ALA Annual 2012 Recap

This year, most of my time at ALA was spent in meetings, and I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to check out sessions and hear the cool things that people are doing in libraryland. I also cut out a lot of the social stuff I’ve done in the past, and I felt much better for it. I’ve learned that I’m a person who needs plenty of quiet alone time to recharge my batteries, so making sure I got that every day made this year’s conference a much less draining experience. It was a different conference experience for me, but I’m still grateful for it. Being around so many engaged librarians always re-ignites my love for this field and my enthusiasm about my work.

I’ve been reviewing the notes I took in the sessions I did manage to attend, and thinking over the big picture ideas that I took away with me. One of the things that felt most significant is that the engine seems to be picking up speed. By which I mean that all these big changes that people have been talking about since I entered the field, in relation to library metadata and cataloging and infrastructure, seem to be gaining some traction. Real work is being done. Momentum is being gained.

There were two main themes that I felt running through the sessions I attended: Linked Data and the Platform. OCLC has been all about the platform lately, and if you didn’t attend their symposium on Friday, during which author Phil Simon talked about The Age of the Platform, I’d recommend checking it out. OCLC has absolutely embraced this idea, and considering how deeply part of our workflows OCLC often is, I think it’s important to be aware of the direction in which they’re headed.

And this is a direction I firmly applaud, but I also think the idea of the platform is bigger than the WorldShare platform that OCLC is building. And I think this is where the two themes I mentioned intersect. The Platform is, at its foundation, a store of data onto which people can hang services and products. OCLC is using their huge store of bibliographic data in Worldcat as a foundation for their management and cataloging services, and allowing anyone to access that data through APIs, in order to build their own services.

But I don’t necessarily think libraries need a vendor to provide the platform for us. I think that eventually, bibliographic metadata in the form of open linked data will provide a wide-ranging platform on which many of us will be building our library services. The platform will be built by us, owned by us (inasmuch as its ‘owned’ by anyone), and open and free for anyone and everyone to use. Vendors might still have a role here, in building the services that we want on that platform (I don’t fool myself that every single library is going to have programmers on staff). But I think our bibliographic data will stop living behind walls.

OCLC is in a strange position here. They walk a fine line between vendor and cooperative. In one sense, OCLC is Libraries, but they do behave like a vendor. I think this is going to be a harder and harder road for them to walk as bibliographic data, the foundation of their cooperative, begins to live on the open web. Their role with libraries might need to be re-defined.

There were a few other ideas that I came away from ALA with rattling through my brain:

  • Libraries always seek consensus, and this can slow our progress wayyyy down. We can’t always do things by consensus. Sometimes leaders just need to step up and lead.
  • The work of catalogers in the future will look almost nothing like the work of catalogers now. Accept.
  • We are moving into a new era of collaboration and cooperation, and the future, this will make some of our work a lot easier.
  • The process of getting to that future will be hard. It will require hard work, not just in terms of Getting Stuff Done, but in terms of struggling through transitions in our organizations. We can’t keep saying that we can’t afford to do Stuff, because the truth is, we can’t afford not to.

I’m excited to see what this new world of metadata will look like, and I’m even more excited that glimmers of its future visage are starting to appear. I saw, for the first time, a real live example of the discovery system that’s been living in my mind’s eye yesterday, and I was almost giddy with possibility. It’s rough, and it’s incomplete, and apparently the organization that created it won’t be supporting that work going forward, but still. Possibility.

Did you go to ALA? Did anything you hear there make you feel giddy with possibility? Maybe even just a little lighthearted with possibility?

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