LJ Report "Washington, DC, ALA 2007": Making Our Presence Felt

Librarians come to Washington and get their concerns on the agenda The nation’s capital, with unseasonably gorgeous weather, an array of high-profile speakers, and a chance for national notice, proved a record-setting location for the 2007 American Library Association (ALA) annual conference. The show drew 28,635 people to the Washington Convention Center—21,466 registrants and 7,169 exhibitors. The previous record of 27,962 was set in Chicago in 2005. The numbers represent a huge bounce from last year’s conference in post-Katrina New Orleans (see “Restoration Moves,” LJ 8/06, p. 40–47). Continuing a trend from New Orleans, hundreds of librarians showed up early for a day of service, volunteering in libraries, schools, and other Washington-area institutions. Then, as the conference wound down, some 2000 librarians and library advocates traversed the corridors of Congress on June 26 wearing red “Support Libraries” T-shirts. In other highlights, an honor dance held at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian saluted Loriene Roy, the first Native American to lead the organization. Former Senator Bill Bradley, the Opening General Session’s keynote, called for “collective caring and individual action, as in the story of Flight 93.” He was joined by former New York Public Library (NYPL) president Vartan Gregorian, now president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, who declared librarians “one of three necessary professions, along with teachers and journalists.” The Auditorium Speaker Series drew heavy turnout for big names, including filmmaker Ken Burns and American Civil Liberties Union head Anthony Romero. Veteran performer Julie Andrews, who keynoted a program celebrating the centennial of American Libraries magazine, will serve as the honorary chair of National Library Week 2008, April 13–19. And humorists Mark Russell and the Capitol Stepsdrew throngs to the ALA/ProQuest CSA Scholarship Event. What would DC be without a protest? On Friday, June 22, Friends of Cuban Libraries and FREADOM, two support groups for Cuba’s independent librarians, demonstrated on the sidewalk outside the conference center. An equally small group of counterdemonstrators marched alongside, supporting the Cuban revolution and opposing the U.S. embargo.

Technology and images

There was ample opportunity to catch up with the march of Library 2.0—and a chance to raise concern about whether ALA was keeping pace. The cultural image of librarians got recognition, with an approving Washington Post feature headlined, “The Modern Librarian: A Role Worth Checking Out,” taking off from The Hollywood Librarian documentary and concluding, “Today’s librarian is less likely to be a mousy Marian than the highly trained captain of a one-stop community center...” (see also sidebar, below). Radio host Garrison Keillor, the closing keynoter, offered an idealized image of libraries, however. “A library is a cathedral of quietness, and home is not. The office is not. The coffee shop is not,” he said. “A person reads books in order to gain the privilege of living more than one life,” he declared. Librarian/blogger Terry Ballard described the speech as “Library Home Companion” but noted that the positive response still didn’t match “the wild reception” environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy earned after his passionate speech at the ALA President’s Program.

On the floor

Publishers on the show floor provided plenty of adult titles and giveaways, an encouraging trend and an apparent response to librarians’ criticism that ALA conferences have long featured children’s lines, with few galleys or free books. The tech companies, from the ILS Goliaths to those with single products, still dominated (for more on the exhibits, see InfoTech, p. 25), and the massive hall in Washington, with wide aisles, proved a comfortable location. Floor traffic was steady, though a few exhibitors, including publishers of Spanish-language books, expressed dismay at their remote location at the far end of the hall. Next year, the latter plan to join forces to display with the Combined Book Exhibit. While some vendors at previous Exhibits Round Table (ERT) wrap-up meetings typically groused, this year’s session was full of other business. In an additional effort to aid exhibitors, ERT hired the firm ethnoMETRICS.org to begin a two-year, four-event analysis of traffic flow and how booth setup, staff positioning, and even carpet color can make or break a show.

National programs endorsed

The ALA Council passed resolutions, sent to all members of the Senate and House of Representatives, supporting the Government Printing Office (GPO) as a vital source for government information; National Library Service (NLS), which provides Talking Books services to the visually impaired; and National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP), which aims to foster a national strategy to collect, organize, and preserve digital content and has faced cuts in Congress. “GPO, NLS, and NDIIPP are three of the most important services our federal government provides,” said ALA executive director Keith Fiels. “The American public cannot afford to have these critical services abandoned or minimized in any way.”

NSL warnings

The Council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the use of National Security Letters (NSLs) to obtain library records and urged Congress to reform NSL procedures, adding oversight and safeguards. Among the reforms, ALA requested that recipients of NSLs “receive meaningful judicial review” of a challenge to the NSL and the elimination of the automatic and permanent imposition of a nondisclosure or gag order whenever an NSL is served on an individual or institution. George Christian, Peter Chase, Barbara Bailey, and Janet Nocek, the “John Doe’s” of the Library Connection (Windsor, CT) who fought an NSL and eventually saw the case dropped, received the biennial ALA Paul Howard Award for Courage.

