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Being future ready in uncertain times

SLA Europe member Katharine Schopflin shares her takeaways from the recent Internet Librarian International conference.

I’m taking a break after a long-term contract, aiming to finish my PhD thesis while working part-time and thinking about the next career move. This meant I found myself, after 12 years attending professional events, coming to ILI for the first time without any workday context. The feeling was scary – how do I choose which of the three tracks to visit when any one of them could be useful? – but liberating for exactly the same reason. Added to the fact that my experience spans (among other things) news research, content management, knowledge management and, now, academic librarianship, it means there aren’t many topics without resonance for me. Without wanting to sound too fawning, I’ve always found Internet Librarian International to be one of the best ‘general’ conferences. It manages to strike the right balance between professionalism and informality, wisdom and enthusiasm, learning and socialising. All this meant was that at most moments in the conference I was equally inclined to attend talks in Tracks A, B and C and sometimes I chose randomly at the last minute.

It didn’t do me any harm; I can’t speak for the sessions I didn’t attend, but I took something valuable away from every one of them. I only have space here to pull out a few highlights. Penny Bailey’s talk on recording enquiry statistics particularly resonated for me, as I think she hit exactly the problem we face in front-line services. We have to prove that we are being used and, as a knowledge manager, I believe passionately that we should record as much reusable information about our research and start recording the information as early as possible (or how will my colleagues know what I’m doing?). Yet, working on a library helpdesk now, I have to balance this ideal against the fact that my uses don’t care about management information: they want human contact and someone who’s looking them in the eye rather than typing into a computer. I’m grateful for Penny for raising the issues, but I’m not sure that Bailey Solutions yet has the answer to the balance between customer service and performance metrics.

I have in the past criticised conference organisers for booking journalists rather than librarians as their keynote speakers. Just because they have written a popular book about the web or social media doesn’t mean they’re any more up to date or incisive than countless professionals who also understand the context of new forms of communication and technology in delivering library services. As it was, I found the Friday keynotes, Kevin Anderson and Suw Charman-Anderson engaging but not revelatory. I’m a PhD-colleague and follower of http://80gb.wordpress.com/ so was aware of the possibilities presented by crowdsourcing data collection and information for museums and archives. Clearly it’s a great tool to engage the community with your collection, but I felt that Charman-Anderson skated over the problems we encounter (in this big society era) of maintaining professionalism and authenticity. I don’t doubt her statistic that amateurs have been shown to be as accurate as experts (and much of this material would never, ever be catalogued by professionals) but the implications for expertise cannot be ignored. Is a line to be drawn between the crowdsourced data and that added by professional staff? And, if not, does this mean the latter are obsolescent?

One recurring conference theme was the possibility of using structured data as a means of opening up our collections. I couldn’t help noticing that one of the questions asked at the opening keynote was on the topic of linked data. Ten years ago it would have been unusual to have met someone from the cataloguing community at a conference like ILI but this year there were many on both conference platform and in the audience. I won’t say that the mysteries of linked data have been solved for me, but talks on both days taught me a lot about advantages, issues and best practice in connecting data and making it open. If I highlight Friday’s session with Owen Stephens and Bethan Ruddock, this is not just because the former shared chocolates with the audience. After all it was a legitimate means of demonstrating the enhanced value of a box of chocolates when it is open and provided with a key to its contents.

There’s no real way to convey the breadth and value of a conference like ILI in a blog post. I am extremely grateful for SLA giving me the opportunity to attend and I hope I’ve managed to share some of the value I took away from it. And, at a time when I have to be ready for a future that may take any number of shapes or forms, I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions. Follow me on twitter @schopflin or if you’ve got any thoughts.

3 Comments to Being future ready in uncertain times

  1. November 8, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    If you are interested in learning more about linked data and how it all works, perhaps my report of the NetIKX half day seminar on that very topic might be useful http://bit.ly/vzCyRX – Richard Wallis from Talis especially gave a very clear ‘beginners guide’.

  2. Katharine Schopflin's Gravatar Katharine Schopflin
    November 9, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Nicola – that’s really helpful!

  3. November 11, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Thanks for giving me a good flavour of what I missed. When I’ve attended conferences before I felt I had a direction to my career I felt like I couldn’t afford to miss anything cos I never knew if it would come in handy somewhere down the line! But you’re right, it does give you a freedom to gad about everything which is surely important to a rounded professional. Now I’ve decided to go down the cataloguing route, I’ll still poke around in the wider profession I’m a part of. I’m very glad to see your comment on the presence of cataloguers at events, there was a time when I was worried if I was trying to learn a dying art but now I think it’s actually the most exciting time to get involved.
    The very best of luck with your PhD, I found an MA dissertation enough of a challenge so can only marvel at your determination.

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