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.
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
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 immediatelyand paying nothing for itmust
be the best deal on the planet.
Marydee Ojala is editor of ONLINE magazine. Her
e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.