LJ Report "Chicago, ALA 2005": Gathering Steam in Chicago

A record crowd, focus on the future, and bloggers everywhere The temperature may have been sweltering and the logistics a challenge, but that didn't stop the American Library Association (ALA) in Chicago from drawing more attendees than ever before. The 27,800 who came, including 6,731 exhibitors, set a new record, topping the previous record of 26,542 in 2001 in San Francisco and the Chicago totals of 24,000 in 2000 and 24,500 in 1995. But numbers alone don't capture the high energy of this show, one of the best in years. ALA did have some trouble handling the crowd. Both attendees and exhibitors criticized the confused and disorganized—bordering on dangerous—process of onsite registration, which left many waiting a full hour to sign up. Sessions ran the gamut, yet there was a distinct focus on the future, including the usual anxiety about whether libraries would keep up. ALA inaugurated a new president, Michael Gorman, who, perhaps unfairly, has gained the most notice for his cautions on blogs and digitization. Meanwhile, the new wave of librarians—and some veterans—made this the most-blogged library conference so far, with blog entries gathered on a first-ever conference wiki (http://meredith.wolfwater. com/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page). While turnout at ALA membership meetings remained paltry, those sessions were the only place for members to introduce some highly political stances later adopted by Council, including a condemnation of the war in Iraq and defense of materials related to sex.

Contrasting speakers

The Opening General Session featured two local Democrats. Richard M. Daley, mayor of Chicago, and keynoter Barack Obama, senator from Illinois, both criticized the USA PATRIOT Act. After Daley praised libraries as "the anchor of the community," he garnered loud applause when he urged attendees to "never, ever allow the federal government to interfere with our libraries." Obama said we live in a time "when truth and science are constantly being challenged by a political agenda." He thanked librarians for standing on the front lines to prompt America to live up to its ideals. Not everyone was impressed. "I left Barack Obama's opening keynote wondering when ALA will develop some backbone and seek out a keynoter who will challenge, anger, or confront us," wrote Steven Bell, director of the library, Philadelphia University, in a web exclusive commentary on LibraryJournal.com.


Expecting the Boomers At Carol Brey-Casiano's President's Program, futurist Lowell Catlett, regent's professor at New Mexico State University, was upbeat about the library's place. "Never in the history of the world have so many people had so much money to spend," he said, even as he warned that listeners should look at generational cohorts rather than mass markets. Retirement is not what it used to be, he said. People will retire and volunteer or start new businesses. Libraries must help people reengage with society and provide a sense of place. At another session, some 110 people gathered to brainstorm the issues facing this aging population and the role of libraries in serving them. ALA will submit these to the White House Conference on Aging in the 21st Century this December. The group identified many issues, including astounding racial and economic diversity in the age group, the potential part-time work force this population represents, and the need for the vendor community and other technology companies to address senior users in the R&D phase of development and in the design of new technology. The Long Tail Even before the conference began, people buzzed about "The Long Tail," Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson's article (www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/ tail.html). His session of the same name drew standing room only crowds seeking insight into how to tap the potential of their collections. He encouraged listeners to realize that the world of online distribution means that a broad audience exists for all sorts of things not deemed popular. For example, half of Amazon's book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. What does that mean for libraries? Outsell analyst Chuck Richard suggested that as long as people opt-in, they can gain from systems that will track a user's activity and recommend content. Nancy Davenport of the Council on Library and Information Resources said "The Long Tail" raises important questions about how well libraries describe material ("we need to get better"), whether they are discarding material appropriately, and whether they should preserve less-used materials ("our supposition is, after the Google Print project, materials are going to be more discoverable"). Innovations In "Walk on the Future Side," Terry Michelska of Sandia National Laboratories talked about nanotechnology and its impact on library design. He noted that innovative materials—durable, stronger, lighter, and programmable—will foster new information devices and also change the human-machine interface Consultant Joan Frye Williams noted that new technology would allow individuals to control temperature, color, and light: "I would challenge us to imagine what libraries would be like if everyone could control their space." She added, "It's time for us to quit looking for the right answers but spend more time on the questions. There are trends implied in this that run counter to the traditional ways of thinking." At the Futures Forum sponsored by the Urban Libraries Council, futurist John Mahaffie sketched several trends, including increasingly seamless technology, as well as stresses on government that could prompt new fees for services. "I'm not sure we should assume continued affluence," one participant observed. Derek Woodgate of the Futures Lab talked of the flowering of self-created content, including blogs. "People you relate to who have blogs, you believe them more than CNN," he said. Stacey Aldrich, deputy state librarian of Maryland and the only librarian on the panel, cited the growth of technology, including the ubiquitous iPod, which she allowed is not quite the right device for libraries (since it doesn't accommodate downloadable audiobooks from the library). She cited several possible ways libraries could use iPods: podcasting, book reviews, story times, how-to podcast sessions, and iMix parties. Aldrich said librarians must get more involved with the tech community, as "they are not thinking about us." She told the attendees, nearly all library directors, to find "scouts" in their organizations and tap into their expertise. Indeed, several attendees later said they wished they'd brought such scouts to this session.