Government defense

Two federal judges speaking at the conference offered some defense of the government’s policies. Royce Lamberth, former chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, suggested that the court is not a rubber stamp. “If the government is doing its job, we should be approving them, recognizing that how we view civil liberties in a time of war is different. And we are in a time of war.” “We’re only making sure there aren’t political shenanigans going on,” he said. Tom Susman, who serves as an outside counsel to ALA’s Washington Office, asked Lamberth about the gag order. “It’s very important not to alert the targets in a terrorist investigation,” Lamberth responded. After Susman pushed, Lamberth said that a limit on the gag order was “a legislative judgment” but that, “once the investigation is concluded, there doesn’t seem to be a judicial reason” to keep the information secret. Legislative changes last year made NSLs subject to some judicial challenge. “It’s clear to me that the library community has had an impact,” Lamberth said.

Security vs. privacy

At another session, Richard Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, author of Not a Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency, said it would be a “serious mistake” to be complacent about another attack, given the increase in hostility from some Islamic radicals and the availability of weapons of mass destruction. People are willing to give up their privacy for modest benefits, as long as it won’t be abused, Posner contended, citing the example of Amazon.com’s compilation of reading preferences. Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor and author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism, countered. “The way we should approach these questions is with a great deal of skepticism” about infringing liberty, he said. Posner, who allowed that “President Bush has pressed an extravagant view of executive power,” maintained that “the use of NSLs may be necessary” to explore the “legitimate concern about terrorists doing research.... How you prevent abuses is a question of detail; it’s not a question of fundamental liberties.” “I don’t know if you should emphasize the confidentiality of library records,” he observed. “We’re actually rather proud of it,” the Library Connection’s Christian replied from the audience.

Do libraries innovate?

The political debate was more than matched by professional debate. Panelists didn’t quite agree on the question, “Do libraries innovate?” but expressed a variety of concerns. SirsiDynix’s Stephen Abram warned of a “culture of victimization” in which librarians focus on low pay and library closings rather than the increased circulation and many well-compensated executives. Blogger and library consultant Karen Schneider expressed dismay about the criticism faced by the Maricopa County Library District, Phoenix, after it traded the Dewey Decimal System for more bookstore-like headings at one branch. University of Washington’s Joe Janes pointed to the variety of jobs graduates of UW’s Information School find, adding, “We need to get over the idea that the only legitimate person who can work in a library has an MLS after their name.” Are library schools not teaching innovation? “Yeah, probably,” observed Janes. Abram pointed to innovations such as plans to teach in Second Life. “It might be a bad idea, but we have to support it,” Janes said, noting that librarians once opposed now-ubiquitous distance education. Applicants to UW’s I School, Janes said, are now less likely to be quiet, book-oriented types than those who say, “'I’m discovering that I’m the information person [in my organization].’” “Our problem is not innovation, but the stuff doesn’t diffuse,” said Abram, pointing to librarian innovators like Michael Stephens, who started “blogging lousy library signs.” Janes suggested that innovation might proceed if “some of the people in my generation...get out of the way,” while Abram encouraged “reciprocal mentoring between generations” (see also Blatant Berry, p. 10).

Web 2.0

The library may be more of a place than ever, even as a host for gaming tournaments, but for services, “it’s about going where the users are,” declared the aforementioned Stephens, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University, River Forest, IL, and an LJ columnist (see p. 29). He offered several examples at a session on how to use “hot technologies” to promote library outreach and marketing. “Laptop librarians” at Macon State College Library, GA, go weekly to the student cafeteria, he said. At the Nashville Public Library’s Teen Web, avatars represent each YA librarian. Helene Blowers, public services technology director for the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County, NC, and a 2007 LJ Mover & Shaker, declared, “Our greatest resource to market our library is not staff but customers: word of mouth. The best way to get customers to market your brand is...to allow them to promote the library by promoting themselves.” A $100 digital camera for a branch, she said, could produce “the face of the library.” She cited a New Jersey State Library contest for videos in which patrons touted three reasons they love libraries: “You didn’t see any librarians talking about what great services they have.” Steven Bell of Temple University Library, Philadelphia, noted, “The library brand for most people is books, not technology.” Our brand could be “technology that helps you achieve academic success.” One example: LibGuides, “library resource guides on steroids,” which can be downloaded into Facebook, bringing the library to its users.

Wiki world

At another panel, Matthew M. Bejune, associate professor of library science, Purdue University Libraries, IN, described how social networks like wikis are being used in libraries. Most library wikis, he said, are collaborations among libraries or library staff; he suggested libraries do more to collaborate with patrons. “How might we allow patrons to build or modify library information?” Bejune asked, pointing out that this is a very uncomfortable concept for librarians. Meredith Farkas, who maintains Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki and is a 2006 LJ Mover & Shaker, said that librarians share information in various modes, from messaging to email, that don’t insure long-term storage and retrieval. She suggested that wikis could be used as intranets to share details about library procedures, reference requests, student assignments, and so on.

