American Library Association Annual Conference 2015: Reflections

This reflective piece is written by Feng Yikang from NUS Libraries about his trip to the ALA Annual Conference 2015 in San Francisco. 

I was fortunate to receive support from LAS and NUS Libraries to travel to San Francisco for the American Library Association Annual Conference 2015 (ALAAC 2015) from 26 June to 30 June 2015.

In late 2014, I implemented a simple “Bento-style” search interface customisation for LibGuides with Aaron Tay, and we were subsequently invited by Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) to give a presentation. Clearly Aaron was highly anticipated in the conference, as a reputable specialist in web-scale discovery. As for me, I was a slightly-over-one-year-old unqualified assistant librarian, perhaps more of a programmer-of-sorts than a librarian, and had to keep rehearsing my script and was a bundle of nerves in general. The presentation went fine – we presented the design, implementation and usage statistics of the LibGuides customisation. The details are documented in this Code4Lib open access publication:

It should be stated I went to the conference without a well-formed notion of what librarianship entails. This was the root insecurity surrounding my trip – new and inexperienced about my profession, I was unsure how I can satisfy the more experienced ALA audience, and how I may eventually share any observation that is outside of the realm of common-sense of my experienced colleagues in LAS. However, I also realised as I am writing now the climate surrounding librarianship is accelerating at a pace that is almost grim – eerily, experience in profession may not be enough – some kind of adaptability might be necessary, yet, I’m pretty certain librarianship is not only about following where technology leads.

At ALAAC 2015, as a fresh assistant librarian and like a walking barometer, it struck me that most of the librarians were tech-savvy: many people were using social media like Twitter to keep updated in the sessions. Also, it turned out that, at least for academic librarian sessions, the identity of the librarian today is far from static and fixed – at times it felt like it was contested – some people think librarians should be involved in certain activities such as visualisation, or geographic information systems (GIS), or research data; others scoff at the idea. There is tension and some anguish. At times, the sentiment in the dialogue seemed to express that librarians should just try to do whatever they can, based on their skills and interests. On one hand, the profession was perceived to be very dynamic, with lots of room for experimentation and expression. On the other hand, was the core of the profession now being challenged that we have to resort to doing whatever that users incidentally find interesting? It seems that academic librarianship is somewhere in flux between these two sides. Where are we heading? So where is technology pointing to? One possibility, a world of social media and data crunching. I’m often told I’m part of the young generation and since young people are supposed to seek of some career that fulfils their dreams and passions, preferably with some perceived good towards the society, I am fortunate that I have space to ponder whether the coming decades of librarianship offer such ideals, or whether very soon I won’t have the space to “think” as the profession accelerates irreversibly towards a digital utopia, though I reserve my conclusions as everyday the profession has something new to learn. In this context I write some of my main impressions from the conference. There were many sessions, hence I selected to attend those which overlap with my interests, and I organised my reflections based on impressions which resonated with my background, and my limited librarianship experiences.

1. Collaboration & Relationships

In a political economy of volatile, fast-paced technological developments (partially spurred on by Google), there are increasing expectations of increasingly complex services. As expressed in several sessions, there is increasing demand for data: data that you cannot find in Google, data for research (“research data management”), data for social sciences, for the humanities… There is a general heightened demand for data. Subject-specific data requests become more common, and such demand cuts across traditional job scope. In an evolving environment, when a task demands expertise outside of one single person’s domain, librarians are increasingly required to form teams on-the-fly: they collaborate. Examples of collaborations are between subject librarians and data librarians, librarians and external statistics specialists, as well as librarians and IT people. Reference services are evolving into a team sport. As part of human nature, it’s not always perfect. For instance, a director of discovery services shared his experiences with relationship issues that existed between librarians and IT people. This often happen because many libraries have lean IT resources, and the overworked IT people face mounting expectations from which are sometimes unrealistic. From the presentations and audience’s questions, this seems like a pattern in this era, it is something the profession has to work on.

2. Scope & Prioritisation

In a data services interest group meeting, several senior members articulated a common phenomenon of job scopes with increasingly diverse tasks. Being there in-person, I could feel the the chuckles as well as the frustration when this issue was brought up. Librarians are spread out too thin. Opinions were expressed using strong words, some of which sound negative and bleak, which I refrain from putting into context-poor digital text here. From my own experience I could identify with some of the despair in the tones of their voices. There were, critically, some success stories and it may be good to focus on these. There were some directors who shared their recipes for success, which involved strategizing – scan the environment for resources you can leverage on, get administrative support, find common interests between collaborators, get server space as incentive for researchers, etc… Training and interest was expressed as helpful ingredients for successful new services, and in an organisation, communication and feedback is crucial. If I were to extend with a personal opinion, I would think scoping and prioritising is an ongoing communication process between staff.

