Barbara Quint: These are “Opportunity Times”

Information Today, Inc.’s newly minted Online Searcher magazine appears to combining the best of both its predecessors, ONLINE and Searcher.  (Full Disclosure: I have written for ONLINE over the years and hope to continue to do so.).  Part of me felt some concern about this merger when it was “coming soon,” for a simple reason:  both of the predecessors had a number of columnists and commentators I genuinely believe we cannot do without. We need voices.  Fortunately, they are still sounding out, loud and clear.

I could go on at length about the March/April issue, which has many good articles (disclosure: none by me!). But I really want to focus on senior editor Barbara Quint’s (“bq”)column, appropriately titled “Gimme! Gimme!”  Here are a few thoughts and ideas of my own in response.

Reinventing in Place, not “Aging in Place”

bq devotes her column space to the counter-intuitive but powerful belief that the more change, the more chaos, the more new technology we confront, the better the odds are for breakthroughs. In other words, “hard times” can become “opportunity times.”  This really resonates with me. I’ve been lucky to be associated with UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment for a long time (let’s just say, decades). The conventional wisdom would make me out to be a long-term hanger-on, obsessing on OPACs and circulation statistics and other thrilling issues of yesteryear: but no. Working in one location has not felt like “aging in place:” it feel more like “innovate or die.” And I’m not the only one: I do not see any “dead wood” in this joint.

I might have moved around to experience other workplaces and challenges, but heck, I didn’t need to. In the past 18 years, my core assignment and professional activities have been completely revolutionized and reinvented at least five times.

Ghosts of Librarianship Past

First there were those were those good ol’ “online” days, dominated by mediated searches on Lexis-Nexis and charging a hefty premium for mediated research. Next came the ubiquitous email and “digital conversations era, managed by the library, along with Gopher and the notion that networked information had, perhaps, just a bit of potential.

Boom, it’s the Web next, and I volunteered to be the Webmaster for this place (go ahead, ask me anything about 1990s Web best practices!). Nowadays I supervise two programmers and act as the digital publisher for IRLE.

More recently, the “online classroom” and MOOCs (massively open online courses) have created an urgency to make sure that research skills that were once taught in the library get taught online, in class, everywhere. And then there’s social media. Guess what: my staff are the folks who have taught a lot of the staff and graduate students how to use it.

A Band of Paradigm-Busting Sisters and Brothers

This is a not brag-list at all. I can think of at least 20 people who have taken similar risks, and reaped greater rewards in vastly different circumstances, so much so that I am humbled by what they have achieved.

It’s the unrelenting process of digital convergence that has switched out “aging” and pasted in “reinvention.” The digital era has had a way of making librarianship a cutting-edge field. And the caliber of new entrants into the field—who arrive with their social media and “disruptive” thought patterns fully honed—guarantee that we are not going to be a dull bunch in the coming years.

“Horrors! Open Access!”  Or, Does Opportunity Strike Again?

The “Gimme…” column that bq writes is a typical, bq-trademarked piece that challenges her readers to think up some good ideas and run with them. She lists many, but my favorite is the “specter” of open access. She cites OA as a key example of how a potentially “scary” concept is in fact an opportunity-from-thin-air. To quote:

“Open access needs editoring, stratification, categorization, ranking and anything else that can enable users to use it in a curriculum of learning.”

–That is, look at all the cool things we can contribute, instead of viewing open access as a threat to established revenue streams, a risk to the peer review process, and a force that will put publishers out of work.

I’m right with her on this one. I am surrounded by a distinguished cohort of faculty and students who are only now beginning to think about open access seriously. But mention “Gold OA” or “Green OA” and eyes begin glaze over. Opportunity time strikes again: just make your exegesis colorful and distinctive, and you shall win the hearts and minds of your audience. Tell a story that makes sense, and people pay attention. Indeed, my director will often ask me, “Do I need to be concerned about this?” when some new digital or data curation initiative is announced. Acting as the “interpreter” of new technology for very busy, very smart folks is not a bad place to be in an organization devoted to cross-disciplinary research.

The point is that the questions that open access raises, and the challenges it presents to the key players in the “information lifecycle” are in fact evidence that we have a very serious role to play in defining what education, universities, and online learning will look like in ten years. We are not on the sidelines; indeed, we know more about scholars and their habits and most other stakeholders. So bq’s ideas about what we could contribute seem very obvious, very relevant, and perhaps as evident to other folks as they are to us. There’s a reason for that: we were trained in library school to understand the dynamics of “pattern recognition.”

Let’s All Do A Little “Pattern Recognition”

In the struggle to reframe “tough times” as “opportunity times” we already possess the necessary tools: the ability to discern patterns in society and technology, and the tenacity to push forward based on what we perceive. At the consortial level, there would never have a SPARC or a Mellon Foundation-funded initiative to study digital libraries, if we had kept thinking “inside the box” of what information services are supposed to be. Ditto working with Google to launch a more far-seeing digital initiative, and thus giving birth to HathiTrust. Their commercial dream has a second life as our scholarly oasis, and everybody wins (including the attorneys).

At the institutional level, our boldest administrators allow their newly-hired net-gen librarians to get a little crazy and try new things, like—wow—online course reserves! And at the individual level, each of us has developed the mettle to face down non-library administrators who look quizzically at you and say, “What exactly do you do?”

So I do see some patterns at work. The first: technological change has disrupted everybody, and those who thrive are the ones who can separate useful, transferable tasks from existing modes of organization. The second: even though there are thousands of really smart people running around places like UC Berkeley or other great universities, far fewer people are gifted with the skill of framing what we are experiencing in coherent “stories,” and then telling those stories. Do that, and you are halfway to your own personal brave new world.

Third: “Pay attention, show up, speak the truth, and let go of the consequences.”

I know: that can to quite difficult do in academic committee meeting, but do it we must. Thankfully, it’s less difficult when we mix it up with a gang of like-minded digital citizens, who care about what our digital future will look like.