Magazine article American Libraries

Confluence in a Revolution: ACRL Conference Looks to the Future

Magazine article American Libraries

Confluence in a Revolution: ACRL Conference Looks to the Future

Article excerpt

How will libraries support academia during and after the technological revolution? This is a "theme that pervades this conference, it echoes throughout all the sessions," said Susan Martin, president of ALA's Association of College and Research Libraries, at ACRL's seventh national conference, Mar. 29-Apr. 1, in Pittsburgh.

During what the division's Executive Director, Althea Jenkins, called "the undisputed highlight of ACRL's year," 2,721 attendees had ample opportunity to search for evidence of the "Continuity and Transformation: The Promise of Confluence" conference theme in 54 contributed papers, 31 panel sessions, 60 poster sessions, and round-table discussions on 31 topics.

The conference was "a time for reflection," said National Conference Executive Committee Member Patricia Wand of the American University, "with no committee meetings, no business to conduct, and no social issues." Greeted with applause at the opening session, Wand's remark harkened back to an ACRL board policy passed in 1993 in an attempt to confine the division's involvement in "social, political, and economic issues" to instances in which they "are of fundamental importance to the profession of academic librarianship."

Fundamental they must be, because social issues--or perhaps phenomena--in the broadest and most library-relevant sense drove the conference. Among them: the explosion of technology that cultural anthropologist Jennifer James called "the deepest abyss any profession or culture has ever been asked to cross." The first of four featured "theme speakers," James posited that those who refuse to "shift from physical paths to cyberspace" are no different than people who wouldn't get off their horse when the automobile arrived. She proposed that librarians should be called "cybrarians."

James warned that because of the rapidness of technological change "we will see more disenfranchised people than ever in history." "All you need for this new universe," she said glibly, "is a new mind."

The animated author of seven books and 48 journal articles urged that a sense of humor is essential to survival in a rapidly changing environment. Accept change, she joked: "When the U.S. Army says 'don't ask don't tell,' you know somewhere down the line they're gonna let 'em talk on the weekend."

In technology, she concluded, "librarians are the consciousness part, Microsoft is only the technical part .... Cyberspace information specialists" must "be willing to intervene in the culture."

Speculation on cybrarianship

"University libraries are no longer passive places where materials reside," said Gail McMillan, delivering a paper on the Scholarly Communications Project, a unit of the libraries at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. She was one of many speakers who said that the World Wide Web is now "where it's at" for librarians, who must become "Web browsers."

Staff development is what technical services will be about for the next five years, said Carroll Varner of Illinois State University, and OCLC is the "pink elephant" in tech services. At a program called "Outsourcing Library Production Functions: The Role of the Leader," Varner noted that PromptCat (introduced in Philadelphia at Midwinter), is the latest "bombshell" from OCLC. PromptCat, with an Apr. 15 implementation date, is designed "to provide cataloging for material supplied by participating book vendors." Colby College in Maine is the first library to sign up.

The defensive weapon against these high-tech assaults, said Varner, is "an environment where staff can flourish instead of feel threatened." No one will be without a job, he predicted, because database maintenance is going to get much bigger.

Varner said the industry "benchmark" is that 1.75% of an organization's budget should be spent on staff development. To quell fears, Varner pointed to other library practices: "We've been outsourcing for years with book vendors! …

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