Top Trends With Google digitizing and vendors merging, this year's Top Technology Trends panel, sponsored by LITA (Library and Information Technology Association), had plenty of urgency. As always, Andrew Pace, North Carolina State University, wouldn't let the integrated library system off the hook. "The OPAC still sucks," he said. Pace's take on the disintegrating library system had four angles. We need new and better guided navigations for the OPAC. If we have that, much more of our collections will become discoverable. We need ERM (electronic resources management), Pace said, to manage where we are spending most of our money. We're creating digital repositories (silos) rapidly but not creating the access. Finally, we need better metasearch tools. "Silo systems do suck," agreed Roy Tennant, California Digital Library, who added that "we are increasingly demanding APIs [application programming interfaces] from our vendors, and that's a good thing." Tennant struck a cautionary note when discussing Google. We can't let ourselves get distracted when a large, well-funded company like Google gets into our business, Tennant said. He fears that Google's digitization initiative will be a bad thing for funding library projects and could threaten fair use for all of us. "Google is more like Microsoft than like us," he said to loud applause. (For more of Tennant on Google, see "Google, the Naked Emperor," p. 29.) Referring to the Sirsi/Dynix merger (see InfoTech, p. 25), Marshall Breeding, Vanderbilt University, said we need to pay attention to our business landscape. "Decisions are being made in the boardroom," and we need to be sure our voices are heard. We're still waiting for a company that can deliver "a software we don't hate." Perhaps SirsiDynix, with potentially 185 people in development, can make some progress, Breeding speculated. Consultant Williams is interested in the new mass collaboration, from eBay to blogs to Wikis. These networks, where people interact without mediation, "are becoming the new home of trust," she said. The scrutiny of thousands is more trustworthy than the eye of big institutions, like the government or major media outlets. For libraries, the challenge is to find ways to let users contribute alongside the information that we provide, to let people "enhance and enrich" the content that we have. Google Print The five libraries involved in Google's library digitization plans shed some welcome light on their own visions, which differ drastically. "This is not an exclusive arrangement," declared Catherine Tierney, Stanford's associate university librarian for technical services. "They're not going to digitize all. They're going to digitize what we give them"—for Stanford that's "as many as possible." "This does not preclude deals with others," she said. As for Harvard, "It's a very conservative organization," declared Dale Flecker, associate director for systems and planning at the university library. The pilot project (for 40,000 volumes) will allow the library to look at a range of issues regarding digitization. Flecker said the Google project "is not planned as a preservation project," but Michigan associate university librarian John Price Wilkin said the opposite: "We do think of it as a preservation project. The Google staff are more tentative in handling materials than our preservation and conservation staff." Michigan's staff will digitize materials Google feels are too fragile to scan. Michigan aims to get seven million volumes digitized. Panelists even differed on the ultimate meaning of the project. "We're not trying to build a digital library," said Flecker. "We're trying to add digital stuff to our library." But Wilkin dreams bigger: "I think this will subsume all other efforts [to build a digital library]. It will be the foundation point—we'll use the same infrastructure and build out." Said Flecker of Google, "They bring a certain kind of nerve to this. Lots of people are going to have the nerve to digitize what's in the public domain. More than half [of the out-of-print, in-copyright materials] are not in the purview of publishers. It's encumbered with lots of rights questions." The project also offers some new possibilities and raises some profound questions. Why should academic libraries "look at storing six to seven million volumes a hundred times over," wondered Wilkin. Rather, if many of those volumes can be digitized, libraries should consider storage "in a sensible, coordinated fashion." NYPL's John Balow said, "I'd be interested in compiling composite sets of periodicals—that's the ultimate challenge." At Stanford, HighWire Press has created taxonomies that help those searching journals. "We're curious about applying some of the same notions to monographs," said Stanford's Tierney. Skeptics wondered whether Google, a for-profit company that earns money from text advertising, is the best partner. "Libraries have always worked with commercial partners," said Flecker. "Who wouldn't be overjoyed if your academic journals could be supported by advertising partners rather than subscriptions?" Audiobooks Audiobook users were highlighted amidst the product pushing on the audiobook trends panel, which included AudioFile's Robin Whitten, Jim Peterson of Recorded Books, Claudia Weissman of OverDrive, and Jenny Levine, Metropolitan Library System, Burr Ridge, IL. Whitten discussed a survey conducted by her magazine, whose readership ranges from consumers to librarians to industry professionals: 36% prefer CDs, 27% prefer cassettes, 25% prefer downloadable audio, and 10% prefer MP3-CDs—a significant though not overwhelming shift toward newer technology. Whitten observed that audiobook users don't need to be owners, since they only listen once, which makes them distinct from other users. She also noted that downloadable audiobooks on portable players "disguise reading into a peer-friendly activity for teens." Weissman reported on a survey of audiobook listeners who use the company's downloadable audio: 35% are 44 or older, and 71% are female. They choose a diversity of formats: 35% play the downloaded file on a PC; 28% transfer it to an MP3-CD; and 27% burn it to CDs.


