Conference I should have gone to: Computers in Libararies

I’m black and blue from kicking myself that I didn’t go to this: the 22nd annual (!) Computers in Libraries conference in Crystal City, Va–this is their wiki site. I’m going to write this post about the web presence/social aspects of this conference and a post (or two) will follow about content. I suggest people interested in creating a wiki for SAA check this one out to get ideas, but I think we might all want to look at it to judge how effectively a tool like this (along with the official conference site, and the pictures and blogs I’ll talk about later) can deliver value for people who don’t actually attend the conference.

According to the wiki, there are 38 bloggers attending the conference. (And they get those impressive ribbons they can attach to their nametags that say “blogger” just like the “speaker” ribbons.) I took a quick look at most of the their blogs, and yup, they’re all writing about the conference. I’ll talk about the content later–which looks to be quite good–but the point (for those of you who aren’t fully caffeinated) is that with that many people writing, you really get a sense of the content being delivered. (The wiki page is called “Conference Bloggers” if you want to check it out.)

As of this posting, there were 504 photos available in Flickr tagged “cil2007” – this is one of them:

Blogga, Blogga, Blogga by Travelin’ LibrarianBlogga, Blogga, Blogga by Travelin’ Librarian


(I would have linked directly to the Flickr image but I spent a lot of yesterday trying to figure out why Flickr doesn’t want to link to my blog. Still haven’t sorted that out yet.)

Go to Flickr and take a look at the pictures–a lot of them are of food, and drinks, and the Metro, and tourist sights, but there are also pictures of the speakers’ slides, the speakers, and people at the exhibit hall. I think that they really give you a sense of what being at the meeting would be like. I think if going to conferences were really all about the presentations, most of us might not go to as many conferences, or at least we wouldn’t enjoy them as much. I look forward to seeing how many pictures we can post of SAA in Chicago to share with people who can’t go what being there was like.

If you go to and look for things with the “cil2007” tag right now, you will find 52. It’s a mixed bag, but again, an interesting one. Info about public transportation, weather, restaurants, along with content related to the presentations and the blogs.

I’ll post more about this soon, but I am actually leaving today for another conference–the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference spring meeting in Scranton. So in addition to writing about the conferences I didn’t go to, I’ll also be writing about the one I did go to. And, who knows, you might be able to see some pictures of that conference on Flickr soon too.

Welcome to the archivo-blogosphere, Ed!

About the time I started this blog, someone I know from graduate school posted what I thought was a pretty innocuous (and relevant) question on the archives listserv–six little words that got him into a lot of trouble. Now granted, he doesn’t try as hard as I do not to offend people. That’s not his style. But he was asking what I thought were valid questions and he wasn’t getting any relevant answers. The responses to his questions weren’t contributing anything to exploring a new area for discussion–I think. I have to admit that I wasn’t following that conversation as closely as I might have. I don’t think I am the only one who tunes out on some discussions when they start to take a familiar turn.

We all know there are problems with the listserv. I don’t think it’s the place for discussion of serious issues. That’s why I encouraged my friend, Ed, to take his attempts to start a discussion off the listserv and just start his own blog about archives and politics–or whatever it is he wants to write about. He might not get as many people reading what he writes, but those who do will all be interested in what he has to say.

Let’s talk about leadership: Electronic Records

In his comment on my 4/6 post on SAA 2.0, Richard Cox raised concerns about leadership in the profession. Let’s talk about what leadership would look like in the area of electronic records–identified by the highest number of A*CENSUS respondents (39%) as one of the three most important issues that “archival organizations should address in the next five years.” And we’re lucky in this area because we already have a group of SAA members poised to take a leadership role here: the Electronic Records Section. I’m going to throw a lot of ideas out about what I think a leadership role might look like. And then you’re all going to keep this conversation going in your comments–this means you, lurkers! I know who you are.

Right off the bat, let’s make sure our own house is in order. Let’s make sure SAA correctly handles the electronic records it creates and is responsible for (and yes, I mean the listserv too). The Electronic Records Section (ERS) and maybe the Records Management Roundtable should make sure that all necessary policies and procedures are in place. (I’m not saying that they are not, I have no idea. I’m just saying it should be confirmed.)

Next, let’s find out what people really need and let’s find it out now. How about the ERS gets a survey online within the next month or two asking SAA members (or just anybody, maybe) what they need in the area of electronic records. SAA has some continuing education products in this area. What else is needed? Advice on scheduling? Information about formats? Help talking with IT people? Help getting people to transfer the records? Help with processing them? Advice about preservation and storage? Let’s get a to-do list for the ERS (and SAA). (And if you can’t get a survey up in a reasonably short amount of time, let’s talk about why you can’t and try to fix that.)

