|Volume 17, Number 5 • May 2000|
Report from the Field •
Computers in Libraries 2000
Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes?
by Shirley Duglin Kennedy
But something distinctly different was in the air this year. In addition to the traditional emphasis on hardware, software, data sources, and the almighty Internet, there seemed to be lots of attention devoted to the critical importance of the information professional.
Ulla de Stricker, of de Stricker and Associates, summed it up pretty well in one of the closing sessions, “What’s Hot: Technology and Information Industry Trends,” when she suggested that “Libraries in Computers” might be a better name for the conference. “Computers are the library,” she said. “Now it’s all about librarians focusing on the right things … eliminating non-strategic tasks.”
Those acquainted with de Stricker—either personally or through her writings or speaking engagements—know that she’s a longtime advocate of the information professional as a proactive rather than reactive member of an organization’s team. Variations on this theme were echoed by a number of other presenters at this year’s conference—among them, Herb Elish, the Harvard-educated attorney who brought a wealth of private industry experience to his role as director of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library System. Said Elish, who has no library background himself: “If we continue to think about libraries as places people have to come to, we’re lost. The real resource of libraries is not the books. It’s the librarians. It’s what the librarians and professionals do.”
In a session on “The Library of the Future and the World Network,” Elish said that it was reasonable to analyze the situation of libraries “from a business perspective” because technological changes have had a huge impact on the business world as well. The bottom line is something we’ve all probably heard repeatedly: Change or die. “Libraries used to have a monopoly on information,” Elish explained. Basically, there was no place else to go. Alas, he said, “The monopoly has been broken. Information is no longer available in a place.” But as the importance of the library as a physical structure may be in decline (except as a “community center”), the role of the information professional is in ascendance. “Librarians help you navigate through the great sea of information that has become available,” said Elish.
The ubiquity of the Internet means that pointing users to vetted, screened, and organized information is more important than ever. “People are having trouble finding their way through the Internet,” Elish said. He described the misadventures of a student using the Web for research on Asian cultures, who discovered that “the Taj Mahal was completed in 1982 and it’s in Atlantic City, New Jersey.”
And, said Elish, “I am convinced that the situation is only going to
get worse.” Ten new Web addresses are created every minute, he said. “Anybody
can put anything on this marvelous thing called the Internet,” but it’s
up to librarians to put the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” on information
because they are regarded as a reliable source, Elish said. “Libraries
always rank high in public trust in the community because they are perceived
to work in the public interest … unbiased.”
In one conference session after another, attendees were introduced to examples of electronic resources built, refined, and maintained by information professionals. Some of these resources included:
“The thing that is scaring the hell out of me is patents,” said Stephen Abram, vice president of Micromedia, Ltd. He was speaking specifically about patents on Internet business models such as Amazon.com’s “one-click ordering” and affiliate programs, whereby Amazon.com antes up a small percentage to Web site owners when people order books from its Web site (“We used to call this graft,” he said), and the Northern Light search engine’s presentation of search results in different folders. Patenting ideas like these, Abram said, is creating “an environment where we are going to fossilize it before it develops.” Abram really connected with the audience when he suggested that librarians begin seeking patents for such things as interlibrary loans, citations, and “the concept of a reference question.”
Another one of Abram’s fears is the widespread belief that “education will cure everything.” Citing the proliferation of self-flush toilets in airports, malls, and other public spaces, he said, “We can’t teach the population of the world to consistently flush a toilet, and we think we’re going to teach them Boolean logic.” Only 25 percent of the population are “text-based learners,” Abram said. “We need to get better at understanding how the rest of the world learns.… There’s a reason porno works so well. Some people learn by pictures.”
Marshall Breeding, technology analyst at Vanderbilt University’s Heard Library (and Information Today columnist), said: “What really concerns me is bandwidth.… Will we ever turbocharge the World Wide Wait?” Breeding touched on the impact that programs like Napster (http://www.napster.com)—which allows thousands and thousands of people to share the hundreds and hundreds of digital music files contained on their thousands and thousands of computers—are having on campus networks nationwide. Some institutions have even banned Napster because of the bandwidth toll it exacts. Nonetheless, digital audio and video are here to stay. More and more people are moving to cable modem and ASDL connections to the Internet. And if you’re using anything slower than a 56-K modem, Breeding said, “you’re using dead technology.”
Ulla de Stricker said technology doesn’t worry her. “I’m not worried about new tools. We cope. We’ve always coped … I choose to worry about relationships.” She said information professionals should seek to become “the ultimate portal … the trusted source” within their organizations, and she encourages development of communications skills so you can “sell what you provide.” So many times, we “get too good” at technology “to the exclusion of our communications skills,” she said, and advised spending 30 percent of our time developing relationships.
Walt Howe, of Delphi Internet Forums, titled his presentation “Dead Technologies … and We Didn’t Even Know They Were Sick.” First of all, Howe said: “HTML is dead.… Anyone writing HTML for nested tables or using invisible graphics for layout is wasting their time.… We’ve had our fun. It’s time to let go.” Another technology that is circling the drain, according to Howe, is knowledge management. “Management theories are like waves,” he said, and this one “is settling back into the froth.”
“Internet search engines are worthless,” said Richard Hulser, digital library technologies manager at IBM Corp. “But they are getting better.” Meanwhile, CD-ROM networks and 3.5-inch floppy disks are “completely dead,” Hulser said, because, “Information delivery is taking other forms.” What’s on the way out? “Bulky monitors.” What should be dead? “Ringing cell phones.” The term “digital library” is being elbowed out of the way in favor of “content management,” according to Hulser. “It’s marketing. What can I tell you?”
What will we be hearing more about, whether we like it or not? “Vortals,” or vertical portals, which Hulser described as portals that are “centered around one content area.” “Rich media.” “Virtual team technologies.” And finally, “NetGen … the rich 20-year-olds we all hate because they don’t know as much as we do but are a lot richer.”
Rebecca Jones of Dysart and Associates (and editor of Intranet Professional) said she worries “that there will not be enough librarians with the proper skills to do all the jobs that need to be done.” Since search engines index only 55 percent of the Web, she reminded the audience, librarians will not be “disintermediated” by end-users searching it directly. Instead, she explained, librarians will function as “metamediaries.”
Despite continuing predictions of a shakeout among search engines, Greg
Notess said, “new ones keep coming.” And since there are so many and the
trend seems to be toward more specialized “search things,” librarians “will
not be a dead technology.” Searching, Notess said, “is not a science. It’s
an art.” Thus, “anyone who understands searching” will be needed to serve
as an “intermediary.”
Cool Quotes from CIL
CIL Poetry Corner
IBM’s Richard Hulser shared a verse by Robert M. Nutt that was printed in the March 13, 2000 edition of The New York Times’ Metropolitan Diary column:
OnlineLinks to Web sites, PowerPoint slides, and other electronic resources used in support of presentations at Computers in Libraries 2000 can be found at Information Today, Inc.’s Web site: http://www.infotoday.com/cil2000/presentations.
Going online is perfectly fine
When you have to search for stuff.
But have a care, for hackers are there,
And surfing is sometimes rough.
Perhaps your fate is discovering too late
An occasional crash is the norm,
“Yahoo!” you say, and maybe “eBay!”
It’s the dot-com before the storm.
Shirl Kennedy is Webmaster for the City of Clearwater, Florida. Her
e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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