Thursday, September 30, 2004

Urban Libraries Council

I just finished an audioconference sponsored by the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) on the E-Scan. Titled "Thinking Forward: Trends Shaping Public Libraries," the conference also included Martín Gómez, the President of ULC, as the moderator; Ginnie Cooper, the director of Brooklyn Public Library; Mona Carmack, the County Librarian for Johnson County Public Library, just outside of Kansas City; Bob Martin, the Executive Director of the Institute for Museum and Library Services; and Mike Crandall, the soon-to-depart Technology Manager for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and soon-to-arrive educator at the University of Washington's Information School.

First, let me say if you ever get a chance to do an audioconference, do it. There's nothing better than being able to do a talk without putting on a tie or getting on an airplane.

Second, this discussion raised some really good issues about the future of public libraries. For example, Mona Carmack (one of the people we interviewed for the Library section of the Scan, and a former member of our Advisory Committee on Public Libraries) talked about the need to run "dual systems" as libraries morph into what they will become. Ginnie Cooper picked up on this as she talked about staff needs for training and understanding.

Martín Gómez asked Bob Martin if the people inside the Washington Beltway were saying that libraries are not going to be needed since everything is on the web. Bob said that this sort of thinking seems to have peaked several years ago, and as more people have experience with the web, and understand its limitations, the need for libraries becomes even more apparent. He stressed that the web is good for deluging the user with information, but libraries continue to have a role in the transformation of information to knowledge (and who knows, maybe even to wisdom...)

Mike Crandall talked about the various levels at which libraries around the world exist today, and spoke about what the Gates Foundation has learned in its interactions in Chile. Martín said it sounded as if we could learn from libraries outside the US, and Mike strongly agreed with him. Ginnie noted that one thing that we could learn is how to skip generations of unproductive or superseded technology to get right to the heart of what's needed now.

We had a lot of good questions from the 77 sites that participated in the call. One caller asked about how the library community could affect change with its suppliers. My answer was that you have to ask. I said that many of OCLC's new products and services came about because libraries asked for them, in RFPs, in meetings with sales staff, in discussion with network staff, when they stop by our booth at conferences. I also said that the best way to do this is to get state associations, regional cooperatives, and affinity groups to pull together to make these suggestions, to add weight to them. Another question that I wish I could answer dealt with how you can pick the trends from the fads; if I knew that one, I'd own my own blog. I did suggest that if enough of us pick up on a fad, it could become a trend if we reach the critical mass.

I'll be on the road a lot over the next few weeks talking about the scan (and tomorrow, a side trip to the Ohio Library Council conference to talk about WebJunction). I hope the rest of the programs are as interesting and challenging as this one, but without that cast of reactors, it's hard to see how they could be!

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