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April 2006
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June 2006

Slowing Down

“Do you use machines to strip off the bark?”

“Yes.”  The Navajo guide grinned behind his dark glasses.  “We use an axe.”

We were inside the hogan across the road from Goulding’s Lodge, on the first stop of our tour of Monument Valley.  Bessie, the woman who had been doing the weaving demonstration, had just finished tying up Lynn’s hair in the traditional way, and members of the group we were with were asking questions about how the hogans are built.  I loved that one, because I get so annoyed when people use the word “technology” as if no such thing existed before the advent of computers.

It is so good to get out of the city and out of the daily routine and rush.  Just being back in Monument Valley slowed me down, made me happy, put my hyperactive brain into a different gear.  I’m very glad we did the tour this time.  I’ve gone into the valley by myself in the past, but the tour takes you to spots that aren’t accessible on your own, so I saw things that were new to me.  I was particularly delighted by the petroglyphs near the Sun’s Eye, but all of it was wonderful. 

The tour took us up to early afternoon, and after browsing Goulding’s Museum & Trading Post, we took a leisurely drive here to Mesa Verde, arriving in the late afternoon.  We sat on the balcony watching the colors shift and change and eventually evolve into the grandest sunset I believe that I’ve ever seen.

Now, as I sit here in the early morning, on the balcony of our room at Far View Lodge, half a dozen deer have just crossed the road below me.  They’re foraging in the bushes there by the side of the road, unconcerned by the cars that drive past.  The park is starting to wake up now, and the cars are coming by more frequently.  We’re taking a relaxed approach to the day.  A little later we’ll go out and explore some of the cliff dwellings.  The weather is spectacular.  I plan to spend the day moving slowly and really looking at everything there is to see.

Monument Valley

It was dark by the time we arrived at Goulding's Lodge, so we sat on the balcony looking up at the magnificent star field, wondering what the view would be like when we got up in the morning.  I've been to Monument Valley several times before, but I've never stayed at the lodge so, as I told Lynn, Bruce & Vikki, I knew the kind of thing that we would see, but not exactly what we would see. 

I woke just a few minutes before the sun peeked up over the horizon.  It's a magnificent view, with the strange, and yet so very familiar (from all of the movies) forms in the distance.  This is one of my favorite places on the planet.

We've arranged to take the 3 1/2 hour tour this morning, so we're quite excited about that.  It's a beautiful day, with a prediction of highs in the upper 90s.  But with current humidity at 16%, I'm not anticipating that the heat will be any problem.

It was a grand drive coming up from Phoenix.  We must've passed through three or four micro-climates, ascending through the San Francisco mountains up here to the high desert at 5000 feet.  The sun was setting as we passed Tuba City, and the shadows and colors caressing the rocks were breathtaking.  I turned off the music and we drove in silence, gazing out the windows as the shadows lengthened and the orange and red streaks in the sky brightened. 

I need to write up a report of my MLA experiences for the Board by the end of June.  It was a great meeting and I learned new things and made some new contacts and generally had a fine time.  There's lots to do back at the library and I'm eager to get at it.  But for the next few days I can put that on hold (I even set an "out of office" message on my email and I never do that.  The high desert feeds a part of my soul that nothing else can reach.  I don't know why, but I know that it makes me happy just to be out here, and for the next few days I'm going to focus on that.

It's A Global Conversation

As the ballroom was filling up, Bruce said, "In ten years, I don't think I've ever seen you this far up in front!"  No kidding.  I got a lot of teasing about that.  Someone suggested that perhaps I move up a few rows each day, so that it wouldn't be so traumatic, but I decided to go cold turkey. 

No matter what the conference or what the presentation, my habit for a quarter of a century has been to stand at the back of the room, pacing, thinking, watching the audience.  But yesterday, when I officially assumed my position on the MLA Board of Directors, I had to sit in the front row, and then walk across the stage when my name was called, so that MJ could congratulate me and give me the "Board Member" ribbon.

