INTERVIEW: OCLC'S IT'S ALL GOOD BLOGGERS: Part 1
by Marylaine Block
I've been following a blog written by OCLC staff members, Alane Wilson, George Needham, and Alice Sneary, called It's All Good <http://scanblog.blogspot.com/>. If you're interested in how libraries can adapt to meet our users' expectations in a time of dizzying change, I'd recommend reading it regularly. I had a chance to ask them all about it.
Marylaine: First, would you tell me and my readers about the different kinds of work you do?
George: I'm very fortunate to have a job that never seems to be the same two days in a row. The primary responsibilities in my portfolio at OCLC are Members Council, QuestionPoint, WebJunction <http://webjunction.org/>, and a number of our educational activities. These include the Virtual Reference Desk Conference (which we manage with the Information Institute at Syracuse University and ALA's Reference and User Services Association), the IFLA/OCLC Early Career Development Fellowship program, and, of course, the speaking engagements about the Environmental Scan <http://www.oclc.org/membership/escan/default.htm> and other topics. As a vice president, I'm also a member of OCLC's Strategic Leadership Team, which formulates budget and strategy, and implements the policies of the cooperative. Being the "George" of WebJunction's "I Am Curious, George" is just the icing on the cake, although that's a joint effort of the WebJunction staff in Seattle and me.
Alice: By title, I am a Creative services analyst on the Creative and Branding Services team in the Marketing and Library Services department. That means I live in the world of copywriters and designers, brand planners and Web editors. Think of us as an in-house agency.
In the midst of being part of the Creative team, my role has been described as the "Creative Swiss army knife." This is essentially to say, I get to do a little bit of everything. I do a lot of copywriting and editing, as well as information architecture, brand positioning, conceptual development, campaign planning, and more. My favorite part of the process is the conceptual idea stage - the whiteboard sessions where ideas take shape into visuals, which turn into headlines, taglines and stories. I like to be the "spark" of energy that gets the ideas flowing.
I manage the advertising for OCLC as a whole, which includes WebJunction. I do everything from planning the media buy to submitting the final artwork for production…and lots of things in between. As such, the advocacy campaign <http://www.oclc.org/advocacy/default.htm> has been one of my main areas of focus this year.
I do most of my work from here in Dublin. Of sure, we'll have photo shoots in cool places periodically and there's always ALA twice a year - but I actually just did my first speaking engagement related to the advocacy efforts yesterday!
Alane: I am like George in that the work I do is varied. I am lucky to be in a position that uses my interests and skills but that defies a pigeon-hole. I work in the Marketing and Library Services division. Among my responsibilities: advance OCLC as a "thought leader", to librarians, library leaders, and others beyond the library community, speak at conferences and make presentations to further and work on special projects as requested by the VP Marketing and Library Services. That last responsibility...work on special projects? That one uses up the majority of my time. I'd guess I travel to give presentations 25-30% of my time.
Marylaine: I'm struck by how our vendors and partners (OCLC, Microsoft, and others) have been pitching in to help libraries with long-range planning and advocacy. Can you describe the thinking at OCLC behind the development of the environmental scan, WebJunction, and the library advocacy campaign?
George: OCLC has never forgotten, and should never forget, that it is a cooperative. It's a cooperative made up of libraries, other cultural heritage institutions, and the regional networks like SOLINET and Nylink. What affects these organizations affects OCLC.
The environmental scan came out of our Board's desire to know more about the world in which OCLC and Libraries are operating today, with a little speculation about the future. The Board was so impressed with the work that the team had done on the report, primarily Cathy De Rosa (VP of Marketing and Library Services), Lorcan Dempsey (VP for Research), and Alane Wilson (the principal writer of the report), that they asked for it to be published for the library and information community as a whole. The team was acting in the best spirit of the cooperative: they leveraged the resources that the members provide to OCLC to give back more than most individual libraries could do working on their own.
