Up Close With Stephen Abram
by Miriam A. Drake
If you ask most people where they live, they’ll probably give you the name of a city, town, state, or country. But if you ask Stephen Abram, chances are he’ll say he lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, or maybe Planet Earth.
Abram is a global thinker with broad interests. His sharp wit and keen perception are usually miles ahead of the pack. He readily shares his knowledge and insights through his blog, Stephen’s Lighthouse (http://stephenslighthouse.com); conference presentations; speeches; and articles that include his regular contributions to SLA’s Information Outlook and Internet@Schools.
Since Abram graduated from the University of Toronto, he has held a variety of positions in the information industry. His experience includes serving as head librarian at Coopers & Lybrand, in various publishing positions, and as vice president for innovation at SirsiDynix. Today, he is busy in his current position as vice president of strategic partnerships and markets at Gale Cengage Learning. He maintains his dedication to librarianship and works to merge learning with the work of librarians.
In mid-June, I caught up with Abram for this interview, which has been lightly edited for style and length.
Q: Do we need libraries as institutions?
A: When I look at the library versus the librarian issue, I see a lot of librarians in the U.S. who are starting to find and invest more strongly in the customer-relationship model. It is no longer about being all things to all people, if it ever was. Prioritization and focus will be challenges in the short term for long-term success.
In universities, there are different strategies for first- and second-year undergraduates, third- and fourth-year undergraduates, and drastically different strategies for master’s and Ph.D. levels. It is the difference between the university’s mandates for higher education for undergraduates primarily, the university’s mandate to create next-generation professionals (e.g., architects, accountants, engineers, researchers, and businesspeople), and the university mandate to discover and invent. At the master’s and Ph.D. levels, it is theoretical and applied. When you look at those, you see that your library needs to reinvent the model of the print library as the center of the university. It needs to get beyond digital content and into experience. We need to figure out how it needs to get embedded into the university mission more directly.
We all agree that information is a core good and the absolute most usable libraries are more virtual than physical. The virtual library user is significantly different from the in-person library user. The top of the house at libraries in universities and colleges understands that. It’s not hitting the front line quite enough yet. I am also finding that the adoption of elearning has a great effect. Virtually every course now has an elearning component. It could be a resource, part of the course, or the course itself.
I am finding that libraries are late to the game and are learning that they need to have elearning development skills on staff. They need to understand how to create that kind of experience and make things like information literacy scalable to the point that 100% of students and staff are touched and transformed. Whether it is using Blackboard, WebCT, ANGEL, Moodle, Desire2Learn, Sakai, or another learning management system, if they do not have those people on staff, they risk being out of alignment with the mainstream. Some librarians had a rocky relationship with IT, and their relationship with elearning developers is going to be worse if they do not develop those skills, relationships, and talk that language.
Q: What about public libraries? Will they survive?
A: Yes. The No. 1 strategy that public libraries should be hitting on is a story-telling advocacy program, because we think libraries are using statistics too narrowly and they are not telling the story effectively. Using Stephen Denning’s book (The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations, KMCI Press, 2001), we have collected material using stories and videos and how to work it.
I just returned from South Africa. That’s where I found this card that I am going to use as the opening slide on my presentations to ALA and SLA: “Until the lion starts telling his own story, the stories will always be from the perspective of the hunter.” It is an old African proverb, and I thought that it is so perfect for libraries.
We keep waiting for people to tell our great stories instead of feeding the market. We build the storytelling competency, and then we build the statistical measurement model that says here is the value we are delivering. Gale has released a package to simplify this process, as well as a matrix of statistics and measures that help to provide proofs of successful strategic alignment with community needs.
When folks say that they want Google and Bing and that’s sufficient and libraries are irrelevant, then folks are missing the point. Google and Bing are making billions of dollars of profit every month. How they are doing that is by selling search engine rankings, selling targeted ads, selling sponsored links, and putting their own stuff on the homepage showing their own products and content. I always point out that the search engine rankings are manipulated by librarians and people working in political campaigns using advanced search engine optimization techniques.
When states held primaries, the search engine rankings were radically changed. Librarians did not want to fully recognize it because it sounded so offensive to them. The black neighborhoods had different results than the white neighborhoods. The rich neighborhoods had different results from the poor neighborhoods. The Democrats will optimize black and poor neighborhoods. The Republicans will suboptimize just to try to get the Democrats stuff off. Since this is core to the Google business model, it works out fine for the “who, what, when, and where” questions.
Q: That brings us to librarianship. Given that some librarians prefer order and rule, are slow to change, and are risk-averse, where do you see librarianship going?
A: Risk aversion is a natural thing that happens in publicly funded institutions. You don’t want publicly funded institutions such as municipal governments, public libraries, and large universities to be taking huge venture capital entrepreneurial risks.
I think librarians during the last few years have gotten very good at taking limited risk. A public institution by its very nature needs to be conservative. If you want to see ebooks or iPad initiatives, you can find these all over. I have had talks with Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) about using Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grants as sources of venture capital, not sources for subsidizing programming. IMLS is moving toward using those grants for exploring how we discover the future. The problem with library innovation in my view is diffusion. We have wonderful and successful programs all over the place. Why do these programs stand alone?
Q: What do you see regarding librarians in corporations? What is their future?
A: This is a bifurcation happening in special librarianship. Libraries will continue. They will be smaller and more powerful and more webbed through their institutional framework. The libraries that are most at risk are special libraries. Ironically, the librarians that are at least risk are special librarians, especially those who understand what to do with embedding themselves in corporate teams, understand that they are marketing the librarian and not the library, and understand deeply that they can survive better as an individual librarian than as a professional who works in a library. How do I describe myself? How do I write my job description?