Popular but confusing The show floor in Chicago drew much more traffic than ALAs in Orlando and Toronto. The conference's record numbers were reflected directly in show floor attendance. To some, the cavernous exhibit hall of Chicago's McCormick Place exemplified the problems with ALA's exhibit strategy. ILS vendors, software producers, publishers great and small, furniture and shelving manufacturers, assorted organizations, and the tchotchke dealers were strewn together. Some veteran Goliaths stake their claim to prime locations, but others were placed randomly. Add to that the confusing sharing of numbers in each aisle—the left side, the 100s and the right, 200s, etc.—and navigation was difficult. ALA at least has begun corralling graphic novel publishers, African American publishers, and others but still has far to go. The recent BookExpo America (BEA) event (see News, LJ 7/05, p. 16), a much bigger gathering than ALA, sets the bar for having an intelligently organized, easily navigable show floor. BEA organizers could teach ALA some lessons. Vendors take note: attendees like to be taken seriously, as Meredith Gorran Farkas, founder of the ALA wiki, made clear on her blog (meredith.wolfwater. com/wordpress): "What I really noticed at the conference was the difference between the 'old school' vendors and the 'new school' ones. 'Old school' vendors operated under the assumption that I was stupid and didn't know anything about technology. 'New school' vendors took the time to ask me questions to get an idea about what my level of tech-savvy was. 'Old school' vendors assumed that I'd come to their booth for free things and didn't bother to tell me about their product. 'New school' vendors tried to show me their product demos. 'Old school' vendors assumed that because I was young I had no input into the decision-making process at my library. 'New school' vendors realized that even if I didn't have that influence now, I eventually would." ERT postmortem The Exhibits Round Table (ERT), the generally grumpy group that convenes every Monday of ALA at 8 a.m., was fairly chipper this year. Regarding the registration problems, exhibitors present were less interested in the reason than in the lack of appropriate response from ALA regarding safety issues. A new web registration form is in the works so vendors can invite more exhibits-only guests to the show floor. Registration for an exhibits pass will link from ALA to exhibitors' web sites. The link should be live in time for the 2006 Midwinter Meeting in San Antonio. Seattle city librarian Deborah Jacobs urged exhibitors to support the Cultural Communities Fund, an ALA initiative to strengthen the position of libraries as community gathering places and sources of cultural programming. ALA has received a $350,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities; the deadline for matching funds is September 15 (see Blatant Berry, p. 10).