I had to slip out before the session was done.  I had a phone call scheduled.  I went into the back of the exhibit hall, got a cup of coffee, found a seat at a round table in a quiet corner.  I flipped open the laptop, locked onto the free wireless signal, opened up a few pages that I thought I might want to refer to.  At 10:00, I dialed into the conference call, and for the next hour had a great conversation with Paul Mayes, who was in Middlesbrough in the northeast of the UK, Sandra Stewart, calling in from San Jose, Richard Wallis, who was somewhere in the UK, although I'm not quite sure where, all moderated by Paul Miller, who might've been in the "other" Birmingham (the one that's not in Alabama).  For an hour, we talked about how the new communication tools are transforming our relationships with the communities that we serve.  Conversation over, I tucked my laptop under my arm and walked back out through the exhibit hall thinking that one of the things we'd never thought to mention was the wonderment that we were able to so easily have that conversation from those corners of the planet at all.  It's just a natural thing to do.  This morning, an email from Paul tells me that the podcast  is up and ready for downloading.

A little later I stopped to chat with a friend of mine as we were milling about the conference registration area.  He was talking with a tall, attractive woman and I glanced at her name tag.  Michelle Kraft.  Ah-ha, I thought.  I know you.  I'm not sure whether or not Michelle and I have ever actually laid eyes on each other, but I read her blog every day, so seeing her standing there was like seeing somebody who works with me at Lister Hill.   Not long after that, I ended up on an elevator with Stewart Brower, and mentioned that I'd been looking at his blog earlier in the day (while I was talking with the L2 gang) and we commiserated about how difficult it is to find time to post something while the conference is going on.   The distinction between the conversations I'm having in person and the conversations I'm having online is getting blurry.

I'm not persuaded by Friedman's metaphor that the earth is becoming flat, but it sure is getting easier to get around.  I walk through the convention center and am delighted to see people I've been seeing at this conference for years and years, and then I see people that I "know" only because they're active in the virtual community, and then I stop for a phone call with interesting people scattered across a couple of continents, and it's all very natural and easy. 

At the closing party last night, I danced a slow dance with Lucretia McClure.  Last year, we celebrated her 80th birthday with a big cake at the awards luncheon.  At the new members breakfast this year, she came to the podium to give her welcome to the first time attendees, as she does every year.  She alters the talk somewhat each time, but the bottom line message is always the same  -- all of the tools and technology are wonderful, but the most important thing is the curiosity, intelligence and dedication of the librarian.  It's the way that we use all of these remarkable tools that enables us to do the work that we do, and it's how we come together in our communities that enriches us.  Lucretia has been on the front lines for a very long time.  She's impatient when people hesitate, when they don't take the risks inherent in taking advantage of the opportunities in front of them.  She is always pushing us to do more, do better, be more innovative, more creative.  When I said goodnight to her, she looked up at me with those beautiful eyes sparkling and said, "I'll call you.  I've got some ideas for what you need to do on the Board."  I'm sure she does.  I'll listen.

Medical Librarians Have Been 2.0 For Decades

When I speak to library school students about library careers, I always push them to consider medical librarianship.  I tell them that what makes us unique is that no matter what we do or where we work, we know that at the end of the line our purpose is directed towards improving the health and well-being of some individual person.  Whether it involves helping students or researchers or people delivering clinical care or direct outreach to patients and families and members of the general public who have health-related questions, we are always aware that what we do makes a real difference in people's lives.  And while I wouldn't want to suggest that we don't have a goodly number of timid, change-averse people who get completely bogged down in the bureaucracy, we also attract people who love using new technology, who don't let the policies and procedures get in the way of doing the right thing, and who are excited and optimistic about how we'll deal with the challenges that are before us.  (And, I hasten to point out to my younger and impatient colleagues blogging derisively about ALA and the need for the baby boomers to get out of the way, many of the people I'm describing are over -- sometimes well over -- forty-five.)

All of these points are wonderfully made in the DVD that the we got to preview at the Board of Directors meeting yesterday morning.    It's the work of the ad hoc committee on Professional Recruitment and Retention, produced in collaboration with the College of DuPage which has a top notch media production group.  In about 6 or 7 minutes it does an excellent job of showing how vibrant, exciting, and satisfying a career as a medical librarian can be.  The DVD is being released here in Phoenix and I can't wait to get my own copy.  It'll also be available online via MLANET. 

I was particularly delighted to see Tammy Mays and Liz Lorbeer prominently featured.  They are superb representatives of what this branch of librarianship can be all about.    Some of my impatience with the Library 2.0 conversations is that the libraryland that they seem to be describing (stodgy, afraid of technology, unwilling to try new things, disconnected from the  users) seems to be so very different from the library world that I've inhabited for a quarter of a century.  The DVD reminds me that it is.  Thank goodness this is where I ended up!