The advocacy campaign came out of an ongoing discussion about how OCLC could help librarians make their case with the public generally and key influencers in particular. I remember one meeting we had here in Dublin a couple of years ago, when Richard Madaus of Florida's College Center for Library Automation made a strong case with Jay Jordan, our President and CEO, for using OCLC's bully pulpit to talk to the people librarians sometimes can't reach. Our advertising budget had always been directed at librarians, but we decided that we could use that budget to help make the case for libraries in the journals that library funders read, such as Governing, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Educause. What was the key was that the ads would not focus on OCLC, they would focus on libraries.
WebJunction is another case of OCLC mining its heritage of collaboration to meet a need. As a former public librarian myself, I knew that many public librarians didn't think OCLC was relevant to them. This was especially true for people working in smaller libraries. And the folks at OCLC knew that this was a gap. When the Gates Foundation issued its RFP for what became WebJunction, we had an opportunity to create a team that involved a wonderful mix of partners who would have both the experience of dealing with public libraries and the technology background to help public libraries maintain and improve their public access computing offerings. In the process, we've built a true community of users who share experiences, participate in online forums, take distance education classes, and generally assist one another. This is more evidence of how librarians rule when it comes to collaboration. And we've learned a great deal about the needs and direction of public libraries!
Alice: I'll speak to advocacy - because Alane is more Environmental Scan and George is more WebJunction-although they're all interrelated!
The idea of doing advocacy grew naturally out of OCLC's 2003 Environmental Scan: Pattern Recognition report and the many presentations and discussions that resulted from it. As library staff members read and reflected on trends in our larger culture, the idea of "branding the library experience" continued to resonate. The necessity of marketing library values - especially in the era of tighter budgets - was obvious.
We wanted to raise awareness of critical library issues, enable more informed dialogue, and ultimately help libraries demonstrate their value. Our goal was to raise the visibility of libraries…and to give libraries some tools to help market themselves.
The next phase of Advocacy is going to be really interesting. I'd love to broaden the media to include TV/radio/Web ads/grassroots efforts in more local libraries. We'll see. I need to win a grant to be able to pay for all the cool things I'd like to do for libraries! At the end of the day, it's really important that we steward the OCLC Membership's resources wisely…and so some things like TV commercials start to seem nice-but-not-necessary.
Alane: George has covered this question really well. I'll just add that I think the things you mention were the visible manifestations of OCLC realizing it needed to be more overt and proactive in its efforts on behalf of our community than it had been. Tough times require boldness.
Marylaine: So what led you to start It's All Good, and what are the pleasures you get from blogging?
George: I'm pretty sure it was Alice who introduced us to blogging. I was just pleased they wanted to take me along for the ride.
There are two things I like most about blogging. First is that it gives me an outlet for my mouthing off. I like having a soap box, and this soap box lets me capture some of the wonderful discussions I've had with librarians, library staff, and trustees around the world about the topic we all share, libraries.
The second thing I like is the interconnectedness that blogging encourages. I get to talk to people like you, Walt Crawford, Karen Schneider, and others in a way that even face-to-face communication can't match. We refer to one another's blogs and we create something that is bigger and more useful (we hope) than we could accomplish alone. Funny thing is, this is also a pretty accurate description of the whole OCLC cooperative.
Alice: I started a very early iteration of the blog called "Underground OCLC" last year about this time <http://oclc.blogspot.com/>. I started it just to prove to my editor at the time that I could blog AND continue to write lots of additional words for my day job. (I'm a copywriter/branding person in my day job for OCLC.)
So once we could demonstrate proof-of-concept of the medium itself, we decided it could be a good way to serve as an unofficial discussion forum for the Scan conversations. Because the Scan got a lot of traction in person but the Web site we built for dialogue <http://www.oclc.org/reports/2003escan.htm> wasn't getting a lot of traction.
Plus, Cathy, Alane and George were off globe-trotting to do Scan presentations -- but there was no good way to echo what they'd heard and what librarians wanted to tell each other -- in an easy to maintain, quick read, no guilt kind of way.