Action on Iraq and more At its three sessions, ALA Council was unusually ready to act, despite some hot debate. Council passed a membership resolution calling for the withdrawal from Iraq of all U.S. military forces and a return of full sovereignty to the people of Iraq. The resolution further urges the U.S. government to switch its budgetary priorities from the occupation of Iraq to the improved support of vital domestic programs and calls upon the government to provide material assistance through the United Nations for the reconstruction of Iraq, including its museums, libraries, schools, and other cultural institutions. The resolution will be sent to all members of Congress, the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, President, and the press. In response to controversies in Florida and elsewhere (see News, p. 16), the Council put ALA on record opposing "all attempts to proscribe materials related to sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation" and encouraging its state chapters "to take active stands against all legislative attempts" to do so. Echoing ALA's struggle over the racial integration of libraries and of ALA chapters more than 50 years ago, some chapter representatives worried that hearing such messages from ALA would provoke controversy and harm other legislative efforts on behalf of libraries. Still, the measure passed by a wide margin. Despite complaints that ALA was "telling divisions what to do," Council passed a membership resolution asking ALA divisions that don't already do so to consider reduced membership dues for retired librarians. Council quickly put ALA on record opposing government use of disinformation, media manipulation, the destruction and excision of public information, and other such tactics. In a resolution that originated with REFORMA, Council put ALA behind efforts to ensure that alternate forms of identification be developed to encourage use of public libraries by immigrants. "Libraries should encourage discussion both among librarians and library workers and with members of the library's administration of nonconfidential professional and policy matters about the operation of the library and matters of public concern." In those words Council adopted a resolution on Workplace Speech that was hammered out in a cooperative effort by the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee and the Social Responsibilities Round Table. In another resolution from the committee, Council, without opposition, put ALA on record as being against H.R. 2726, which denies local governments the right to determine broadband deployment. The resolution urges Congress to allow local communities to retain the right to develop their own broadband networks. Money matters With little debate, Council approved a $51,669,186 budgetary ceiling for ALA, which breaks down into some $27,548,3090 for the General Fund, $20,450,117 for divisions, $851,750 for round tables, $2,216,828 for grants and awards, and $602,182 in long-term investment. The report by Teri Switzer, ALA treasurer, was full of cost-cutting references and hints of financial difficulty. It was clear during her report to Council, and later at Executive Board meetings, that members should expect to hear more about a possible dues increase and an increase in conference fees. This will bring calls for greater disclosure of the details of ALA's complex financial arrangements. After the ALA Endowment trustees report, several members of Council said it was insufficient to put only one percent of ALA's $23 million endowment into socially responsible investment (SRI) since SRI had earned about the same as other investments over the past two fiscal years.


Paraprofessionals rise Paraprofessionals had new clout at this ALA with the first-ever Conference Within a Conference aimed at this majority of library employees. At the opening session of "Empowering Library Support Staff for the 21st Century," former ALA president Carla Hayden (director, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore) discussed how ALA's new strategic plan will create opportunities for support staff within ALA. Hayden credited Library Journalwith helping to raise the profession's awareness of the importance of paraprofessionals (LJgives a Paraprofessional of the Year award) and said the program was a result of COPE III (ALA's third Conference on Professional Education), which focused on support staff. The two-day conference was sponsored by ALA's Library Support Staff Interests Round Table and Council on Library/ Media Technicians. Unions At a panel on unions, no antiunion speaker was willing to come forward (though obviously many managers in the library world have tense relationships with unions). Thus, former ALA president Mitch Freedman, the soon-to-retire director of the Westchester Library System (WLS), NY, took it upon himself to "give the antiunion or union-neutral comments." Freedman noted a California Library Association study that concluded that membership didn't affect salaries and noted that unions in the three New York City library systems seem "semilost" in their vast parent unions. By changing job descriptions and the career ladder, he said, "The library directors in Queens and Brooklyn did more than what the unions could accomplish." Freedman cited his own example, in which his leadership inaugurated long-awaited raises at WLS. But now the system faces budget issues. "That's the problem with benevolent paternalism," Freedman observed. "It depends on the benevolence of the pater." Saul Schneiderman, president of the AFSCME Local at the Library of Congress, observed that "unions are marginalized in this country. Can you imagine Sweden, where 85% of workers are in unions?" He added that current laws make it difficult to establish unions: "We don't have union work portrayed in popular culture; it's 'one man saves the whole world.'" LIS In an invitational "National Dialog on the Curriculum of Readiness for the 21st Century Librarian," held by ALA's Office for Diversity and Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE), participants delivered what has become a standard litany of complaints about the curriculum in LIS programs but this time with special focus on the recruitment of minorities and the development of cultural competency. The 100 or more participants concluded that curricula ought to reflect an international global perspective and cultural competencies and foster continuing education. They agreed that LIS curricula did not teach business, political, and negotiating skills necessary in the public sector. In another sign of concern about LIS education, in reaction to the closing of the LIS program at Clark-Atlanta University, Council passed a resolution calling for an "early warning" system to alert the profession to programs vulnerable to closure.
John N. Berry III is Editor-in-Chief; Bette-Lee Fox is Managing Editor; Brian Kenney is Executive Editor, Technology & Web; Ann Kim is Special Projects Coordinator; Rebecca Miller is Executive Editor, Features & Web; Norman Oder is Editor, News; & Michael Rogers is Editor, InfoTech, all LJ
Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing