Conference Reports 5 – Internet Librarian International, 2009

Three SLA Europe members attended Internet Librarian International in October 2009. We’ve got reports from them all giving a real insight into what went on at this event.

The first is from Emma. Emma was one of the Early Career Conference Award winners from 2008, now after a year’s travelling she’s settling into her role at the British Standards Institute.

This October I attended the Internet Librarian International 2009. As someone whose job primarily involves desktop research, I felt this was a must. The issues and debates would surely have relevance to the work I do both now and in the future. I entered the SLA Europe draw for entry to both days of the conference and luckily I was one of the three winners.

A big thank you to SLA Europe, for without this prize I would certainly not have been able to attend, and it was a fascinating two days.

Delegates attended from many sectors – public libraries and education to financial institutions and government bodies. Attendees were from countries as close to home as France and Italy, to more distant lands such as India and Qatar – a wonderful example of the diversity of the Library, Information and Knowledge Professions.

I gained insight into many issues facing our profession, but two key messages rang loudest for me.  The first was the issue of copyright, as raised by our keynote speaker Cory Doctorow: a journalist, blogger and science fiction writer.  I have just entered into this profession and have a long way to go before I am budget holder, but his speech raised a lot of issues that will no doubt be of particular concern to me when I do have to take financial decisions.

The second message I took away was the apparent lack of take-up by users of the more complex web 2.0 technology, and the possible reasons for this.  All of the seminars I attend on this issue concluded that their user groups didn’t particularly want to blog, or wiki, tag, review or chat.  They wanted to find what they needed quickly and easily, happy that any correspondence to be conducted by ‘old fashioned’ email.

So back to our keynote speaker Cory Doctorow. He talked passionately about how restrictions on electronic content by the big publishing houses, be it a novel or scientific paper, are having a profound effect on the ease and rightful dissemination of information.  Large publishing companies, he says, are controlling that access through copyright and this goes against the “information revolution” which is based on the expansion of information, not the contraction. His love of books was apparent as he told us about the relationship he builds with a book, as many of us do.  Once we have bought a book, it is ours, we can do with it as we please and hold on to it as long as we wish.  We are the reader, we put the book on our shelves and admire it.  It’s a done deal. With ebooks this is not so.  With an ebook we are a user not a reader, we have been granted permission to read a book – as long as we pay our subscription to the publishing house.  There is no physical object to sit on our shelf, to admire or build a relationship with, and once our subscription is finished the publisher removes it from our collection as if never there at all.

A tad sentimental?  Perhaps, but a sentiment a lot of people share. This is clearly a complex issue that is not going to go away but become increasingly pertinent as more and more institutions switch over to e-content.  What users want and what the publishers are prepared to let them have will be an ongoing battle – and at what price?  The complexity deepens if information from outside your country as foreign copyright laws will certainly be different to your own. Library leaders will have to develop legal knowledge to ensure they are getting the best deal and understand what they are entitled to at home and abroad.

As an IP I often feel under a certain amount of pressure to be fully web 2.0 literate – to maintain a blog, comment on others’ blogs, tag anything that has a www at the beginning, and generally be a ‘web whizz’ – it was therefore a relief to me to discover that perhaps I don’t have to be!

I attended a number of seminars looking at Web 2.0 and its uses within academic libraries, particularly the University of Leicester, Singapore Management University and The Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

The universities had introduced Web 2.0 technologies into their university catalogues and teaching materials.  This included encouraging students to write and comment on blogs, use RSS feeds, wikis, actively tag content and contribute book reviews.  The most adventurous of these studies was from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who developed an iphone application by which users can search their library catalogue, reserve items and even, in the future, loan out items on their phone.

However, these institutions all found that students didn’t maintain their blogs, didn’t comment on each others, didn’t engage in chatrooms and didn’t use the iphone application.  As Rajen Munoo from Singapore Management University put it, “in the end students just want emails and to be told what to do”. This lack of engagement online could be for many reasons. A lot of what might be discussed in a chatroom is discussed in a classroom. Many students, particularly undergraduates, may not feel confident or knowledgeable enough to comment on the work of others. Creating and maintaining a blog, reading and commenting on the blogs of others takes a vast amount of time.

Helle Lauridsen from Serial Solutions in Denmark agreed with this.  She made the point that ten years ago we had only a few websites on which to search for information.  Now we have hundreds, if not thousands – so where do we start our search?  For her, this is why federated searches are becoming increasingly popular. The research that she was involved with found that people want the easiest information, not necessarily the best information, and summed this up with a wonderful quote – “librarians like to search; users like to find”.

Despite the fact that there wasn’t the expected uptake in these tools it is wonderful to know that these studies are being carried out, that so many universities are pushing boundaries, trying different technologies for size and seeing how they fit.  People are creatures of habit and like to use the search tools they are comfortable with.  Again to quote Rajen Munoo from Singapore, we need to find ways of “enhancing the traditional”.  The likes of Singapore, Leicester and Norway are on their way to doing just that, and once those enhancements become tradition, new ones can be added.

All this discussion about Web 2.0 was in total contrast to the seminar with Mark Douglas Frier from Cape Peninsula University of Technology in South Africa.  That was a real eye-opener for me as Mark told us how many of his university students have never used a computer before attending university and need to start from the very beginning – how to switch it on, what the mouse is for, etc.  Some of these students he told us want to be computer programmers as they have heard there are good jobs to be had in that field.  To their credit, many of them are programming within six months – testimony to the fact that where there’s a will, there’s a way!

And so I have come to the conclusions that the controversy over copyright and access will continue as we increasingly move over to e-content. From what I can tell it may become quite a bitter battle between those who believe information should be available to all and those who believe it should be available to all who can afford it.  And as for 2.0, that too will continue but in a much more positive way as forward looking institutions carry on experimenting and trying new things to the benefit of us all.

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