Once we know what’s needed, let’s get stuff out there–fast. I shouldn’t have to beat this drum again. With the technology that’s out there, there is no excuse for not making information available quickly. The members of the ERS have the expertise. I know they do. And if they don’t, they know who does have it. I assume that what people need (and I could be wrong) are answers to questions about specific situations. There are lots of good general books out there. Instead of people posting questions to the listserv and getting answers that may or may not be valuable, let’s have ways to get answers from experts. Use a wiki, use a blog, use whatever works.

Do people need help selling the idea within their organization? I’ve seen dozens of Power Point presentations with charts and graphs. How about taking that “Press Kit” section on your website and using it as a place to put reusable presentation elements for members? How about getting a cross-section of recognized leaders to do 1-2 minute digital video “adverts” for electronic records issues? People can then use them anyway they want. (Hey, I didn’t say all these ideas were great or feasible. I’m just trying to get people thinking.)

And what about leadership outside of helping members with their own problems? What about leadership on a national level? Does SAA need to be more vocal (or more effectively vocal) in speaking out about electronic records issues on a national level? You’ll have to help me out on this one, readers, because I really don’t know. Are they being as visible as they should be? Are we partnering with the right allies in making our case? Are we getting there fast enough? Does the ERS have the influence it needs to get SAA leadership to do what needs to be done?

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that instead of waiting for the leadership of SAA to decide how to help members with their electronic records needs, let’s find out what kind of help they need and get what we can to them fast. And if that means working outside the traditional ways SAA has delivered information, let’s try to do it. If there are organizational barriers to getting this done, let’s identify them and get them addressed. Maybe we’ll find out we need to change some structures or processes in order to allow members to help other members. Maybe we need to take this to the regional level in order to get it done; we’ve got more flexibility there.

How can we discuss change productively?

A short aside. I worked, once, in a place where it was almost impossible to implement any truly meaningful or innovative changes. Whenever an idea was brought forward the proposal would be criticized (usually at length) for its choice of words, style, and discussion of the current situation. Those affected would spend a great deal of energy defending their status -even if they knew it to be problematic – or nitpicking language in order to demonstrate some kind of expertise or value. Almost all proposals for change would be destroyed–either because the final product would be so watered down as to be meaningless or the discussion would drag on so long that it would eventually die out. Along the way, those proposing the change would be disheartened or effectively marginalized, further discouraging any future discussion of similar subjects. I have seen the same thing happen, occasionally, on the archives listserv. Anyone who starts to initiate a discussion that challenges the opinions of the dominant voices or tries to start a meaningful analysis of a problem is shouted down or ignored, and so the ideas eventually die out.

I hate to think that this is hallmark of the archival profession. One of our stereotypical characteristics is that we are resistant to change. Are we so resistant to change (and perhaps, defensive about vulnerabilities we know we possess) that we cannot support meaningful discussion about how to move forward? I hope not. I am sure that in the future I will use words that people won’t like. I know my tone may rub some readers the wrong way. My assessment of a current situation may not be completely correct. Believe it or not, I actually spend quite a bit of time trying to make sure what I write will offend as few people as possible. I hope that in this forum, at least, people can focus their discussion on the ideas and about what we can do to “move the ball down the field.”

What is the “archives” brand?

I’ve been doing some reading about the “library” brand and branding in general. I found the 2005 OCLC report Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources very interesting and suggest you take look at it–even if you just look at the conclusions. I think it’s time to do some thinking about our “brand” and whether we want to try to do something about it.

This post will be some speculation about how the general public might characterize the “archives” brand. In the OCLC survey:

We asked the open-ended question: “What is the first thing you think of when you think of a library?” verbatim comments from 3,163 respondents were grouped by main theme. Roughly 70 percent of the respondents, across all geographic regions and U.S. age groups, associate library first and foremost with books. There was no runner up. [p.3-31]

If we had a survey asking that question, I think the response would be an overwhelming “old stuff” (or perhaps the real first thing they might think would actually be “nothing”they might draw a total blank). What are the words we hear associated with archives (and archivists)? Musty, dusty, old, crumbling yellowed? In his post What Should the Fictional Archivist Look Like? Richard Cox wrote of the way archives (as places) are portrayed in fiction:

Archives, that is the place where the records are stored, are often similarly depicted. They are situated in basements or attics. They are associated with dust and old, useless stuff. They are seen as forgotten places, or as places to put stuff that should, or will, be forgotten.

Just as librarians have to fight their stereotype as a bunch of bun-wearing shushers, I think archivists have a reputation as being more actively engaged with the past than with the present. Here Cox summarizes the characteristics of fictional archivists:

They seem to be absent-mindedness, other-worldliness, clumsiness, dustiness, musty odors, awkwardness, and other features suggesting one who is far more comfortable with dead, rather than living, people.

