Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Digitization, SXSW, CIL and the role of librarians

South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (SXSW) is in its 20th year, yet there are likely tons of people who have never heard of it. Held in Austin, TX on March 10 - 19, the conference and festival includes conferences sessions, films and music (hundreds of bands). And -- yes -- digitization is a topic being discussed there. Two bloggers have posted noted from the session "Book Digitization and the Revenge of the Librarians." The panelists at the session were:
  • Dan Clancy, manager of the Google book search project
  • Danielle Tiedt from Microsoft's book search project
  • Bob Stein from a think tank about the future of the book
  • Elizabeth Lawley, professor, RIT
The blog postings by Josh and Laura capture different information from the session, so it is good to look at both.

Josh notes that Danielle Tiedt said:
  • Sees Microsoft'’s digitization efforts as intended to help them "answer questions better"” [I'm assuming that "them" is Microsoft]
  • Wishes government would take a larger role in digitization --– from Microsoft'’s perspective, she'd rather everything was already scanned so that all she had to do was crawl it, index it and create a user interface that makes users want to use it via Microsoft.
Thinking about the role of librarians, Laura writes:
Lawley is asked about the role of librarians. She says that librarians are still needed to organize and help people choose the right sources. They will serve as guides to information. Joy of searching vs. joy of finding.

Clancy says the need for librarians is actually increasing because of the proliferation of information. Search is not the end all be all of finding information. The library is still a community. People still need to find community; they want to be around people.
By the way, looking at the information on the SXSW web site, this is definitely one "happening" conference! Probably what we wish every conference would be like -- top-notch content, a great venue, and celebrities! (Neil Young is giving one of the keynote addresses.)

Next week the topic of digital assets and other digital "tools" will be the topic of Computers in Libraries (CIL) in Washington, D.C.

Although I bemoan the fact that there is not one major conference dedicated to digitization, I am pleased to see the topic covered in so many conferences (including PLA which is also next week). This demonstrates that the creation of digital assets is important to many segments of our society. It is not just the purview of librarians. Yet, it needs librarians (information professionals) to ensure its success.

This topic arose among my students last week. If there are groups outside of the library creating digital assets, what is the role of librarians? Is there truly a need for information professionals who have studied this area? The students seemed suddenly panicked that they had selected a career choice that anyone could do (and is doing). They saw their job outlook evaporating in front of their eyes.

The reality is that there are successful projects being done without the aid of librarians. But that does not mean that librarians have not influenced what was done by:
  • creating guidelines/standards
  • working with/for vendors on technology and processes
  • setting the standards for "search"
  • teaching the importance of metadata, indexing and access
  • understanding and talking about how end-users work with information
It also does not mean that a project couldn't benefit from having a librarian on staff helping to ensure that the project does meet the requirements of its users, especially in how it can be searched and accessed. But it does means librarians must find ways of interjecting themselves into the conversations and into the projects. It means not assuming that our skills will be understood, but being able to frame what we do in a way that these projects then see how we can help them succeed.

One student in my class wrote about a project where the project manager had librarians working on metadata, but didn't understand its importance. Thus he didn't allow them to do what should have been done. Once he saw the results, though, he had them go back and re-do their work (and extra cost). To me, that sounds like the librarians did not frame (talk about) their skills in a way that he would understand. They perhaps didn't talk about access and how metadata ensures that. A good example of how we need to talk about our work in ways that others will understand. We need to use their words and their frames of reference.

And that brings me back to SXSW. We tend to attend library-related conferences. Digitization, though, is not confined to the library (nor the archive or museum). We'd better get involved in the digitization-related conversations that are happening at other conferences like SXSW where these non-librarians are talking about the things we care about.

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