Saturday, June 24, 2006

Finding new perspectives

I spent last week at a conference with an extremely diverse group of attendees. Almost all were trained musicians; among these were traditional humanist scholars, librarians of all sorts, and a smattering of technologists. I spoke at two sessions, each on a topic related to how library systems might better meet the needs of our users. I was pleasantly surprised by the environment in these sessions, and in the conference as a whole.

Due to the diversity of attendees, I had feared that my ideas might be either rejected wholesale in light of very real and valid practical concerns, or ignored due to a perception that they were irrelevant to the work of many attendees. I was wrong. I had many stimulating and mutual idea-generating discussions with other attendees, most of whom don't spend their time thinking about system design like I'm lucky enough to do. My perspective of thinking big and not being satisfied by what current systems deliver us was greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm, showing me in no uncertain terms just how connected and devoted many librarians (and those in related fields) are to the needs of our users. Perhaps those who disagreed with my approach were just being polite in not expressing major differences in perspective publicly or privately (it was an international conference and I admit to not fully understanding all the cultural factors at work); I hope not, or at least I'd like to think that such disagreements could take the form of collegial conversation that starts in a session then continues afterward to the mutual benefit of both parties. But, then again, I can be an optimist about such things.

Perhaps the most surprising thing was that my point of view wasn't the most progressive there. I had a number of conversations with attendees whose vision was broader, more visionary, more of a departure from the current environment than mine. I view myself as striking a reasonable compromise between vision and practicality in the digital library realm, but my preconception of this conference was that I would be very far outside the attendees' respective norms. I was certainly on that side, and it was good to see I had company, and even a few compatriots that were further out to stimulate discussion.

What I took away was that we in the digital library world have a tendency to navel-gaze, to think we're the only ones that can plan our next-generation systems. This week I found an excellent cross-section of groups we need to more fully engage in this discussion. Without them and others like them, we're missing vital ideas.

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