I also think that if asked, most people probably wouldn’t think of most archives as places that collected “new” in other words almost-current, stuff. For example, I don’t think most people would associate archives with electronic records. I think that possibly a lot of people would say that archives (as institutions) are a lot like the things they think we hold–antiquated and sequestered, unapproachable with our rules and white gloves. They are probably glad that we’re here glad that someone is saving “that stuff.” But archives are places they probably have never been to and probably will never go to. You don’t take out of town guests to an archives, as you do to a museum. You don’t go there on a Saturday morning with the kids to check out picture books for them and The Da Vinci Code for you. We’re not a part of the fabric of people’s lives. (Except possibly for genealogists, and even that, I think has declined.)

Am I painting it too bleakly? It’s not all bleak; I think people are glad that we exist. And once you explain to someone at a cocktail party what it is you do (after you get the initial blank stare), they might say something like “that sounds cool.”

Another interesting aspect of the OCLC survey was that the words used by librarians to describe libraries and library services were not those used by the survey respondents. The librarians used “trust,” “privacy,” “authoritative information,” “quality information,” “education,” “learning,” “community,” and “access.” In the survey:

We reviewed the over 3,500 verbatim responses from 3,163 respondents to the question “What is the first thing you think of when you think of a library?” to see how many times “trust,””quality,” “authoritative,” “education,” and “privacy” and other often used library attributes were mentioned as the top-of-mind library image.

The words trust, authoritative, and privacy were never mentioned. Community was mentioned in one response. Quality was mentioned twice. Education was mentioned four times; learning was mentioned nine times. Free was mentioned 70 times. Books were mentioned 2,152 times. [3-33]

You can imagine the same kind of thing might happen in a survey of archivists; he public isn’t going to mention authenticity, provenance, arrangement, accountability, finding aids, description, or processing. I think we might have some overlap on “history” and “preservation.” What do you think our brand attributes are?

The last words of the conclusion of the OCLC report are: “It is time to rejuvenate the ‘Library’ brand.” In future posts I’ll talk about rejuvenating the “Archives” brand.

Another post on SAA in the works

There have been quite a few email messages flying around about my last post on SAA 2.0 — many related to Richard Cox’s comment. So far, I should say, pretty much everyone is agreeing with him. The only question is what to do about it. And, reminder people, I know it takes time but you’ve got to post your thoughts as comments. Talking amongst ourselves is great, but part of what we’re trying to do here is make this a public conversation.

I’ve got a follow-up post written, but I’ve sent it out to some people to take a look at. Just to make sure I’m not too far out of line. I hope to get it up here soon. I hope you can see the connection between my next post on branding and the call for leadership Richard made in his comment. I can see myself getting a little evangelical on this subject, but stick with me and I think I just may be able to get some converts.

Do we need SAA 2.0?

I had a couple of conversations with people yesterday about our professional organization (that’s the Society of American Archivists, for any non-archivist readers). That made me go back and read something that I’d tucked away–yet another post from a library blogger. This one is from Information Wants to Be Free (got to love that name) and was called “What about Library Association 2.0?” As usual, I suggest you read the whole thing (and the comments), but her point (to grossly over-summarize) is that the way in which some professional organizations rely primarily on committees to carry out their work is not conducive to capitalizing on the creativity or energy of individual members who may, for whatever reason, want to work outside the committee structure. (See also her remarks about how ALA started using wikis, in the context of our discussion about a wiki for SAA.)

In a related post, the Librarian in Black (damn! I should have been the Archivist in Black!) wrote:

State associations are really outliving their usefulness. I wonder, though, if our national associations are not doing the same thing. It used to be that the only way to network was through the associations. But that is no longer really true. So much happens online through listservs, blogs, webinars, etc. I personally don’t feel the necessity to belong to any association in order to “network.” So, what do I get for being a part of an association?

Let’s call a spade a spade. These associations lobby on our libraries’ behalf. So, I pay quite a bit of money for membership to a state or national association that returns nearly no substantial benefits to me (a small discount on conference registration and a quarterly [state] or monthly [national] print publication). So what does all that money I give them go to? To lobby on behalf of my employer.

I’m not suggesting that SAA has outlived its usefulness, and I think I’m pretty comfortable with where my dues go, but I do think some discussion of the way SAA conducts some of its/our business would be useful. I have serious concerns about the way the whole business of the listserv archives was handled (leaving aside the actual appraisal decision). In my longest post to date (March 29, I’m sure you read every word), I wrote about the ways in which I think the society must embrace new technologies in order to achieve its goals. I’m afraid that I do sometimes feel, as Richard Cox so eloquently put it in a listserv message requesting the release of the appraisal report:

SAA needs to be an open organization, and my fear is that the damage done to its public image in this recent discussion is severe, supporting what many have criticized as its elitism and disconnection from the archival community.