Phoenix Art Museum

The collections at the Phoenix Art Museum are modest, but still quite nice for a small museum.  The "Constructing New Berlin" exhibit is quite excellent -- a fascinating range of photography, painting, sculpture, film, & installations.  Most of the stuff was done in the past five years, and it's designed to make the case for post-wall Berlin's rise as a major center for the arts.  They do a good job of making a compelling case.

Not surprising, given where we are, is the strength of the Western collection.  Along with representative works from some of the "big" names that one would associate with Western US painting (e.g., Remington, Moran, Beirstadt, etc.) there were quite a number of contemporary works that extend the themes & thoughts & ideas of those artists into the 21st century.

The most delightful part of my visit, however, was coming upon the "Ullman Center -- the Art of Philip Curtis" which has just opened.  Curtis was a local artist and one of the founders of the museum.  He died in 2000, and this space just opened to give a permanent home for some of his stuff, which I liked very much.  Somewhat surreal, but wonderfully playful.  I was completely unfamiliar with his work, but I would definitely like to run across more.

All in all, a great way to spend an hour before having lunch and getting back to the hotel for the first Board of Directors session.  MJ thinks that that we're going to get through the rest of the agenda by noon, and if that happens it gives me a few extra hours that I didn't expect to have.  With a little luck, I'll be able to get over to the Heard Museum.

Back In The Desert

Weatherbug was reading 106 degrees when I walked out of the hotel yesterday afternoon to explore Phoenix a bit.  I wasn't the least bit uncomfortable.  Heat in the desert is a qualitatively different thing from the swampy, humid soup that we deal with in the deep south.  Back home, once the temperature starts climbing into the eighties, I avoid being outside at all if I can.   The muscles in my back kink up, and it feels as if the air itself is smothering.

Completely different here.   At home we're used to looking at the heat index to see how many degrees hotter it really feels than what the thermometer reads.  Here, it's the opposite.  The heat index is generally lower than the thermometer reading.  (For example, right now, at 8:35 in the morning, it's 88 degrees, but weatherbug tells me it feels like 83).

I've never been to Phoenix before, but I've spent a fair amount of time in this part of the country, and I've found that I love the desert.  I love the arid spookiness of it.   The last time I was out here I was camping at Hatch Point, and I took a hike up to the Delicate Arch.  It was 102 degrees and a moderately strenuous hike of a couple of hours.  I drank two liters of water during it, but had a wonderful time.

Drinking water is the key.  The air is so dry, it sucks the moisture right out of you.  For someone from the south, who is used to having a slick sheen of sweat all over when you're outside, it feels like you're not even breaking a sweat.  Your skin is dry because it evaporates that fast.  So your body pushes out more and more, trying to keep you cool, and if you're not replenishing constantly, you'll dehydrate astonishingly fast.  And heatstroke is no fun.

From my hotel room I can see a ridge of low mountains.  I didn't realize there were mountains this close to Phoenix.  They're brown and jagged.  Ancient and mystical.  I'm sure that many people would consider them ugly, but I find 'em fascinating.

I don't have a meeting until 2:00 this afternoon, so I've got time to do some more exploring.  There are museums within walking distance.

MLA minus one, and counting

It's a cool, sunny spring morning in Birmingham.  In just a few hours I'll be getting on the plane to Phoenix.  It's been a very busy and interesting spring, and this -- the annual MLA meeting -- is the final chapter.  A week from now it'll be over, and we'll be heading off into the desert with Bruce & Vikki for a week of sightseeing.

My calendar is jammed with a mix of the sessions I want to go to, the meetings I have to attend, the people I want to see.  I know I've scheduled more than I'm actually going to be able to get to, and any number of things that aren't on the schedule will pop up and demand my time once I get there.  All the same, I'm anticipating a more relaxed meeting than I've had in years.  I'm not doing any presentations and I'm not running any meetings.   

For the first time ever, I'm doing a poster session (it's Carla's fault), but that seems to me much simpler than doing a stand-up presentation.  A couple of days ago I emailed the file to the Kinko's that's a block away from the Hyatt and I'll pick up the finished product tomorrow.  I'll tack it to its backdrop sometime on Sunday morning, and that afternoon I'll stand next to it for an hour in case anybody wants to talk about it.  Seems pretty simple.