So somehow without any committee oversight, we were up and blogging and you know, we've gained an active readership. It still amazes me how FAST these things happen. I write something on a lark and it shows up 4 places within an hour. Scary fast. But in a good way.
I love doing it personally because it's a good chance for me to write. It's like my own little editorial soapbox to dream in a purposeful way about technology, libraries, future, culture and habits. I also love it because it's a great excuse to go places and hang out with Alane and George!
My totally self-appointed role on the blog is to bring some Gen X/youth culture to the experience...and as IAG's non-MLS holder, I can play the part of dumb-user a lot easier than George or Alane, I think.
Alane: The only thing I can add to Alice's comments is that we did pitch the blog as a sort of "walk the talk" (write the talk?) issue. After all, in the Scan, we'd written a lot about things we thought library people needed to pay attention to--and then in the "2004 Information Formats" report we'd been even more explicit about the need to pay attention to and participate in new forms of communication. And, as Alice notes, the Scan "Comments" section on the OCLC web site was getting little traffic and we said, it's not all good.
Separately, George and I pitched the idea of a blog to our bosses (Jay Jordan and Cathy De Rosa, respectively) and got their approval to go ahead. Initially, it was George and Alice, but I couldn't stay out of it!
For a work-related blog, it's great having co-bloggers because there's not as much pressure to post for the individuals. And I think the different voices help. And it means I get a lot of pleasure out of reading our own blog because I don't know what George and Alice will write until it's written.
The name came about because, at the time, Cathy De Rosa would often say "It's all good." during staff meetings...often after a particularly tough or long process for something being worked on.
Marylaine: You spend a lot of time on the road talking to librarians about the scan and the need to adapt library services to the changing expectations of its actual and potential users. What feedback do you get from librarians about how their thinking has changed, or what changes they have made based on the wake-up call in the Scan?
George: We are the first to admit that there is nothing totally new in the Scan. I'm pretty sure that we don't have a single example or suggestion in the book that some enterprising librarian or museum curator or genealogist hasn't tried somewhere. What the Scan did was bring these ideas together in a new way, to allow discussion to move to another level.
We see librarians using the Scan for a couple of purposes, but I think the one that really gets me involved is when we hear of libraries using it to do their own planning and execution of new services. We are seeing greater acceptance of self-service in libraries, whether it's in check out, virtual reference, or self-placed holds and interlibrary loans. We didn't invent any of this, and we don't claim we discovered it. But the Scan does provide validation for library directors in discussions with recalcitrant board members, for board members in discussions with recalcitrant elected officials, and on up the food chain.
Another interesting thing, to me at least, is the way the Scan itself is being used. I know that some library and information science programs have adopted it as a text book (probably the least expensive text book those students will ever buy). In Ohio, a coalition of six library groups is sponsoring a summer-long discussion of the Scan that will culminate at the Ohio Library Council meeting in October. The approach is "What if all Ohio librarians read the same book?" In this case, the book is the Scan!
Alice: Mostly, the feedback I've heard is appreciation. Thank you for putting together a document that speaks to my board members/funding bodies about what we as a library profession are facing, in terms that s/he can understand.
Alane: Everything George said. One thing is very clear to me with regard to librarians and strategic planning. We, as a profession, have not had nearly enough training in how to do effective strategic planning and there appears to be a huge unfilled skill gap. In addition to giving presentations on the Scan, I've also done planning workshops for libraries. I am hardly an expert in this but researching and writing for the Scan helped me, and I've done a couple of workshops on "futuring" and scenario building.
Also, many librarians I've spoken with were captured by two things in particular, from the scan. One was the pervasiveness of game playing and the other was the powerful metaphor of the library as a third place. With game playing, I think because OCLC clearly took this phenomenon seriously, many librarians decided to also look at this more seriously, rather than dismissing it as a passing fad. We've discovered quite a lot of librarians who were quietly working to incorporate elements of game playing into services or to introduce people to the library through games, but they thought they were doing do alone.
Look for the conclusion of the interview next week.
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It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.
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