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Paper no 20 - Part 2









List of papers








The ALIA conference, Sydney, May 2002

by Paul Bentley


Article originally published in Online Currents July/August 2002 and reprinted with kind permission of the publishers Enterprise Information Management Pty Ltd. 

Part 1: Introduction | Contexts | Knowledge Economy & Information Industry

Part 2: Up the Next Curve | Conclusion 



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 one-size-fits-all”.   


Values are important for nations, companies and individuals, but interests and notions of service may be more relevant for industries.

ALIA 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 issues.

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 values..


Failure to redefine roles may hinder professional prospects.

McLean 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 drivers.”  This  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 terminology”!

Ruthven 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”.

Several 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 libraries.


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 plans.

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 fragmentation.

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 alone”.  McLean 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 other conferences.

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 and museums.

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 sector.


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

Other knowledge and information industry reports and articles include:

  • Australia. Department of Industry, Science & Resources. Knowledge-Based Economy Branch. Knowledge-based activities: selected indicators. Canberra: Department of Industry, Science and Resources, 2000.

  • Considine, Mark. The 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..

  • Houghton, JW. Economics 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.

  • Houghton, JW. Information industries update 2001. Melbourne: Centre for Strategic Economic Studies, 2001.

  • Houghton, JW. A primer on the knowledge economy prepared by John Houghton and Peter Sheehan. Melbourne, Centre for Strategic Economic Studies, Victoria University.

  • McLean, Neil. Information 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.

Other sources cited or used in this article

  • ALIA conference papers. 

  • Baruschson-Arbib, 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,  

  • Gilster. Paul. Digital literacy. New York: Wiley, 1997.

  • Handy, Charles. The empty raincoat. Milsons Point, NSW: Arrow Business Books, 1995

  • Harris, 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

  • Kochtanek, Thomas. New Developments in Online Databases . Library Management & Information Services via Library Link May 2002 

  • State Library of New South Wales. Colloquium on Research Library Futures: Strategies for Action

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