Tomorrow afternoon and all day on Friday I'll be in the Board of Directors sessions, but since I don't actually start my term until near the end of the meeting (Tuesday morning, to be exact), I'm still strictly in an observer role.  I get to comment on everything, but I don't actually have to take responsibility for anything yet.  Very refreshing!

The meeting schedule is still maddening, of course.   A group of us at the library met yesterday to go over who is going to what sessions, so that we can try to make sure that the most essential things for us get covered by somebody.  But in any given time slot there's easily eight or ten worthwhile things going on.   Even the cleverest among us can only be in two or three places at once.

I've been at this long enough that I don't bother to worry about what I'm missing.  The most important stuff happens in between the formal program bits anyway,  in the hallways and the bars and outside the meeting rooms.  That's what we go back for, year after year.  It's always the unplanned and  unexpected that makes the meeting memorable.

Books Are More Than Containers

Maybe I just spend too much time thinking about this stuff, but I was kinda disappointed by Kevin Kelly's "Scan This Book" in the Sunday Times Magazine this week.  I guess I was hoping for something more dramatic.

He's spot on about the leveraging that can happen if we can get all of the book content digitized.  (It's really the same concept that Lynch is talking about in Open Computation, but broadened far beyond the scholarly literature.)  We're already beginning to see the kind of dynamism that can occur in a web world, and Kelly is good at expanding on that to envision the kinds of things that can happen when books go "liquid."

After a couple of sections outlining this vision, however, Kelly shifts his focus to what he sees as the main impediment to getting all of the books digitized as quickly as possible -- current copyright law.  I find little to disagree with in his analysis here, but most of it is pretty old hat to anybody who has been following the discussion for awhile (which, I should add, is likely only a small portion of NY Times Magazine readers, who probably won't be as jaded as me).   New to me, however, was his notion that in exchange for copyright protection a creator "has an obligation to allow that work to be searched" and I think that's a great concept.

My main gripe with the article, however, is that in his breathless excitement for the possibilities inherent in the "universal library" he unnecessarily overstates his case and, as is typical of net evangelists, undervalues the physical printed book.  "All new works will be born digital," he says.  "In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail."    What "clash"?

In his excitement about the digital world, he casts physical books as lonely, isolated, unconnected containers of content, yearning to be free and part of a community.  Once we liberate them, and enable them to join in the great conversation, who needs physical books anymore?

He quickly glides over the fact that books have never, in fact, been as isolated and lonely as he would project.  Every book that comes into being is part of that larger conversation, connected to the rest of human knowledge via the human beings that make up that conversation.  While it is quite true that the digital library he envisions is a qualitative leap in what one can make of that conversation, there's no need to overstate the case in order to make the point.

More importantly, however, he misses the fact that one of the most appealing qualities of the physical book is its physical nature in the first place.  The fact that I have digitized the content of a book, no matter how well that is done, does not mean that I have completely captured all that is valuable about that book.  I haven't captured the physical experience of it -- and that is part of what we value in books.    If the only thing that we valued about books was the content, why would there be so much variation in type design and paper and size and shape and color and artwork?  These are all aesthetic choices, designed to enhance the experience of interacting with a physical book. 

I own several editions of James Joyce's Ulysses.  When an expensive anniversary edition became available a couple of years back, I couldn't wait to get it.  I read it through over a long weekend, savoring not just the hilarious and rich humanity of Joyce's language, land & story, but loving the feel of the pages, the heft of the volume, and delighting in taking my own thick fountain pen to those pages to continue a private conversation with JJ.  I can do something like that with a digital version, but I can't do that.

This is not to argue that one of those experiences is better than the other, only to point out that they are different, and that both are valuable.  Having a digitized version of Ulysses in Kelly's universal library is obviously necessary and important -- but so is having a wonderful designed and presented physical volume.  We don't need to give up one in order to have the other.

A motion picture of a play doesn't replace a live play.  A photograph of a painting does not render painting superfluous.   The wide availability of recordings has surely not emptied concert halls and stadiums.  This is all so obvious, so why is it that so many people seem to think that the digital world and the print world are somehow in opposition to each other?

