|Weekly News Digest
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The theme of “strategic imperatives” lent a sense of urgency to the event
NFAIS, the National Federation of Abstracting and Information Services, was joined by a number of its sister societies (see box below) to bring this year's NFAIS conference about in late February in Philadelphia. The theme of the conference was "strategic imperatives."
One definition of "imperative" is "something that demands attention and action." It's difficult to define "strategic" in terms of imperatives. Perhaps "imperative strategies" would have been a better title. My dictionary lists two near synonyms for strategic that would apply here. They are "crucial" and "critical." Thus, this conference was about crucial and critical issues that demand our attention and action. Along with Don Hawkins (see sidebar), I've highlighted here a few of the speakers out of over 40 who tried to show how crucial and critical our times are, and how the changes we are facing must indeed demand our attention. Whether the audience is ready for action remains to be seen.
The Breakfast Speakers
Bob Massie, director of the Chemical Abstracts Service, was the first of two very worthwhile breakfast speakers I heard. His talk title—The Web: Distribution Channel or Parallel Universe?: Implications for Sci-Tech Information—was rather pretentious, but his presentation was most lucid. He described ascending levels of added value one might achieve on the Web. A combination of added value plus a high degree of fragmentation would prove a successful model, he said. The highest degree of added value would be a complete change of business model, e.g., to the virtual community model. Fragmentation implies a high degree of interactivity such as one would find at a flea market. He concluded that the sci-tech community had not achieved much of either. Communities was the keyword here.
Patrick Sommers, chief operating officer of The Dialog Corporation, spoke on the second morning, and his message was clear about what Dialog's emphasis would be in the future. It will focus on corporate intranets. Sommers did not believe that knowledge management was just another catchword phrase. Intranets will be the means to get to the end users, he asserted. Dialog's largest source of customers has always been the large corporate information centers, particularly in the sci-tech area. Intranets was the keyword here.
For the opening plenary session of the conference, Dick Kaser, executive director of NFAIS, asked the representatives of nine NFAIS sister societies each to discuss a keyword that would represent an important strategic issue his or her organization is facing. The representatives and their keywords were Mary Case (ARL): "Evolving"; Tom Hogan (ASIDIC): "Value"; Eugene Garfield (ASIS): "Consilience"; Bonnie Carroll (CENDI): "Expectations"; Clifford Lynch (CNI): "Coherence"; Georg Schultheiss (EUSIDIC): "Harmonization"; David Russon (ICSTI): "Archiving"; Pat Harris (NISO): "Reinvention"; and Rick Bowes (SSP): "Vortex." For his part, Kaser chose "Referral." It was an interesting but rather tame list, most rather self-explanatory. "Coherence" was cited as something more than "networking." "Vortex" described the shaky, chaotic, and fragmented condition of the Internet. My choice would have been "Competition," as in how to compete in our hypercompetitive world.
Eugene Garfield could not attend, but Kaser read his explanation of consilience. Gene was harking back to his paper way back in 1958 "on ‘A Unified Index to Science,' which essentially was a composite index to all the abstracting services complemented by a citation index." To quote him further, "Using a comprehensive contents listing to identify everything published regardless of discipline, we would unify the literature so that there would be no gaps in covering multidisciplinary journals." Multidisciplinary is the keyword here. Therein lie all the problems we face with most indexing vocabularies. Garfield goes on to decry the Special Interest Groups (SIGs) of ASIS, which have both multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary identity problems. I have literally been screaming about that for years, and I hope he can solve the problem in his new role as president of ASIS.
In "The Imperative for Digital Libraries" session, the speakers further explored Clifford Lynch's keyword, "coherence." Stephen Rhind-Tutt was particularly coherent on "sharing linkages." Linking would lead to coherence and added value. He spoke of linking gray areas of information. Archiving could be accomplished only by linking electronically. He said further that there might be a separate payment for archives, but that that might be balanced by cost savings in storage space. Lastly, he felt that the role of librarians would change from "intermediary/searcher" to "intermediary/purchaser." The skill would be in the collecting of data for a decentralized system of end users. This sort of tied into Dialog's approach to the intranets.
In "The Demand for Licensing" session, Ann Okerson of Yale University spoke on consortia and the need for standard licenses, and on the work being done by the International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC). Michael Dennis emphasized that the "one-size license does not fit everyone."
In "The Federal Initiatives & Incentives" session, Michael Ackerman of the National Library of Medicine gave a talk on "The Visible Human Project" that was the hit of the show, although only obliquely applicable to an NFAIS audience. He described the project via visuals showing photographs resulting from the slicing up of a frozen cadaver, which are then used in medical applications. It represented the use of government money at its best. Well-spent money was evident as well in the return of interest in this country for "machine translation," as described by Thomas Pedtke of the National Air Intelligence Center.
I'm not so sure about the work of the National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII). Anne Frondorf and Gail Hodge spoke of a virtual data community wherein the people who contribute the data are also the users of the data—a good and, I am sure, a useful model. But then they spoke of building a core vocabulary for indexing. Building a thesaurus is unheard of these days. It would be far better to put government money in some phase of full-text searching. Building and maintaining any kind of thesaurus, even cooperative and core (with links), can only be a huge waste of money in the long run. Doesn't NBII know of the failure of the Engineers Joint Council Thesaurus of many years ago? Do they have any idea of the huge maintenance cost of the ERIC thesaurus and the expense incurred to revise it? Do they have any knowledge of the failure of the Battelle Research Institute's attempt to merge thesauruses? What a waste!
In "The Strategic Implications for Publishers" session, the best talk at the conference was delivered by Dennis Auld, consultant for PsycINFO. He said he was bullish on the secondary source industry. He assumed that the industry would change and then offered short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals necessary to achieve the change. Some short-term goals included links to primary publishers and development of Web offerings. The medium-term goals included developing cross-product customer files, evaluating market research, and defining content to include nontraditional sources. Long-term goals included market segmentation, analyzing new roles, and looking at the revenue mix. I hope this talk with its practical advice will eventually be available in printed or electronic form.
Bonnie Lawlor of Chescott Publishing also emphasized change, particularly in the realms of journals vs. electronic articles, print vs. electronic publishing, and author vs. university vs. publisher publishing. And most importantly to this audience, she asked "who will do the indexing?" Will it be the primary or secondary publishers or will it be the software? I wonder if many in the audience caught the significance of her mention of "software indexing"?
In the "Users & Their Use of Information" session, Jose-Marie Griffiths of the University of Michigan tossed out a few questions to Carol Tenopir of the University of Michigan and Don King of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Carol Tenopir emphasized that people were different and that understanding the differences was of great importance. She categorized four factors: situational (the markets); motivational; convenience levels (how far away the information is); and inherent factors. The others seemed to agree with her. She further said more models were necessary for different behaviors and different environments. We all knew that, but the difference was in her solutions. The problems will be solved with new software, she maintained.
The Miles Conrad Lecture
The Miles Conrad Lecture was delivered this year by Charles P. Bourne, who was a noted professor at the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1960s and, in 1977, became the head of product development at Dialog Information Services, Inc. His lecture was titled "Forty Years of Database Distribution and Use: An Overview and Observation." In it, he covered the early history up to the 1970s, and he will be publishing a book on the subject very soon. Look for it! What intrigued me was how many young people in the audience told me how interesting and valuable it was to hear this historical perspective.
As you can see from Don's and my synopses of this year's conference speakers, an NFAIS conference is always good. No publisher, secondary service provider, or information professional should miss them. Thanks should go to the organizer of the conference, Gladys Cotter of the U.S. Geological Institute and NFAIS president-elect.
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