Top tech trends

At the Top Tech Trends panel, Marshall Breeding, director for innovative technologies and research at Vanderbilt University Libraries, Nashville, noted the potential for open source solutions, given that the Georgia-bred Evergreen ILS has now been adopted in all British Columbia public libraries. John Blyberg, head of technology and digital initiatives at Darien Public Library, CT, said that RFID, planned for Darien’s new library, would help in sorting and book storage; he echoed consultant Lori Ayre’s comment that libraries “need to support the distribution demands of the long tail,” locating even obscure items quickly. Karen Coombs, head of web services, University of Houston, TX, pointed out that more end users will be content contributors, which means new digital preservation issues for libraries. OCLC/RLG’s Walt Crawford questioned whether patrons really want libraries to offer Amazon.com-like features when government data mining can track borrowing patterns. Crawford also advocated for the slow library movement, which argues that locality is vital to libraries, mindfulness matters, and open source software should be used “where it works.” Emphasizing user experience at library web sites, consultant Joan Frye Williams cited the Yorba Linda Public Library, CA, which has enhanced its site with a live book feed that updates “as books are checked in.” Asked how to keep up with trends, Blyberg suggested a “well-rounded blogroll” that includes sites from the humanities, sciences, and library and information science. Coombs noted that gartner.com tracked technology adoptions. Williams cited trendwatch.com.

The “Google Five”

While ever-growing Google Book Search (GBS) now includes 26 libraries, panelists from the original “Google Five” drew a crowd, declaring they were satisfied with the progress, though they acknowledged continuing challenges. At four Harvard libraries, public domain works have been scanned, and links are being put in the catalog, said Harvard University Library’s Dale Flecker. He said “a lot of” books with brittle paper or binding problems are being whittled out. Flecker praised Google’s new “About This Book” feature and predicted that “text mining” will be an important part of research. Catherine Tierney of Stanford University said GBS generates seven to ten reference questions or interlibrary loan requests a week. Sarah Thomas of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library said that the scan plan has produced “much more detailed knowledge about our collection,” including this surprise: about one percent of the library’s books were unopened, with uncut pages. Concerns remain, Google’s Adam Smith conceded, including generating better metadata. Added Flecker, “Right now...I don’t find the retrieval in Book Search to be that impressive.” NYPL’s John Balow said that “good, old-fashioned librarian work” will be needed to refine searches. The panelists’ reluctance to acknowledge drawbacks drew some skepticism from the audience. Martin Halbert of Atlanta’s Emory University described an alternative plan in which libraries retain control of the digital volumes and focus on higher-quality scans in specific subject areas. The project involves Kirtas Technologies and BookSurge, a print-on-demand publisher purchased by Amazon.com. Google’s Smith was magnanimous: “From Google’s perspective, we view this as complementary.”

ALA membership meetings

Despite the conference turnout, ALA business proved yet again an insider’s game. Perhaps 120 people attended the Membership Meeting to discuss the topic, “Should ALA take a stand on the war in Iraq and other 'nonlibrary’ issues?” Former president Michael Gorman delivered a tutorial differentiating among a half-dozen types of issues, concluding that nearly all issues on the national agenda are in some way library-related. ALA councilor Steve Matthews countered that ALA should focus on matters relating to the profession. No resolutions emerged from the floor. Even fewer members showed up for the second Membership Meeting to discuss the question, “Is ALA heading in the right direction?” ALA exec Fiels proudly announced a new ALA Office for Library Advocacy and said ALA is investigating the possibilities for online participation. A redesign of ALA’s web site is in progress; conference visitors could test designs on two kiosks and offer feedback.


Unable to make the membership meetings, Aaron Dobbs, a librarian and assistant professor at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, tried to comment to Council II about the format of such meetings. As he reported on his Aaron the Librarian blog, Dobbs was unsuccessful in getting Council to suspend debate to allow him to speak. In response, Dobbs launched a wiki to improve ALA: improveala.pbwiki.com. Among the issues: electronic participation, a more accountable Council, and “make conferences more lithe.” Indeed, a subcommittee recommended that ALA move ahead on e-participation, with a task force to report back in two years. A few councilors expressed concern that decision-making in cyberspace couldn’t replace in-person debate, while others worried that the organization was moving too slowly.