I am not, of course, suggesting that everything that is currently in print needs to continue in print.  Kelly's "all new works will be born digital" may be hyperbole, but in fact a very great deal of what currently comes into being in print is better off being born digital.    Never again having to deal with a cheaply bound 2-inch thick volume of poorly edited conference proceedings is indeed a blessing.  And for a library like mine, focused almost entirely on biomedical research literature, there will be very little, if any, need for print, in just a few years.  I see no cause for regret in that whatsoever.

Printed books & magazines will continue to have value, however, because of those very physical qualities.  How they will co-exist in the digital world, and what impact the "liquid" book will have on how we read & write & design physical books remains to be seen.  But certainly there's room for, and a need for, both.

I get teased for never going anywhere without my laptop and, truly, I can hardly imagine a day when I wouldn't spend at least a little time tap-tapping on the keyboard.  But I still always carry a fountain pen, and I use that every day, too.

The Cover(s) of the Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone magazine has done a series of special issues over the past couple of years -- greatest albums of all time, best guitarists, most influential artists, etc.  I've enjoyed them all, but I think the latest is my favorite.  For their 1,000th issue this week, they're celebrating the 100 greatest covers.  It's a great theme and provides an opportunity to do an overview of 40 years of popular culture and the magazine's singular role in it.   Watching Annie Leibovitz go from a bright & creative kid to one of the most influential photographers of the late 20th century, and reading her talking about how some of those classic covers came together, is worth the price of admission all by itself.   

There's much more than that, of course.  In addition to the photographers, they've pulled in a great group of writers to talk about how some of those stories came together in the first place.  Some of the stories are funny, some -- like the tale of that last picture of John & Yoko -- are heartbreaking.  (I remember the shock -- and gratitude -- that I felt when I first saw that cover -- I still have the issue sitting on a shelf in my closet -- oughta get the damn thing framed).

Flipping through the magazine provides further evidence that this whole discussion about digital vs. print, and when print is going to disappear completely is entirely wrong-headed.  Print does different things than digital.  Rolling Stone has a good website and does things there that can't even be imagined in print -- but that doesn't make the print version an anachronism.  Both exist together quite comfortably.  (Has anyone noticed how effectively NPR has melded radio & web?)  As I pointed out at the NASIG meeting (repeating a constant theme of mine), new technologies rarely completely displace older ones -- they achieve different things and the older technologies find new niches.  Far from approaching the end of print, I believe we're entering a golden age.  Most of the material that a library like mine is interested in may be better handled digitally, but the physical book will continue to be the preferred technology for many purposes.

The New York Times magazine today has a piece by Kevin Kelly called "Scan This Book" which, I presume, will be another take on this discussion.  I'm eager to see what he has to say.  Normally, I read the Sunday Times online every week, but for this one, I'm going to go pick up a copy so that I can read it in print.

Photography didn't kill painting and vinyl records didn't eliminate the desire to go to the concert hall.   I still carry around a fountain pen and fine stationery when I travel because that's the best technology for writing love letters to Lynn.  And did you see that young couple laughing and giggling together in the horse & buggy on the 16th street mall in Denver last week?

Those who argue that digital technology will completely replace printed material suffer from a serious lack of imagination.

Gawande at MLA in Phoenix

The plenary speakers at the annual Medical Library Association meeting are generally pretty good, but I don't know when I've looked forward to one with as much anticipation as I'm looking forward to seeing Atul Gawande kick things off on Sunday.

I don't recall when I first read one of his essays, but it was the one that opens his book, Complications.  It literally took my breath away and left me stunned.  The quality of the writing is truly exceptional, and then there's the content itself -- a doctor writing crisply and honestly about the fears & uncertainties & risks inherent in the daily practice of medicine.

Over the past few years I've come across other of his essays and have had the same reaction every time.  Often I'm moved to tears, but always I'm impressed to the point of shaking my head with wonder at his openness and honesty, and his deep empathy with the people that come under his care.  (And I'm always jealous of his meticulous ability to craft fine sentences).

When it was announced that he was to be the McGovern lecturer in Phoenix, Lynn immediately bought the book.  She read it a few weeks ago; I'm about 3/4 through and will likely finish it up this weekend.  If he is anywhere near as eloquent a speaker as he is a writer, his presentation will certainly be one of the most memorable MLA has ever seen.