FOR THE NEXT SIGMOID CURVE:
ALIA conference, Sydney, May 2002
originally published in Online Currents
2002 and reprinted with kind permission of the
publishers Enterprise Information Management Pty Ltd.
| Contexts | Knowledge Economy & Information Industry
Up the Next Curve | Conclusion
THE NEXT CURVE
Malcolm Gillies, Neil McLean and Joyce Kirk provided
immediate and important summaries
of the conference and its implications. These
analyses will no doubt be joined by others in the quest to shape the next
sigmoid curve. Here’s mine.
Leadership is required, but may be over-rated.
McLean detected “a yearning for leadership”, called
for boldness and urged the sector to find a way to get leaders of
peak bodies involved in promoting and fighting for goals and objectives.
Besley warned of the need for synergy between the leader and the
led, citing the CSIRO’s recent gung-ho approach in forcing change through
Big Hairy Audacious Goals – an approach subsequently modified to accommodate
the interests of staff. “It’s
one thing to build an organisation on big imperatives, but quite another thing
to refashion an existing one”. Developing
momentum requires a sense of proportion and balance.
A yearning for leadership often finds root in
uncertainty. Special circumstance are often needed to produce unity of
purpose. It may be more important for everyone to do some simple small things
well rather than search for a magic wand.
Challenging mind-sets was an objective of the conference,
but just what is the culture of the library profession?
Its propensity for perpetual reflection – not
necessarily a bad thing - was noted by several presenters.
Gillies observed (in the Colloquium): “we in libraries talk,
discuss, know what has to be done then somehow we run out of impetus, as if we
are frightened of success…we seem to be able to envisage outcomes, but not
secure them”. Besley thought
the disease was applicable to Australian society in general: “we are good at
diagnosing our problems, but much less good at doing something about them”.
The information industry and library sector are
multifaceted. Some librarians are
employed in organisations where cash flow is more or less guaranteed and
survival is untested by business considerations.
Baruschson-Arbib and Bronstein, in A View to the Future of the
Library and Information Science Profession, give weight to the notion that
librarians see themselves in support roles rather than leadership roles. In
challenging mind-sets we need to recognise, to use McLean’s words, that ‘generalisations should be avoided; there is no
are important for nations, companies and individuals, but interests and
notions of service may be more relevant for industries.
promulgated a vague mission statement and new set of values, substantially
based on those of the American Library Association, before the conference.
This was based on the overarching principle “a thriving culture,
economy and democracy requires the free-flow of information and ideas”.
McLean embraced the statement
as long as the values were put in context to strengthen their relevancy.
He lamented the fact that the economic rationalism had obscured the
concept of public good and has led to short-term pragmatic responses to big
Reaction to the value statement has been mixed within the
association. Those who are not
enthusiastic about it say it represents the values of only part of the
association’s constituency, has been adopted ahead of rigorous planning and
uses language that promotes obscurity.
It may have been preferable, at this stage, to have
produced a statement of interests. In
the long run, a statement of value may be more important than a statement of
redefine roles may hinder professional prospects.
noted that terminology emerged as a problematic issue during the conference:
“terms such as information and knowledge were used, or confused, in
different contexts, particularly in relation to the economic and social
echoes David Bawden’s observations in The Shifting Terminologies
of Information that the word ‘information’ is the most
over-used and poorly understood word in the English language. Confusion is compounded in phrases like information
technology, information literacy, information management and what he describes
as ‘the much hyped knowledge management’.
His suggestion is to follow the advice of Karl Popper in discussing the
nuances: “never get involved in verbal questions of meaning and never get
interested in words; never quarrel and never get involved in questions of
highlighted the extent to which librarians are bit players in the information
game, something supported in Thomas Kochtanek’s recent article New
Developments in Online Databases: “the [online] marketplace has grown
rapidly to over US$1.5 billion in annual revenues, with only a fraction of
these revenues coming from the coffers of libraries”.
speakers pointed to threats. Crawley: “every librarian who can be replaced
by a computer, should be”. Forrest:
“teacher librarians eventually need to disappear”.
