Thoughts after ALA Midwinter

I got back from ALA Midwinter on Tuesday night, and after taking a day to ponder all the things I heard and discussed over the long weekend, I wanted to quickly write up a few observations and thoughts. I’m trying to take an overall approach, rather than detailing each session I attended, as I have in the past. I didn’t go to as many presentation sessions as I usually do: I had some committee meetings to attend, and I was trying to do a much better job at balancing conference stuff with my own need for down time.

There were three sessions I attended that shaped my general impressions of what’s going on right now in libraryland: The Cataloging Norms Interest Group session with Diane Hillman, Susan Massey, and Roman Panchyshyn, OCLC’s presentation on the changes they’re making to FirstSearch, and another OCLC presentation (by Kathryn Harnish) on the WorldShare platform and the underlying theories behind OCLC’s strategic vision.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the word that’s been ringing through my mind since I came home is “change.” Yes, everyone is talking about change. Because, duh, we are all going to be facing a crap ton of it in the coming years. The timing of the Harvard Libraries’ announcement about restructuring was kind of fortuitous: Many librarians were talking about change and change management all weekend. Nearly every presentation I heard over during the meeting was at its root all about change.

Diane Hillman gave a great talk to the Cataloging Norms Interest Group about linked data, “From Records to Statements.” And what she said was, basically, “Hey catalogers, get ready, because everything you know will be different.” I think she did a terrific job of explaining how the future of data differs from our existing practices, and why our existing practices won’t serve us well going forward. Cataloging isn’t going to be about record creation and management anymore, and catalogers need to adapt and learn new skills. Metadata work going forward is going to be about aggregating data, working with programmers and developing new methods for handling and using data, modeling and documenting best practices, and evaluating and analyzing data. We’ll be working to create new tools to work with large amounts of metadata: We can’t think about bibliographic metadata on a piece-by-piece basis anymore. We need to make massive changes in our basic conceptual models, and the faster we do it, the better.

The OCLC presentations I attended were also pretty well focused on change: It sounds like OCLC itself is heading in a new strategic direction, and I think that’s a great thing. Kathryn Harnish’s presentation on the WorldShare Platform was well done and interesting, and I’ll probably end up talking more specifically about some of the things she discussed in a separate post. But the big takeaway for me is that OCLC is shifting the frame around what they’re doing. They’re thinking about data on a large scale, and how libraries can use that data in new ways, to improve effectiveness and to cooperate in ever more meaningful ways. I think it’s fantastic. The only thing I have to say, though, is that in both presentations and one-on-one conversations with OCLC folks, I wish there was less jargon and more solid information. They could definitely work a bit on transparency. As I like to remind myself, OCLC is OUR organization, it’s our cooperative. It would be nice if it didn’t feel sometimes like they are trying to sell it to us.

I think most of the librarians I know are aware of the need for significant transformations in the way we work. We have, after all, been talking about this for a long time. Libraries are notoriously slow about adopting new practices, and this worries me. We do not live in a slow world. But I feel hopeful that the constant murmur around change I heard at ALA is a sign that we know we have to pick up the pace, get on the ball, get our shit together, whatever metaphor you prefer for hurry-up-and-make-good, people!

Some things I think librarians should do in the coming months to start getting themselves and their organizations ready for change (self included):

  • Start learning about linked data and RDF. The W3C Library Linked Data Incubator Group Final Report is a great place to start.
  • Read The Age of the Platform by Phil Simon, and think about how data management works outside of libraries (PS – I tried to link to Worldcat for that book, but I couldn’t find it using a keyword, title, OR author search; if OCLC can’t fix stuff like that their ideas about platform driven development are kind of meaningless.)
  • Learn about change management. There are best practices, no matter your role or position in an organization.
  • Start thinking about your own skills and strengths, and your weaknesses. Come up with a plan for learning something new this year. Codeyear has been great fun for me so far. Position yourself well for the changes that are bound to come in your organization, rather than waiting for some kind of training to come from on high.
  • Read about RDA, if you haven’t already. Even if you’re not a cataloger, it will help to understand how library metadata is being conceptualized.

These are just a few things off the top of my head that I want to do this year; I’m sure some of you have more and better ideas for how you are getting ready for big ol’ fancy changes in libraryland. I’d love to hear them. Are there other big themes you’re hearing and seeing in the profession right now? If you went to ALA, what are you thinking about this week, now that you’re home?

One thought on “Thoughts after ALA Midwinter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *