Monday, January 21, 2008

Stephen Abram talk before NYC chapter of SLA, January 10, 2008

I attended Stephen Abram's talk before the New York City chapter of the Special Libraries Association (SLA) on January 10, 2008. Always a dynamic speaker, his themes were familiar, promoting librarianship in a world swimming in information on the Internet, and promoting SLA.

Please recognize these are just my discursive notes and should not be taken as a literal transcription of Stephen Abram's remarks.

I've removed the frequent appeals to become members of SLA (but his pitches worked: I think I'll probably become a member next month).


As librarians, we need to communicate the passion we feel for our work. We need to communicate it to prove our value. We need to be more assertive about what we do. Fact: Of the top 10 donors to the American elections, 9 are foreign copyright holders, and 1 American. With that state of things, do we really think that the way the advertisers manipulate the search results on Google are the right way to get information on the important decisions concerning life and culture? We don’t often talk about these issues enough. If we lose this battle (i.e. by not pre-empting Google), this is not a good thing. How do we get better at communicating what we do?

We can do it with stories of what we do. (Stephen recounts a personal incident showing the effect librarians can have.) He was at the desk when a young man returned a book. Steve said “Oh, if you’ve read that, you’ve got to read this book before you die.” A month later, the individual returned and revealed the story behind his previous visit. He had come in to return a book so his parents wouldn’t have to pay a library fine when he killed himself. But the book he was handed made him reconsider and changed him around. Therefore: You never know what effect the information you give will have on people.

The generation of baby boomers is probably the whiniest – the most resistant to change. We’ve just been through 20 years of the highest economic growth in the history of the world. What’s real change? Real change is what our grandparents went through – a period of time in which they experienced: the telephone, airplanes, radio, television, indoor pluming, the depression – an amazing amount of change. And they weren’t whining.We’re about to enter a similar period of change—a period of the most amazing change ever. If you can’t handle the last 20 years, you’re in for a big ride. It will be a challenge.

How are we going to deal with this change in our libraries? What will you do when every single book is online? We’ve already gone to an article-based economy: How many of you value your bound periodicals over the online ones?What does it mean when Google digitizes tons of material? What does it mean when we’ve integrated articles and chapters with websites, podcasts, etc.? Have we talked about information overload? Look at what it means when Bush & Co. are able to subpoena every search history from every vendor (except from Google, who refused). And they subpoenaed every phone call. How many of you knew that every search, every phone call was kept in a single database?

We have some very interesting issues that matter to us. Where will SLA be in this future?

Google and others have already learned how to optimize search results for local communities. If you perform a search from work, they know your IP address and will give you one set of results, whereas if you search from, say, Albany, NY, you’ll get another set of results.

It’s up to us to teach end users to critical thinking skills. It’s essential that we don’t have organizations saying “We don’t need a library – everything is free on the Internet.” Our sound bite should be: “Explain to me exactly how a search result that is more or less the same every where gives us a competitive advantage?” “Explain to me how competitive an advantage it is to have exactly the same search result as everyone else?

Assertiveness is generally not a trait seen in librarians. What level of assertiveness will it take for our colleagues and customers to recognize what we do as librarians? We have to be confident of what we’re saying, and know why we’re saying it. We know (from statistics) that people die less in hosptials equipped with libraries, and that kids do better in school when those schools have libraries. How much does it take to prove our value?

What is the librarians’ stock in trade? Is it the collection, or is it the librarians? What should we be promoting? You can’t sit back and say “I don’t want to be involved in social networking.” 85% of people from Toronto have Facebook accounts. One thing that isn’t going to change is that “libraries” require social skills. Our relationship skills trump all of our content and databases. The problem when you have too much information isn’t finding information, it’s knowing someone who can assist you in selecting content. Our core skill is improving the quality of the question. How do we shift from an information economy to a question-oriented economy? How do we make our customers understand that knowledge is the question, not the content? And how do we make sure we are communicate that?

How much money did you spend on Google last month? What is Google’s number one client? YOU! Google nets a billion dollars profit every three months from you. If I’m giving you a billion dollars in profit every three months, to whose needs am I going to give priority? Priority will go to advertisers. Take Google Scholar - the one with no advertising – how much did it grow last year? Not at all, but saw a 27% drop in users. Other of their products went up over 700%. They haven’t updated the Google Librarian blog in six months! They have agreements with over 10,000 publishers. They’re adding new libraries all the time to their Google Books project. Their stock has gone past $700 a share. They are rumored to be buying Sprint.

MySpace has made overtures to Dow Jones. Why? Millenials are the largest generation, and they have disposable cash. (Boomers are constrained by support for their kids and parents.) 85% of all English-speaking kids are on MySpace – they trust each other before they trust you. They do all their financial transactions online.

Gardner Research predicts that by 2012, 85% of all searching will be done through your personal avatar. Engineers are building a portable avatar that can be carried from one website to another. Already Google and MySpace agreed to share information with regards to portability. MySpace, Facebook, and Google are cooperating on identity. They’ve introduced the Open Handset Alliance because this is the dominant device.To see a movie: are you going to get into your car, spending $4 a gallon to get to your library, when you can rent it via Google for 99 cents? (25% of television in Europe is watched on a laptop.)