The conference electronic forum highlighted professional
insecurities in reactions to media arguments against the successful wage case
of librarians and archivists working in the NSW government.
It remains to be seen whether the NSW decision will flow through to
other states and other workplace environments operating under different
judicial, political and financial circumstances.
The wage case’s comparison of librarians with geologists was a
curious one. Comparisons with
other information professions may have been more relevant and, in the long
term, may have opened the door to better prospects.
Redefinition would help decide the possible future paths
articulated by Harris and Wilkinson: (1) the adoption of
new roles and new skills to preserve the essence of librarianship or
(2) the formation of new professional identities even to the point of
abandoning librarianship altogether. In
doing so, librarians need to see information technology workers in a different
light – not as single dimension technicians, but as a mix of information
handling problem solvers comprising inventors, strategists, designers,
analysts and technicians. Broadbent’s
concept of information portfolios may be the way to package librarians as part
of an information profession. The
time may have arrived to separate the future of librarians from the future of
The conference set out to find a national information
agenda, although several plans are needed.
McLean was alert to the fact that planning is not a
panacea: “No amount of strategic planning will succeed without a renewed
commitment of the information profession to be bold, innovative and determined
to shape a new vision for information provision in Australia”. Sue Middleton, in her talk Empowering the Future of Rural
Australia, gave a vivid lesson on the capacity of communities in parlous
circumstances to transform themselves through imagination and planning.
Mclean, Gillies and Ruthven underscored the essential link between
strategy and money, especially government money.
“Ultimately”, McLean said, "communities pay for perceived
value, and the professional challenge is to restate the cost benefits in an
articulate and persuasive manner".
Like other small businesses, ALIA needs a business plan to
replace it’s cobbled-together objects, key initiatives, operational
activities, innovation plans and other strategic documents.
The library profession seems to prefer the notion of strategic plans
over business plans. Environmental
scans tend to be cut and paste efforts relying heavily on anecdote.
Fact-gathering is approached through conversations.
The leap to strategy overlooks vital data and logic.
People who talk about money are economic rationalists.
Structure is created by intuition.
There is security in being fuzzy.
The second plan, a new national
information strategy, is already on the drawing board.
Australian government policy and spending has been guided
in recent years by Creative
Nation, Networking the Nation and Backing Australia's Ability.
The latest iteration, Framework for the Future, will be
completed by the end of 2002. The Steering Committee has representatives from the corporate
world, research bodies, the university sector and associations like the
Australian Information Industry Association, but no-one from the library and
kindred industry sectors.
Cutler and Forrest pointed to flaws, widely acknowledged,
in the way information technology projects have been managed by governments
and corporations. McLean on
previous occasions has lamented the fact that very few librarians are involved
in broad-based industry forums.
An informative summary of cohesive government approaches
to information strategy in the UK, US, Canada and New Zealand was presented at
Peak Bodies Forum at the National Library in February.
There was conjecture on whether national information strategies really
work. No specific actions were
decided in relation to the library sector's involvement in the development of
such a strategy.
Perceptions of value would surely be enhanced if
librarians and kindred information professionals were at the national
information policy table.
High grade research is required to underpin both types of
The paucity of data on the library sector is widely
acknowledged. A preference for
consultation was implied in a number of conference presentations. Kirk gave
emphasis to the need for open and inclusive conversations as “the building
blocks of new collaboration in transforming the way the library sector
works”. McLean was taken by
Crawley’s concept of professional gossip in making vision, values and
service objectives relevant and meaningful to user communities.
But Crawley cautioned against anecdotal thinking: “if you cut and
paste your future, you will cut and paste you’re irrelevancy”.
Conversations are most valuable when they work facts as
well as assumptions and experience.