3. Copyright Litigation 2015

I’m no legal expert on USA copyright law, but it was nice to learn about it, as it is very relevant to my job (being in a digital humanities team). It seemed that the dust was settling following the tussle between the Authors Guild and HathiTrust. The Authors Guild claimed HathiTrust Digital Library had infringed on their copyright through its use of books scanned by Google. A federal court ruled against the Authors Guild in October 2012, finding that HathiTrust’s use was permissible under fair use. Authors Guild appealed the decision to the Second Circuit, and were rebuffed in 2014. The court wrote “The creation of a full-text searchable database is quintessentially transformative use”. On January 6, 2015, the parties entered into a settlement, ending the litigation in a victory for HathiTrust and fair use. Hence in USA copyright law, “the HathiTrust decision indicates that a library could make digital copies of all the analog works in its collection, and store those copies as text and image files, if the library provided full text-search capability and full-text access to the disabled” (source). I felt it was insightful that how, as these cases grind on,  people learn more about the nature of technology, and about themselves as human beings, and in the process, the world changes a little bit… people begin to understand how the abstract entities of databases or Google Books benefit their lives, or how the use constitutes “transformative”.

4. Linked Data

Discovery has been one of my main topics of interest in librarianship so far. If discovery consists of the many ways of unravelling the unknown, personally I think it is a meaningful contribution of librarianship towards scholarship and knowledge. My background in GIS, interest in discovery and digital humanities led me to attend some sessions on the topic of linked data. Linked data is about connecting pieces of related data and information coming from different sources. The semantic web and ontology are related to linked data, and all these are under intense exploration in academia. Certainly they would involve massive amount of work in metadata. Do librarians play a role? UNLV and NCSU librarians certainly did, by experimenting with putting their collections onto open linked data. They shared their best practices and experiences. This may be interesting to experiment and pleasant to visualise, though I feel some issues persist, for example, in a world dominated by linked data there may be data ethical issues surrounding privacy, and hegemony issues surrounding digitisation of knowledge.

5. Google talk: “The future of libraries: Learning and knowing in the age of the internet”

The very popular Google talk at the Moscone Convention Centre

The very popular Google talk at the Moscone Convention Centre

I felt I had to be there, to hear what a Google staff had to say to librarians, having changed the game drastically over and over, leading to waves and waves of implications towards the core of librarianship. It turned out that the talk was one of the most insightful session in my ALAAC 2015 experience. It was also likely the most popular session here as the large room was packed to the max until most if not all seats were taken, and people were standing around. The speaker was Daniel Russell, senior research scientist from Google. He articulated with clarity refreshing reflexives between IT and human behaviour and learning. Here are some key points:

  1. Concept of “space of information” (range of possible answers)
    • Librarians should understand the myriad of information sources or tools that exist today, and use them in combination to derive answer
  2. How to help students do proper research?
    • Consider using searching live when teaching, as opposed to staged examples
      1. Show students the process of hitting “dead ends” in searches, reassure them it is normal, then show how we navigate out of dead ends
      2. Let students identify with the process and then see and understand how it is really done
      3. Otherwise if students are unable to get results like those in staged examples, they may feel alienated and disengaged
  3. In “Google era”, are libraries still relevant?
    • Library is a “third place” – an accommodating place to hangout, etc.
    • Physical book browsing experience cannot be replaced by internet searching
    • Librarians are important
      1. They educate people to do research properly. Today, many people go for the first click: the spectacular… the trivial… the quick bait… and research is not about these

At the end of the conference I felt that many issues we face in the local workplace were felt halfway across the globe. Though there may exist some cultural differences, intriguingly, there were some vibes between librarians here and there which feel similar. The challenges certainly shared some common patterns. The success stories shared by USA colleagues are precious insights which I hope by sharing here can benefit librarians, though likely to many of you these basic thoughts may be nothing new. To me, the ALAAC 2015 was an eye-opener; I got to meet pioneers and talents in librarianship. If I were to attempt at generalising, the successful librarian speakers gave an impression of humility towards learning, generosity in sharing, keenness, and grit. I would like to express my sincere thanks and deep gratitude to Mrs Lee Cheng Ean, Ms Ng Kim Leong, Mdm Hashimah Bte Johari, Mdm Hayati Bte Abdul and all my colleagues in NUS Libraries for the solid support all the way to ALAAC 2015. Thank you LAS for the awarding me the LAS Overseas Professional Development Sponsorship. I would like to reserve special thanks to Aaron Tay, without whom my trip would not be possible – thank you for your generosity with your time, sharpest of insights and humour.

Last but not least, some photos of my visits

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