The University of Arizona is equipping 10,000 students with a phone that records every conversation that you have. They’re all coded to the students’ identity because the phones “talk” to each other.There is software planned that will aggregate articles and actually write your homework for you. This is happening in the business world with products such as Alacra. It’s brilliant: it assembles in 15 minutes what it would take us weeks to do. We need to understand the kind of threat this represents. It’s a brilliant strategy for us to adapt.

Second Life, online content, etc. – we need to be aware of these shifts.
We have privacy emerging as a balanced issue: how are we going to deal with opening up our privacy so that we get better results, and at the same time not having our privacy destroyed?

According to a new study, 46% of all the information on the web concerning health and nutrition is wrong. How do we make sure we have a conversation with the public where we say “Do you want your doctor killing people beecause they have too much unsifted information?

If we lose the battle of getting the right information to people – we’re lost, not just for us, but for everyone. So we have to find our voices. We have to make sure we’re out there talking confidently about the value we deliver. And then we can put some truth in it: yes, we’re really good.

We’ve got to do this because we’re entering a global phase of the biggest transformation of the web experience. E-mail is changing communication. Instant messaging is doing similarly. You’re communicating, clarifying through IM at the same time you’re getting recommendations from your friends on Facebook about anything from movies to politics. When a 21-year-old runs an election, you’ve seen a shift. This is not unique – it’s NORMAL for a typical inner-city kid.

We’re also seeing something we’re entirely uncomfortable with: radical trust. It's a term first coined by Tim O’Reilly and popularized by Darlene Fichter (U of Saskatchewan). How do we make sure that those holding the conversations represent diversity so that the decisions are informed by different life experiences? How do we make sure that it’s not just the text-based thinkers in librarianship who bring something to the paper when there are image and moving picture (i.e. YouTube) experiences? How do we take different learning experiences on a global scale and make that happen? Who’s in a position to do that?

In my opinion SLA is positioned to do that. We’re going global.

Radical trust is an evolution we need to make. Our (baby boomers) generation sees weaknesses in the current generation, and that generation that sees weaknesses in us. How do we partner with each other so that we are collaboratively and reciprocally moving together? It’s not going to happen until we respect each other.

SLA has to deal with a new world order, and that new order is already here. The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet. How do we deal with it, how do we adapt to it, how do we not be in denial of it?

[Riff on a traffic sign in London:] “Changed Priorities Ahead.” It’s true of the world we face today. What matters now? I like the sign underneath: “No Stopping At Any Time.”

The nature of professional relationships has been through associations. But there’s a shift occurring: When you get 1,500 librarians interested in Library 2.0 joining a Ning group within its first four weeks (there are now close to 2,700) – if they can collaborate without benefit of an association, do you need the association?. If they can put all their YouTube videos, all their blog postings, all their pictures, into a single site – what does that mean about SLA and professional associations? How are you collaborating that puts people together? SLA does have an internal profile. But you don’t look like you’re integrating with the organization, if you’ve not put your presence online and be present for your users to discover you. Expectations 1.0: Search, Retrieve, View, Print, Link, Navigate, Read

The relationship of individuals to assocations used to be an exchange: give me benefits, and I’ll volunteer time to help the organization. That’s so last century. Today it’s about ME. Only about ME. You don’t matter, the association doesn’t matter, because it’s all about ME. It’s about what my needs are. Can you be there when I need you, and not interrupt or annoy me when I don’t need you?We see tools that are me-based tools. People criticize blogging. People say I’m an egomaniac because they think I have something to say. No, I don’t. I use my blog to keep what I think is interesting and other people think what I’m thinking is interesting is also interesting to them.

RSS, Wikis, Blogs, etc. etc. The underlying theme in all these Library 2.0 tools is social contact. What are the social professions? Librarians, teachers, sociologists, psychologists – people who interact with other people predominantly to make a difference in the interpersonal reactions of other people. Can you do that with email? No. Ever try to do email reference? It sucks. How many days does it take to bounce emails back and forth just to clarify the question? Ever try instant messaging? What about this video camera on my cellphone? The Buddhists say “one word is spoken and a thousand things are understood.”

Compare: a college student who approaches the reference desk asking about “divorce” and a 32-year old woman, who quietly asks for materials on “divorce.” How much would you like to bet that she’s not doing a paper on the subject? That’s something you can only get a clear idea from the live interpersonal interaction.

How do we reposition the human role in making this work? Do you want to be the kind of library where everyone has to come to you, or do you want to be where everyone of your users are? In the five Ps of marketing it’s called: Positioning. You want everyone one of your customers to know what you are.

Of the top 100 magazines, 50% have social tools built into them. If content is not social, then we have to be. 90% of newspapers have gone social. If you’re in scholarly work, look at the interdisciplinary tagging that happens among the ISI social indicators. Everyone’s gone social!We know from Forrester Research that people under 30 are showing up in our profession. They have a different level of expectations. These are people who have spent their entire lives blogging, building web sites, uploading videos, etc.

We need to move to Expectations 2.0: Understand the power of the landscape (the Internet) and it's opportunities.

What are the psychological preferences of people being influenced? and how do we craft a language so that we can speak to them? We need to have the tools to change the way we communicate to make a difference.

For SLA: How do we build a culture of continuous learning so that we know the answers to what people want to ask.

1 comment:

Isabelle Fetherston said...

Thank you for posting this summary of Stephen Abram's talk. I have referred to your post on my library 2.0 blog: