Conference reflections

I like going to conferences occasionally. They stimulate my brain, inform me about things that are new in my professional world, get me excited about the possibilities again — but they surely do distract me from the everyday work. This month has been frustrating at work, because it is supposed to be a time when we put aside some of the distractions of meetings, etc., and focus on producing a high volume of work. Unfortunately, what with a class, a conference, and other, everyday distractions, I have barely been keeping my head above water. This week back after the conference helped me to get my feet back under me, but not enough to feel I’ve truly done the job of catching up, at least as much as I am able.

But then, I have once again been realizing that I am at least a little over-committed. I do this to myself every once in a while, and I realize I’ve said yes to at least one too many things. They are things I want to do, some things I need to do, but not things I can get done properly and well within the time frame I have allotted. I have to say no more often. It’s a lesson I have to teach myself over and over again (although I’m better than I used to be).

And it is that feeling that reminds me that all the excited feelings of a conference are temporary. The true worth of a conference is when I come back with a truly useful new idea, AND have the time to implement it. Since I am frequently robbing Peter to pay Paul in the work I get done, that is not often a strong possibility unless I rob from Mary too.

So what ideas am I going to try to implement? The wiki definitely. In linkage with that, I recently discovered squidoo.com, which should make a nice way to share useful links between myself and my teammates.

Other than that, I will try to talk up some really good things that I saw there. If I can get some of these things looked at by other individuals, then maybe something good would happen. I really liked the presentation that showed what the NCSU people have been doing to their catalog search interface. Go check it out — they are truly making the data work harder with requiring the user to know any more than they already do. And that’s exciting!

Ironically, the presentation on NSCU followed one by Roy Tennant that annoyed me. It’s not really that I think that what he says is so wrong, though I think that there are wrong parts. (Or at least there used to be. This one was better than previous ones by him.) It’s more that what he says and how he says it seems to devalue what I do (cataloging) and the books I love. In his eagerness to embrace the bold new world of many other sources, he ignores the continuing relevance of books to the life of many. And the fact that cataloging is not applicable solely to books, but also to everything else. When you see a citation of a journal article, that is cataloging too. When you search a database of links with social tagging, that is cataloging too. Filing is a form of cataloging. When you go on to google and search for the right page to answer your question, then the implementation of their pagerank system is cataloging too!

Cataloging at its heart is the organization of information into a functional file that can be searched by one or a multitude of access points and then link the user to the resource(s) that best answer his need. While I perfectly accept that catalogs are far from perfect, there is a degree of arrogance in saying that what we did before was bad, which is the implication of many who are overwhelmed with the wonderfulness of google. What we had before wasn’t bad — although it was frequently short-sighted — but rather it was wonderful given the resources we had to expend. What we need to do now is take what has already been built, add to it, and make both the old data and the new data work harder to answer the needs of today.

I have actually wandered far afield from Mr. Tennant’s presentation in my discussion here. I sometimes get a sense — and I don’t know if it is true or a totally misreading on my part — that many people think that cataloging could really be done by computers far better than by people. If I am right in that perception, then all I have to say is — anyone who thinks that is fooling themselves. Until you have a true AI, no computer can completely replace a human being when it come to organizing information. All that a computer can do is, somewhat, make the organizing easier. But the GIGO rule still applies.

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