There are some librarians who do not understand the differences in a job title, a profession, and a career. In special libraries, being the director of intranet content means that you need a library degree if not a technical degree. Too many people say that they didn’t apply for a job because it did not ask for an M.L.S. More librarians need to understand that the leading edge of where librarians are being respected as a profession is outside of the physical library. Most of the San Jose State University SLIS graduates go into nontraditional jobs that aren’t in libraries. Usually 50% of the graduates of the University of Toronto iSchool do not go into traditional libraries. They go into metadata, ontology, training, sales, and all sorts of nontraditional spaces. Some who no longer work in libraries say they are no longer librarians.
When a doctor becomes head of a hospital, he/she is still a doctor. When an engineer becomes head of an oil company, she/he is still an engineer. None of them say I am not my profession anymore. We have a dysfunction. I suppose that they want to get their career off the ground and get higher pay. You can move out of the library, as I have done, and make two to three times more than if I were working in a library. I am a librarian. I would never say that I am not a librarian. I use my library skills every day.
Q: What are the major trends that you see affecting publishing and librarianship?
A: As you know, we formally merged Gale with Cengage Learning. On the publisher side, we know we need to build extended resources into every learning opportunity. The corollary is that we need to build a learning opportunity and experience into the extended resources base. We are exploring the intersection of learning and libraries. It used to be assumed because people could walk from the classroom to the library. We cannot assume that anymore. We can reinvent our library resources in the context of a changing educational world.
The challenge is that we have hundreds of courses that we are selling for a good price to public libraries to provide free certificates and programs to their patrons. Yes, you can earn certificates. We are also hoping to offer a high school certificate or course replacement if you are missing a course or two from your high school. You could soon get them from the local public library and complete your high school requirements or GED preparation. You can get certificates in IT or just take courses on your hobbies. If we can put courses in the library, then we can put the library into courses in colleges, universities, and trade schools. In order to do that, we have to understand how to create the learning experience that actually transforms the learner.
There are many college, university, and public library mission statements that have the words “learning” or “transformation” in them. End users needed to be materially different before they had the library experience. We started building information portals that were our Resource Center products. These transformed into the In Context product line that started as knowledge portals. Now we are calling them experience portals because we know that the experience of learning is more than just transferring knowledge. If you talk about experience, you have to talk about learning styles. For example, in our Career Transitions portal, if I want to teach someone how to conduct a job interview, I can tell a story and use the 700 videos we have in the product.
There are great articles, but I believe people learn how to do a job interview better by watching a video if they are not a strong text-based learner. One thing may be said, but a thousand things are understood—a bit of Confucian wisdom. When you are watching that video, you see behavioral cues, facial cues, and all the stuff that is important to an interview.
One trend we’re mining is an experience-driven strategy. Another is focusing on the transformation, not the transaction. Another is learning to measure impact and strategic alignment and not collect mere statistics. We now have measurements that move beyond statistics. If libraries take our advice, they can get a 300%–700% increase in database use. We can make it look amazing.
Another trend is integrating video and sound and understanding that learning disabilities are just other ways to learn. I usually get the lights to turn on when we get to Read/Speak. When we are talking about the K–12 space and you have a fourth-, fifth-, or sixth-grade boy who is not a strong text-based learner and is challenged by text, his confidence is flagging. If you go into our databases and every article is coded to its reading level or Lexile, you may find the climate change article that is grade 6 level and he is in grade 8. You can show him how to bump up the font and how to read it while he has his headset on; he can have the text read to him through headphones, and then he can progress and keep up with the class. His comprehension goes up.
Q: What do you want readers to know?
A: I want them to think about a human-centered approach to strategy and the products, technologies, and the various components they have to deliver an experience and how that experience needs to be delivered. If we are going to be human-centric, how do we look at that and say what experience needs to be here? That is very different from being technology-centered, or content-centered, or thinking that this is how it would have worked for me because I am only one example of how people learn.
That doesn’t mean that my style is wrong. Sometimes we excel by building something for ourselves. That is why you have lawyers developing products for lawyers, doctors developing products for doctors. That human-centered approach requires us to be more comfortable with psychographic profiling and much more comfortable with personas, which is what we use at Cengage Learning and Gale. There is a quite different matrix of learners in an engineering school versus a medical school versus a 12th-grade classroom. It is wider in grade 12 and can be even wider in undergrad. It gets narrower as people start to choose their professions.
Librarians and faculty tend to be fairly open-minded and sometimes need to be reminded about how to serve and develop service for the widest range of users. Some libraries, such as that of Ringling College that is focused on theater, drama, and art, intuitively know how to serve their users and that their users are different. There has not been a top movie made in the past 20 years that did not have a Ringling graduate on the team involved in making the movie. One of its interesting hiring strategies is virtually every employee in the library is an artist too. Employee art is up on the wall, and it demonstrates that they understand the experience their users are looking for. .
Q: Tell me about the status of the textbook market and industry in the K–12 learning materials.
A: Obviously, we are in all those markets, K–12, colleges, universities, trade schools, the whole bit. We are the largest producer of white-label elearning. So a lot of the courses you’re seeing were developed by us. We have major R&D initiatives, such as Cengage’s MindTap. That is our lead innovation in the creation of learning objects. The state of the industry is that there are three major players, Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and us. Those were the dominant traditional book people. Each of us has our strengths and weaknesses. All of us are challenged with finding the path forward with a shifting environment and market demands, sometimes driven by technological change but not always. Right now, there are a thousand flowers blooming.