This week I’ve been on the road, doing presentations at the New Jersey Library Association meetings on Wednesday, and Five Colleges in Western MA Friday morning. I’ve been doing all this travel in the faithful MetadataMobile, increasingly an object of interest, amusement and (almost) veneration by those who have heard about her. It’s been a great trip, with wonderful audiences, and as always, I learn a lot about what’s on the minds of those in the trenches.

I arrived later than I’d expected at NJLA, due to missing the exit I was supposed to use on the Garden State Parkway. I was very busy looking for a coffee and a rest stop, and it probably whizzed right by me. By the time I realized I was way too far down the Parkway, I decided to get off and use my newly acquired New Jersey Official Map to get me to my destination. I know, it’s very retro as a strategy, but maybe I was feeling that a little self-punishment was in order, or maybe I just needed to get off the big roads for a while.

As a child of the fifties, my first stop was a gas station as I needed to gas up and figured I’d confirm my location on my handy-dandy map and get some advice on my route. I had forgotten that New Jersey doesn’t do self-service gas pumping, and I’d also forgotten that virtually all the NJ gas stations I’ve visited in the past decade are staffed by (and possibly owned by) persons from somewhere else. When shown a map and asked for directions, they invariably act like people who have been lately dropped into their current location from the sky with no idea how to locate themselves in the world they inhabit (pretty close to reality, probably). I knew pretty much where I was, but wanted to figure out how to get to a big secondary East/West road that would take me to where I needed to be. It was hopeless—these guys (they’re always guys) couldn’t even locate the town they were in on my map so I thanked them for their trouble and got back on the road. I ended up following my nose (and the MM’s internal compass, which tells me whether I’m going N, S, E, W or any rational combination thereof). Thankfully, in NJ if you go east you find the Atlantic eventually.

It was a gorgeous day to be taking the long way, and I passed by what remains of the agricultural areas in NJ, including a whole bunch of horse farms (one was called “Due Process Stables” and you could pretty much guess how that was funded). I got to the conference venue in Long Branch (right on the beach) in time to take a nice walk on the boardwalk and decompress from those long hours behind the wheel.

The program was about FRBR and RDA for real people, and Rhonda Marker from Rutgers presented first. Rhonda and I have presented together before, and generally have fun with it, since we sometimes disagree and are very open about it, to the general amusement (or maybe consternation) of the audience. We only had two hours, which wasn’t enough, but the audience was very receptive and had some good questions. The slides for this presentation are available here.

From Long Branch, NJ, I pointed the MetadataMobile north, through the horror of Big Apple driving (BIG trucks!), though Connecticut and up to Amherst, Mass., for a confab with a group from the Five Colleges. This had been in the planning works for some months, but was made more interesting by the announcement a few weeks ago of some pending reorganization of technical services operations in the colleges in response to the same kinds of financial pressures being experienced everywhere. I’d been forewarned about this by the organizers of this session, and included some of the issues most relevant to the group in my presentation (though the slides, available here don’t always reflect this directly). My underlying point was that they were not, in fact, dealing with only one crisis—the financial meltdown—but two, if you include (as I do) the pending changes in how we do business as data creators and managers, changes that are absolutely necessary to avoid the continuing marginalization of our efforts to provide information to our users.

One thing that impressed me about this group was that it included a number of the library chiefs, systems folks and others not part of the cataloging cohort that normally predominates in my audiences. This is good—very good, in fact—because it signals to me that the issues I talk about are being seen as crucial to the discussions around a change in mission and strategy essential to creating positive change over the longer term, not just arguing against cuts in budgets for the short term. But, like President Obama points out, the one-crisis-at-a-time approach doesn’t work in a context of multiple crises related to one another in fundamental ways. Attempting the financially necessary reorganization without a refocus on mission, in the face of the huge challenges we face in remaining relevant in the current information environment, is self-defeating at best, suicidal at worst. I spoke to one of the chiefs after the presentation, and he said that he wished his public services folks had been there, too, and I agreed. Certainly the demise of the library catalog as we know it will affect their work hugely, and it behooves us all to break down those barriers of specialization as we face issues of our own survival as information providers.

What this also suggests is that the focus of the testing being done by the US national libraries cannot be limited to cost benefit analysis. If we fail to look at the issues of most importance to libraries, as the LC Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control certainly did, we risk our future entirely. Of course, in the current environment particularly, we need to pay attention to costs and efficiency as we move forward, but they cannot be our sole criteria for decision making.

For those of you knitters among my readers, I also made a pilgrimage to Webs and spent a goodly portion of my speaker’s fees to support the local economy. It was a great, though at this point I’m going to have to do a “real” retirement sooner than anticipated to use up all the accumulated yarn and patterns I’ve amassed. Either that or recruit a chauffeur on these trips so I can knit on the way.

By Diane Hillmann, May 3, 2009, 2:23 pm (UTC-5)

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