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Magazines > Information Today > February 2004
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Information Today

Vol. 21 No. 2 — February 2004

Report From The Field
Off the Exhibit Floor in London
by Marydee Ojala

When wandering the exhibition hall at the Online Information show, it's easy to forget that there's an extensive conference program going on in the adjacent building. The session rooms are a bit remote from the exhibit hall, and getting there involves climbing a set of stairs, trekking through what seems like acres of uninhabited interior space, and riding an elevator to the top floor of Olympia 2. Once there, however, the paying customers are treated to 3 very full days of packed sessions. As conference chair Martin White and deputy chair Karen Blakeman will tell you, it takes an incredible amount of time and effort to plan the program. The care that they take in choosing topics and speakers shows in the high-quality sessions.


The opening keynote speech, "Beyond Good and E-Ville," was delivered by Ian Angell, professor of information systems at the London School of Economics. He is a dynamic speaker, but far from angelic. His initial question was "What is computing good for?" His answer seemed to be "Not much." The conference laptop that housed his slides apparently had pre-screened them and knew of Angell's negative comments. So it simply refused to work, which more or less proved his point that relying on computers isn't very smart. Angell's ire was not aimed solely at computers, but also at businesspeople who depend on computer-generated data and ignore context. He called them "methodolics" (pronounced like "alcoholics") and decried their tendency to force tidiness into an untidy world.

Although Angell's message was far from novel for information professionals, he did get off some great one-liners, such as "When you're in a hole, stop digging," "Ambiguity can't be resolved by methodology," "Efficiency is bad for business," "Computers are symbols of business virility," and "There is no such thing as an absolute fact."

A large number of delegates skipped their midday meal to hear the luncheon keynote from Lynne Brindley, The British Library's chief executive. Digital preservation is high on her list, since the library has so many priceless treasures it wants to share with the Internet world. Brindley also emphasized the importance of training and insisted that librarians and libraries represent enduring values. She suggested that information professionals could take on the new roles of content interpreters and content navigators.

Bob Boiko, from the University of Washington, was the second day's keynote speaker. His holistic view of content management, with its emphasis on audiences and authors, helped him provide practical tips on how to get content management projects accepted and funded.

Community was the theme of the third morning's keynote, which was given by consultant Richard McDermott. Although he didn't mention either librarians or information professionals, he did stress the importance of sharing global knowledge through communities of practice. He must not have listened to Angell, who had little good to say about knowledge management. What makes communities successful, in McDermott's view, is bringing together people who are passionate about a topic and want to solve problems collaboratively.

General Sessions

Keynotes alone don't make up an entire conference. Regular sessions focused on information architecture, ethics and quality concerns, STM publishing, metrics, and searching. The online information academy delved into management theory and practice. The Eureka! Forum gave delegates the opportunity to quiz search experts such as Mary Ellen Bates, Gary Price, Chris Sherman, and me on anything that came to mind. That included spell-checking searches on an OPAC, recent changes to Google's search ranking methods, and the value of human versus machine indexing.

Free Programs

Interestingly, those unwilling or unable to pay for the full conference could find a surprising amount of free educational programming on the exhibit floor, sometimes held by the same people who conducted the general sessions. I gave presentations on business information and search techniques, Price shared his tips on Web searching, Peter Scott discussed Weblogs, and Sherman speculated on the future of search.

There were daylong tracks on STM, finance and business, and marketing and market-research sources. Master classes on a wide variety of topics featured speakers from three continents. Overall, I thought the free educational sessions were more practical than those in the conference proper but were of equal or greater value to information professionals. Hearing so much high-quality information that you can take home and use immediately—and paying nothing for it—must be the best deal on the planet.

Marydee Ojala is editor of ONLINE magazine. Her e-mail address is
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