I guess what I see as common threads in these discussions are contrasting visions of a closed, conservative organization that works via committees to perpetuate the values and methods of the status quo, or of an open, nimble organization that is more welcoming to the contributions of members outside formal committee structures. I’m not suggesting SAA is the former, or can ever be the latter (I don’t think any organization of its kind ever could). But, does anyone else think it’s too close to the former and not close enough to the latter?

More on archivists using wikis

Thanks for all the great feedback on the suggestion of the wiki for the Chicago meeting–it’s looking like it’s probably going to happen. I’ll keep everyone posted in this space, and again, if you’re willing to help, let me know. We’re trying to get a list together.

I read another post by a librarian about using wikis, and again, it’s something I think lots of archivists could/should be doing. It’s a great post from, and I suggest you read the whole thing, but the gist of it is that she takes it upon herself to add or edit Wikipedia entries for communities in her native state (Vermont) and to create links from the entries to trusted information sources (such as official city websites or public libraries). She also keeps on eye on these entries to make sure other people don’t vandalize them or add spurious information.

See what I mean? I have a friend who is an archivist at a small (but highly prestigious) college. His collection has materials related to quite a few historical figures, and they’ve done a good job of putting material about these people on the archives website. I checked Wikipedia and none of the entries for these people refer to his collection. And one of the people nearest and dearest to his heart doesn’t even have an entry. We all know that people–including a lot of students–use Wikipedia. Let’s make sure it’s accurate, as complete as possible, and gets the word out about our collections.

Might look off topic, but isn’t: $1.25 million for a story about a cat!

A post on led me to a story in the New York Times:

“In a hotly contested deal, the life story of Dewey, a rescued cat who lived for 19 years in a library in a small town in Iowa, has sold for about $1.25 million to Grand Central Publishing. “

One of the co-authors will be Vicki Myron, the head librarian in Spencer, Iowa. The hope is that this will be the Marley & Me for cat-lovers. I admit, it’s a great story:

“Dewey,” which was sold on the basis of a 45-page proposal with about 10 photos of the fluffy orange cat, will tell the story of how the kitten was found in the late-night book drop of the public library in Spencer, a town in the northwest part of the state, and adopted by Ms. Myron and the other librarians. Slowly, over the course of his 19-year life, Dewey became a town mascot who lifted the spirits of residents hit hard by the 1980s farming crisis. In the process he attracted the attention of tourists, cat-calendar makers and filmmakers. He appeared in “Puss in Books: Adventures of the Library Cat,” a 1997 documentary, and another film made by Japanese documentarians. When he died last November, his obituary ran in more than 250 publications, including USA Today and The Washington Post.”

[Apologies to my friend at the Order from Chaos blog–my first thought was to send this link to you to write about–but hey, I couldn’t resist.]

On my list of things to do (it’s a long list), is to write a book about archives that will be as big as Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust. You’ll probably recognize her because she was the model for the popular (in some circles) librarian action figure. I think I can do it–the book will be a spinoff from my podcast series (I haven’t forgotten about that project, friends).

And, in case you missed it, librarians also recently got a shout out (of a kind) from one of my heroes, Stephen Colbert. In an interview with John Perry Barlow about copyright, Stephen “trademarked” the phrase “librarians are hiding something” because “no one has ever said that before.” You can see the video here, courtesy of the Shifted Librarian.

What does all this have in common and why did I say it’s not off topic? It’s about public visibility for a profession–about being part of the popular culture. And I don’t think we’re there yet, even with National Treasure. What do we have to do to get million dollar book deals, New York Times bestsellers, action figures, and a moment of glory from Stephen (and a mention in Wired, per earlier post)? Or do some of you think we shouldn’t be doing those things?

How about a wiki for the Chicago meeting?

So, as I wrote in an earlier post, it looked like there were a bunch of archivist bloggers active around the last SAA Annual Meeting in DC. On the Shifted Librarian blog (which I love, love, love, by the way) I found a lovely looking link that said “I’ll be blogging ALA Annual.” When you click on it, it takes you to the official wiki of the 2007 ALA Annual Conference. Take a look at it. I don’t know how much of this duplicates their program, but I can see ways in which we could do something interesting like this for our next annual meeting in Chicago. What do you all think? At the very least, I think it would be something that the Chicago Host Committee might have some fun with. Having been on the DC Host Committee, I think if we’d had something like this we probably would have used it to give people info about DC.

What do you think, fellow DC Host Committee alums? Are the SAA members ready for a wiki?