Conference Buzz: Special Libraries Association (SLA) 2011

Written for Unlimited Priorities and DCLnews Blog.

The Special Libraries Association (SLA) held its 2011 Conference on June 12-15 in Philadelphia, PA. The conference theme was “Future Ready”, with an emphasis on the need for information professionals to be ready for the future in the midst of all the changes that are buffeting the industry now.

The opening keynote speaker was Thomas Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, and author of The World is Flat (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005). According to Friedman, the major challenge to America today is the merger of globalization and information technology. The global economic playing field is being leveled, and America is not ready for it. He identified four forces that created this situation:

  1. The rise of the PC, allowing individuals to create their own digital content.
  2. August 9, 1995, the day that Netscape went public. Their browser brought the Internet to life and allowed everyone to interact with it.
  3. Transmission protocols and networking, which made everyone’s computer interoperable and connected.
  4. The capability for everyone to upload their content and share it with the world.

As a result, we are in an unprecedented era which is built around individuals and the degree to which they can and must act globally. We are moving from a vertical to a horizontal environment where value will be created by what people create and who they collaborate with.

These three major trends mark the present time:

  • Whatever can be done will be done. Will it be done by you or to you? If you don’t pursue your ideas, someone else will.
  • The single most important competitive advantage you can have is between you and your own imagination.
  • The world is getting flatter and flatter and more and more hyper-productive. CEOs used the recession to become very efficient. The jobs they eliminated are gone and are not coming back. Whatever you do, don’t be average.
  • We are rapidly heading to a world of universal connectivity in which trust, values, ethics, and judgment will matter more than ever, and which will be hugely important to the librarian and information industry.

Opening the Monday sessions, Steve Abram, well-known speaker, former president of SLA, and now with Gale Cengage Learning, delivered a strong challenge to librarians. He said that we have a big opportunity to become the MBAs and CPAs of the next generation economy. We are in the midst of changes that are bigger than the financial or industrial revolutions. Copyright is a major issue because copyright laws will govern how the next economy will work. We must align with what we know now instead of with our old prejudices.

We are at a critical juncture where control is beginning to depend on the device, and our role is moving into a world of sense-making. … There will soon be 150 million books online. Are you ready for that?

The emphasis is not about the technology any more; it is about representing our role in the technology. Librarians make sense of information. We know that improves the quality of questions, and we know that libraries are for learning, discovery, and making progress. What will the end user be like after an experience with our products? Librarians have a vital role in building the critical connections between information, knowledge, and learning. They must be biased toward quality. As technology advances, emboldened librarians hold the key.

A session on misinformation on the Internet drew an overflow crowd. Anne Mintz, author of Web of Deception (CyberAge Books, 2002) said that intentional misinformation has grown since she wrote her book, and it now goes beyond individual websites. Consumer Reports has estimated that annual damage from spyware and other forms of misinformation is now in the billions of dollars. Criminal activity on the Internet is on the rise; it has been fueled by the widespread popularity of social media. Identity theft has also become a much larger problem than ever before; more than 347 million records have been compromised in the US since 2005. The Internet has become much more dangerous than formerly; anyone using it must use sound critical thinking.

It is no secret that mobile platforms are increasingly being used for information dissemination. Three representatives from the Smithsonian Institution reported on some of their pioneering work. The Smithsonian’s strategy envisions the use of shared tools across all its museums, followed by an infrastructure especially developed for mobile initiatives, products, and services. The first mobile app developed for the Museum of Natural History, MEanderthal, allows a user to morph their photo back in time to see what they would have looked like as a Neanderthal. The app has been downloaded 215,000 times in the last 14 months; 90% of those downloads were for the iPhone.

…corporate libraries are an extremely challenging environment in which to work, and part of the difficulty is that they have long had trouble deciding what to call themselves and what label to put to their skill sets.

Corporate libraries have long been leaders in applying new technology, and they have been prominent in SLA. However, with difficult economic times and shrinking budgets, they have been going through a period of severe turbulence. Jim Matarazzo, former Dean of the Graduate School of Information at Simmons College, and Toby Pearlstein, recently retired from Bain & Co., pointed out that corporate libraries are an extremely challenging environment in which to work, and part of the difficulty is that they have long had trouble deciding what to call themselves and what label to put to their skill sets. And in some organizations, they are trying to figure out who they work for. The result is that libraries are not well known in organizations, and when economic difficulties arise, they are one of the first to feel the cutbacks. It is therefore extremely important for the libraries to prove their worth, and corporate librarians must continually be alert not only to what is happening at their firm, but what is occurring in their industry that might affect them. The following questions form a predictive model for corporate libraries; if the answer to any one of them is “yes”, that should be a red flag:

  • Are decisions being made at the top without user consultation?
  • Is the number of library customers declining?
  • Is funding still available for external resources?
  • Is there evidence of a financial crisis in the parent organization?
  • Has evaluation of the library’s services ceased?

As a library manager, you must go out into the “real world” of your company and promote your value. Be aware of where the money comes from and which budget (i.e., capital or expenses). Get to know your financial people very well and help them understand what you do. Look at every one of your services and see if your customers are satisfied with them. Are people really using them? If you stopped doing them, would anybody notice? You can be a master of your fate. Be prepared to participate in scenario planning and position yourself to drive decisions. And assume that every company (including yours) is for sale at any time.

The advice in this session was excellent, and in today’s environment it is relevant for all types of libraries, not just corporate ones.

As usual, there were many outstanding presentations at the SLA conference. Summaries of many of them, such as a stirring challenge on the biggest threat to libraries today (no, it’s not money, it’s copyright practices!), a wonderful and entertaining session sponsored by the Chemistry Division on The Science of Ice Cream, and the closing keynote by James Kane on loyalty are available on The Conference Circuit blog.

SLA 2012 will be July 15-18 in Chicago, IL.

, , ,

Comments are closed.