At the Friday ‘Big Heads’ meeting much of the conversation revolved around Incrementalism vs. Revolution, as have so many conversations, about so many things. Someone quoted David Mamet (I can’t find the quote) that what we need is sledge hammers, not chisels, and I thought it was a notion too good to pass up as a jumping off point to discuss that meeting.

There were a lot of interesting topics discussed at the meetings, but as is my habit I’m going to focus only on the topics of interest to me. As usual there were a number of vendors in the audience, and when a few of the ‘heads’ at the main table voiced the expectation that they would be depending on the vendor community for help as they experienced additional staff reductions and resource constraints in general, the vendors came up to the microphones to respond. A couple of vendors expressed their concern that the library community in general has not been able to articulate what they want from vendors, and this has made it difficult for them to develop business plans. I hear a variation of this line when I stroll the exhibit halls and talk to vendors about what their plans are for RDA implementation. Almost always I hear that they have not heard from their customers about what they want, and they’re waiting for that before making plans. As a result, when I’m presenting to librarians about RDA, I tell them that they should be talking to their vendors, asking when and how they will be implementing, etc., etc. The problem with that approach is that a) most of the time the librarians don’t know what to ask, beyond the when and how; and b) when they get an answer they often don’t know how to interpret it. Maybe I’m slow, but I’m coming to the conclusion that I should stop telling people to talk to their vendors about RDA. I’m not sure it matters.

I went up to the microphone for one of my usual rants, after hearing quite enough of this dancing around. Here’s the reality, as I see it:

1. Libraries are unlikely to agree on what they want (this has been true in the past, and will likely be true in the future)
2. Given the generally low level of understanding of RDA data issues across the library spectrum (and certainly the vendors), it’s unlikely that any articulation of needs to vendors would represent something that vendors could rely on to build a business plan
3. Vendors are still talking about the provision (e.g. sale) of bibliographic records as a basis for their services to libraries.

My rant included all three of those points and more. Little over a year ago, the R2 report on the marketplace for MARC records (upon which I blogged) assumed that there is a marketplace for MARC records which will continue and that a direct return on investment is possible (or desirable) for creators of data. I said then, and still believe, that such a viewpoint is both unrealistic and in fact destructive to the task of moving forward into a world where data is not the coin of the realm but freely available (this is the basis for linked open data) and the investment and return on investment is around data services, not data sale. After my rant to Big Heads, one of the vendors came up to talk to me and offered up some useful nuggets to support my view: a) they provide records, but don’t make much money on them; b) the realm of digital metadata is vastly more complicated than that for physical metadata. It’s a huge challenge for vendors to operate in this world, but clearly the usual answers are no longer working, even as the data revolution is not yet fully upon us. The inevitable conclusion is that vendors who wait for their customers to tell them what they want may not survive the coming revolution. This is no time for chisels.

In this context it’s good to meditate on Henry Ford’s famous statement: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

By Diane Hillmann, January 9, 2011, 5:25 pm (UTC-5)

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  1. Comment by Diane Hillmann

    Jeffrey: I’m reporting here what I’ve been told by those who took seriously my advice to speak to their vendors about RDA implementation. Certainly if you want to interpret my words in the way you did, there’s not much I can do about it, unfortunately. I’ve been a ‘working librarian’ for almost 35 years, and I have many valued colleagues from all different kinds of libraries. The only sockpuppets I have are the ones I’m knitting for my grandchildren. — Diane

  2. Comment by Jeffrey Beall

    “The problem with that approach is that a) most of the time the librarians don’t know what to ask, beyond the when and how; and b) when they get an answer they often don’t know how to interpret it.”

    Right, librarians (except you) are stupid, and we all wish we could be as knowledgeable and sagacious as you are, Diane. We are all just ignorant working librarians, and only Diane and her sockpuppets know the truth. Where would we be without you to guide us and tell us what the future brings?

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