Or following any blogs, for that matter.) But I feel inspired and excited after reading this farewell post. I'm starting a new job developing technologies in a research library. I have a lot of learning to do, but you have helped inspire me to leap in, full-steam ahead. Thank you.

Ok, another small issue

Ok, another small issue that\\\'s completely off topic. Am I missing something obvious about formatting. *Sigh*. I guess when I have time I\\\'ll figure out how to format comments on this blog so it doesn\\\'t come out so ugly. At least having it respect new lines would be nice. If I ask this twice...well, I got distracted, was pretty sure I posted, but it doesn\\\'t look like it.

We'll miss you at

We'll miss you at TechSource, Karen. Thanks -- and good sailing. mg

Patrick, thank you for your

Patrick, thank you for your kind words. It's been a fun ride! I sincerely believe that there are people out there whose voices need to be heard... I guarantee you that with an open door someone will walk in (as I did a long time ago to Leonard's office!). We are not short of talent in LibraryLand!

Wow Karen - I can't tell

Wow Karen - I can't tell you how happy I was to see this post. I think you have hit it right on. We should be scared. I hear rumbling off in the distance and little by little it's getting closer. Good luck with everything...

Call numbers is one of those

Call numbers is one of those areas where logs can lie, if you're not careful. Here it looks like it's actually a somewhat popular search. Till you realize it's coming from just staff machines. A lot of the librarians, for mostly historical reasons, use call numbers as an identifier to retrieve a known item. (Followed by title search). They communicate by saying that there's an issue with this or that record, call number #... In fact, they seem frequently surprised when I tell them for finding books I frequently prefer to use (in order of preference) bib id, isbn, and worse case oclc numbers. Why? Well, I don't know. A large chunk is probably just that it frequently takes longer to do a call number search. I don't like things that take longer and produce more ambiguous results than something that will produce a deterministic result. Ah well, it's one of those things that librarians seem to be curiously out of touch with. A favorite response to these types of finding by call number will frequently start with 'X member of the family knows that y to z is a call number range they're used to and look for books there.' That's a little different. It could be said to be a call number search, but it's primarily a technique of going to a known physical location and browsing from there. I doubt it's something these people do in an online environment, or at least without coaching from their librarian spouse/parent/relative. Jon

May the wind in your sails

May the wind in your sails carry you to the horizons of your dreams and beyond... corny, I know. I can't write like you... Best of luck, KGS! It was an honor and pleasure working with you. I will continue to follow your writing. Just sent myself the 'topics other than technology' piece for tomorrow's bedtime reading (this was part of tonight's):0)

Wow - that's a heckuva a

Wow - that's a heckuva a farewell post! All I can say is ditto and hallelujah :) Actually, I can add that I understand why you're moving on, but you will be sorely missed. There are so few strong voices in the library world who 'tell it like it is' and question the sacred cows. I look forward to following yours in whatever venues it muses.

Great post, Karen, and best

Great post, Karen, and best of luck to you in new seas of writing.

On behalf of my colleagues

On behalf of my colleagues in ALA Publishing, I thank you for your substantial contribution to the blog. You are humble in describing your role in the beginnings of the TechSource blog. You inspired it. You were pivotal in helping recruit fellow bloggers. Your posts stimulated discussion. No, you didn't just get on the bus. If not the driver, you were the engine. And of course, at times you were the hell-raiser in the back. Karen, there's a bit of panic here at HQ about your leaving, which is one mark of your contribution. You started something though and left us good energy in your wake. Thanks!

How ironic that the first

How ironic that the first post I read of this blog is your last! It's comforting at least to see that conversations are happening more than before along the lines of your comment 'that librarianship has a very narrow window of opportunity for survival--maybe a decade, maybe more, maybe a little less.' This is a reality staring us in the face right this instant and over the last few years in Massachusetts where Prop. 2 1/2 (which limits raising of taxes in municipalities statewide) is finding public libraries closing right and left. Saugus, Bridgewater, numerous towns that are open but have or may lose state certification - Medway, Fitchburg, Dunstable, Dartmouth, Tewksbury, Randolph, I think even more but there is nowhere on the Web that provides this info centrally that I can find. Is it just me or is it peculiar that both the Massachusetts Library Association Website and the MBLC, the governing board for libraries in the state, have nothing about this situation mentioned anywhere on their websites. I would think there should be some kind of clearinghouse of data on exactly what libraries are closed, closing soon or operating under waivers for state certification along with strategies to counteract this trend . On the MBLC website, if you read between the lines and click on their action plan for upcoming fiscal years you finally find that they plan to spend a million dollars promoting libraries to the general public. Maybe they should start with their website and how it presents information. And take 2.0, open source, etc. to heart before it's too late. The casual visitor to the site would never know that libraries that used to serve as regional reference centers for the state are shutting down completely (Bridgewater). At least there are people like you raising these important issues. I am quite grateful for that.

agree with a lot of what you

agree with a lot of what you say Karen, but am really reluctant to give up Classification as a unique ID or atleast as a form of subject access. Just because people aren't using it doesn't mean that they shouldn't. It is an excellent way to browse across types of materials such as print and electronic at the same time. On the other hand I firmly believe that libraries need to share more bibliographic data without manually editing and downloading. As a Law Librarian/Cataloger I think it wouldn't it be great if there were a group of top notch Law Librarians doing all the cataloging for Law Libraries and doing it extemely thorougly and well adding lots of access which libraries could then tailor to their cataloging and needs with a profile like an approval plan. Or it could all do into one super catalog which all the libraries could access and choose to search just what they have access to or what everyone has access to. I think this really could work in a more limited environment like Law Libraries or just Academic Law Libraries that have very similar priorities and needs. Where it gets harder is when you throw all libraries into the pot as they are OCLC and then the level of cataloging is not suitable for the academics or it is overkill for the smaller libraries. Just my two cents.

OOPS -- I meant to say that

OOPS -- I meant to say that I think it WOULD be great if there were a group of top notch Law Librarians doing all the cataloging for Law Libraries and doing it extemely thorougly and well adding lots of access which libraries could then tailor to their cataloging and needs with a profile like an approval plan.