LIS education

A new task force has been formed to synthesize prior ALA efforts to assess and bring change to LIS education. Fiels also touted the new certification programs the Public Library Association is offering to support staff. Former president and executive director Peggy Sullivan asked if such certification programs would undermine the MLS as a credential. Fiels said that a “de facto standard” would differentiate among competencies and job levels. The task force, chaired by former ALA president Carla Hayden, faced an extensive charge, laid out by outgoing president Burger, including national criteria for a core curriculum, the number and credentials of faculty, and even specific changes in ALA’s standards. The task force decided to bite off a smaller piece, forming committees to address aspects of the charge. It will report back at the Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia in January 2008. Danny Wallace, professor, SLIS, University of Oklahoma, chaired a poorly attended session to discuss the changes in the 1992 ALA Standards for the Accreditation of Master’s Programs in Library and Information Studies. The three-member Standards Review Subcommittee of the ALA Committee on Accreditation, at work since 2005, made only small adjustments. Asked why no standard deals with distance education, Wallace responded that the standards don’t deal with process and that the “mode of delivery” has little impact on a program’s quality. The revised standards should go to Council for final approval at the 2008 annual conference in Anaheim, CA.

Financial issues

In her final report as ALA treasurer, Teri Switzer said that ALA’s finances were strong. Total revenue was expected to hit $47.6 million for FY07, up slightly from $47.1 million last fiscal year, and should rise to more than $50 million in FY08. “ALA has been able to weather SARS, Hurricane Katrina, declining markets, rising interest rates, escalating technology costs, and a whole host of other political, economic, and social events,” she noted. “I believe what doesn’t kill you, will make you stronger, and that is exactly what has happened during the past four-plus years.” Meanwhile, the endowment fund has risen to $30.8 million, up from $11 million in 2002. Another fraction of the endowment will be allocated to a second Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) mutual fund, for a total of $545,000. On the other hand, the ALA-APA (Allied Professional Association) faces a small deficit, which should be erased by the end of the year, and has generated less than half of the annual $48,000 in donations originally hoped. While a few councilors expressed skepticism about a proposed budgetary ceiling of $323,914, it passed almost unanimously. The ALA-APA programs on salaries saw an uptick in interest.
Andrew Albanese is Editor, LJ Academic Newswire, and Aída Bardales is Editor, Críticas. John N. Berry III is Editor-at-Large, Jay Datema is Editor, Technology, Francine Fialkoff is Editor-in-Chief, Bette-Lee Fox is Managing Editor, Norman Oder, is Editor, News, Michael Rogers is Editor, InfoTech, & Wilda Williams is Editor, Fiction, LJ

The Hollywood Librarian Gets Mixed Reviews

It got rave reviews from some (but decidedly not all) librarians when it premiered at the American Library Association annual conference in Washington, DC, but will The Hollywood Librarian open big in Libraryland? The 95-minute documentary by librarian/filmmaker Ann Seidl, some five years in the making, was screened before at least 2000 attendees. Seidl got a standing ovation for the first feature-length documentary about the work and lives of librarians, but the film—and a marketing plan that involves charging patrons to see it—left some uneasy. (For more, see Francine Fialkoff’s editorial on p. 8.) The film blends an entertaining array of classic (and not-so-classic) film clips about libraries/librarians with contemporary footage and interviews about the importance of libraries and the challenges facing the profession. We see Party Girl and Desk Set, the latter starring Katharine Hepburn, and also catch an interview with Hepburn’s sister, the late Peg Perry, a gravel-voiced Canton, CT, librarian. A quick-cut interview shows Book Luster Nancy Pearl touting titles. Jamie LaRue of the Douglas County Libraries, CO, explains how a library is “a place where you are treated as a live mind.” Concern about focus But the mix of reel and real makes for “a distinct lack of focus,” commented one reader on the LJ Insider blog. The film includes segments on the near-closure of libraries in Salinas, CA, the heroic struggles of a Pennsylvania librarian to build a new facility, a prison literacy project, and a librarian/privacy expert’s criticism of the USA PATRIOT Act. There were other objections. At a conference, librarian/blogger Karen Schneider called the film “charming” but suggested that it overemphasized “the culture of victimization” and was too print-focused. A supporter of the film, however, commented on LJ Insider, “Unfortunately, many in the public think...there is little system or science or commitment to running a library. This film offers a weapon with which to fight that perception.” Rather than sell the film to a distributor, Seidl hopes libraries can create a bigger splash. She’s offered libraries a screening copy of the DVD and a package of promotional material if they show the film during Banned Books Week, September 29–October 6. However, she said, they must charge admission: $8 for adults, $5 for children. Revenue would be split, with one-third to pay for distribution, one-third to the library, and one-third to Seidl’s production company. Librarian response was mixed. Many libraries don’t charge for programs, and it’s hard enough to get patrons to show up for free ones. Those who screen it—and numbers were unclear at press time—hope the film will be seen as a window into a fascinating world and a validation, not an insider job. —Norman Oder
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