Linkages are more important than unity in overcoming
Cutler’s metaphor of silos as a limiting industry
dimension was echoed by others. Forrest, speaking about the education sector,
said: “ the bits are being played with, but the whole is being left
picked out evidence of ‘functional discontinuity’ in tribal ownership of
the truth. “We do collaborate,
but on very specific terms which do not challenge our treasured autonomy”.
Gillies said that “convincing governments to overcome
shrinking capacity and unsustainable funding models will require concerted
effort to demonstrate cost-effectiveness”.
And McLean asserted there is no
quick way to work through it: “we may need to live through a
generation of uncertainty,” speculation supported by Cutler and speakers at
Collaboration is not new to the profession.
Consortia are common
Associations have warmed to the idea of mergers and
strategic alliances in the face of declining memberships, identity crises and
limited capability, although combining employer and employee interests
continues to be sticky ground.
In February, the National Library of Australia
endeavoured to marry association and library institution interests by
establishing a Peak Bodies Forum as an informal, voluntary group to discuss
issues of mutual interest, explore new partnerships and alliances and develop
national plans of action.
In May, the federal government announced the
establishment of a cross sectoral National
Collections Advisory Forum to consider the interests of libraries, archives
Despite these efforts, Australia, according to a number
of commentators, is lagging behind some other countries in collaborative
efforts to manage information and digital resources.
Silos may be a
problem but they are also part of the solution. Today’s collaborative efforts may in time lead to business
entities and new industry structures for handling the interests of
libraries, archives, museums, ICT, associations, governments and the private
The ALIA 2002 conference was a bold and costly experiment
that paused to look at the big picture for libraries and librarians.
It attracted about 400 delegates primarily from the public library and
educational sector. It is doubtful whether some of the nuances, important
nuances, would have emerged through a more closeted process.
It is unlikely, though, that ALIA will be able to afford
a similar approach again. Conferences are not mechanisms for making decisions
- unless accompanied by well
organised lead-up processes involving the right stakeholders.
For ALIA, the next steps, it seems to me, are a business
plan by the end of the year, parallel
research where gaps are obvious, conversations to test and adjust strategies,
and getting involved as a minor, but legitimate and valued contributor to the
development of national information policy.
In short: getting real and getting a spot at the table.
Endnote and Sources
knowledge and information industry reports and articles include:
Department of Industry, Science & Resources. Knowledge-Based Economy
activities: selected indicators.
Canberra: Department of Industry, Science and Resources, 2000.
Comparative performance of Australia as a Knowledge Nation:
report to the Chifley Research Centre by Mark Considine, Simon Marginson
and Peter Sheehan, with the assistance of Margarita Kumnick. June 2001..
of Scholarly Communication: a discussion paper
prepared for The Coalition of Innovation in Scholarly Communication.
Melbourne: Centre for Strategic Economic Studies: 2001. Has an
information production and distribution model that includes libraries.
industries update 2001.
Melbourne: Centre for Strategic Economic Studies, 2001.
A primer on the knowledge economy prepared by John Houghton and
Peter Sheehan. Melbourne, Centre for Strategic Economic Studies, Victoria
architectures: why do they matter? Matching Discovery and recovery: the
way ahead for libraries. Standards Australia seminar 128, Aug 1997.
Has an information architecture model relevant to libraries.
sources cited or used in this article
Shifra, and Bronstein, Jenny. A View to the Future of the Library
and Information Science Profession: A Delphi Study. Journal of the
American Society for Information Science and Technology 53(3)2002:397-408,
Digital literacy. New York: Wiley, 1997.
Charles. The empty raincoat. Milsons Point, NSW: Arrow Business
Roma, and Wilkinson, Margaret Ann. (Re)Positioning Librarians: How
Young People View the Information Sector. Journal of Education for
Library and Information Science Vol 42, no 4 (2001): 289-307
Thomas. New Developments in Online Databases . Library
Management & Information Services via Library Link May 2002 http://www.emeraldinsight.com/librarylink/management/#article).
Library of New South Wales. Colloquium on Research Library Futures:
Strategies for Action
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