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Hope, Power, and Action: An Interview With James G. Neal
Posted On April 21, 2020
James G. “Jim” Neal is 2020’s Miles Conrad Award recipient, and he delivered the annual Miles Conrad Memorial Lecture at the NISO Plus Conference on Feb. 24. Neal, whose career in librarianship is well into its fifth decade, is university librarian emeritus at Columbia University. He has held a variety of executive posts in academic libraries and has served in many professional leadership roles, including ALA president and chairperson of NISO (National Information Standards Organization). Neal delivered his lecture by prerecorded video, as he was unable to attend the conference due to a prior commitment. I spoke with him a few days afterward, by phone. This NewsBreak is an edited and abridged report of our conversation.

James NealDave Shumaker: Jim, thanks for a very stimulating Miles Conrad lecture. It reminded me of a comment I once read about the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson: that every sentence could be a paragraph.

Jim Neal: Thanks, Dave. I’m glad it was well-received. I’m never sure how it’s going to go with a [prerecorded] presentation.

Shumaker: I hope lots of people will watch the video (found here, with a follow-up discussion here). I have a number of questions about points you made in the lecture, but first I’d like to ask a background question: What attracted you to librarianship in the first place?

Neal: I was working on a Ph.D. in Russian history at Columbia, and I reached the point of preparing my dissertation proposal. My advisor had a practice of assigning topics to his advisees, and my assigned topic was going to involve spending 2 years doing research in the archives in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). At that time, we had one child and another on the way, and I felt the prospects in the field were declining a bit, so I decided that it just wasn’t going to work out. Meanwhile, I’d been doing a lot of research in the library at Columbia, and I came to realize that there was a thing called the School of Library Service, which I’d never heard of before, housed on the upper floors of the library building. I found out that you could get a master’s degree there to become a librarian. I went in and spoke with them, and in a year’s time I was out with my master’s, working at the City University of New York. It was a quick career turnaround that proved to be the right decision at the right time. It enabled me to hang around universities my entire life, which I might not have been able to do with the Russian history degree.

Shumaker: Let’s turn to the lecture. NISO gave you three questions to respond to. The first one was, “What were the issues when you started in librarianship?” You answered, “Funding, not enough; imminent technology; new collaborative strategies; and social unrest.” To me, those sounded pretty much like today’s issues. Have things stayed the same, or how have they changed?

Neal: I think we are facing similar challenges, but we’ve learned some things over the past 46 years, while the challenges have become more complex. We’ve learned how to be better fundraisers. We’re more competitive in attracting grants, and we’re more entrepreneurial. We’ve become better at campus politics, and overall, we’re more sophisticated than we were during the funding crisis of the early ’70s. As for technology, we solved the challenges of that era, with integrated library systems and so forth, but today’s challenges are much richer and deeper because the technologies are much more intelligent. As for collaboration, 46 years ago, the seeds of working together in new ways were just being planted. Many of them failed, but some, like OCLC, grew. Overall, I don’t think we were very successful at that time. As regards social unrest, the challenges of the late 1960s were the beginnings of librarians identifying with their communities and embracing a social justice mission. Today, the politics are different and more complex, and the social issues are much more important to defining libraries’ role.

Shumaker: Let’s turn to a couple of questions about themes in your lecture that also appear in your earlier work. In the lecture, you mentioned the importance of professional development in the profession. More broadly, I’m interested in your views on education for librarianship. In an article* published in 2006, you discussed the growing presence of what you called “feral librarians”: library employees who didn’t have a traditional library science degree. How has the profile of library employees changed in the 14 years since you wrote that?

Neal: You’ll recall that I cited four trends taking place in academic libraries. The one that was most prevalent, and has continued to grow, had to do with the changing responsibilities of academic libraries and the need to draw in people with different professional experience. Some obvious examples are human resources professionals, fundraisers, planners, and the whole range of technology specialists. More recently, a similar trend has taken hold in public libraries as well, with the addition of social workers, fundraising specialists, and others. It’s a phenomenon that has also become prevalent in public libraries, though not in the same way as in academic libraries. The most controversial observation, perhaps, was the increasing number of graduates from online degree programs in librarianship, as opposed to residential programs. I wasn’t being critical of those programs, just observing that the online degree experience would be different—that a different process of professional socialization was taking place.

Shumaker: The online programs have become prevalent in the past few years, haven’t they?

Neal: Yes, and I think the library schools have learned how to deliver online programs well. I think now the bigger challenge is that there is so much content to pack into the 30- to 36-credit program. There are core values, plus so many different specializations, plus the constantly evolving technologies to be included. More than that, what I’m most concerned about is that our field doesn’t have a mandate and a compelling culture requiring continuing education.

Shumaker: Ours is a profession that really requires lifelong learning.

Neal: I agree. Unfortunately, many libraries don’t support it—and they pay a price when employees aren’t participating outside the library in educational experiences, professional experiences, and networking with colleagues.

Shumaker: Let’s talk about another of your themes: assessing and communicating library value. In the lecture, you used a quotation from Ken Kesey to illustrate the point that we can’t count future value precisely, yet you also emphasized the need for libraries to add value. Back in 2011, you gave a talk to ACRL called “Stop the Madness,”** in which you pleaded for the development of qualitative measures to augment reliance on quantitative ROI. Have we made any progress?

Neal: We’ve had some hits and some misses. My criticism of ROI was that when it’s used in an unsophisticated way, it’s difficult to defend. A sophisticated administrator or board of trustees will see through a lot of the data that’s used. We haven’t learned to do serious qualitative analysis of impact and value. We need to draw a line from what we do in libraries to the success of the people in the communities we serve: the success of students, faculty, and researchers, or the local economy, for example. The biggest challenge is to push our analysis to that higher level, because those qualitative measures will have the biggest impact on our funding and support. We will have arrived when the president of a university, or the mayor of a city, convenes a meeting on some major challenge, and all the advisors are there, and the leader looks around the room and says, “Wait, we can’t proceed. The librarian’s not at the table.” So the biggest challenge is how to advance our political presence in a way that demonstrates our relationships to the larger values of our communities.

Shumaker: In the latter part of your lecture, you offered five commandments for librarians. The first is, “Thou shall preserve the cultural and scientific record.” To me, your comments seemed pessimistic. Would that be an accurate characterization?

Neal: Well, the next sentence was, “We are in trouble!” When you think about the complexity of the problem, and its impact, we have not made a lot of progress. Think about the billions of digital objects being created, and the fact that they are increasingly being used for education and research, yet no one is comprehensively, systematically evaluating them, making collection development decisions, capturing, organizing, and preserving them. This goes far beyond text. Consider how dynamic websites are and the applications and multimedia that are involved. We’re going to have a very hard time writing about this period in history, because so much of the source material is being lost.

Even more important to me are the issues of scholarly integrity—the fact that data and sources are lost means that the work can’t be replicated. That’s a serious threat.

Shumaker: Are there any signs of progress?

Neal: There are lots of interesting projects and experiments, but we’re losing valuable content with each passing minute. I’m not sure we have the will and the resources to manage this in a comprehensive way. Individual organizations cannot do it alone. This links to my observation about library collaboration. We have to find new ways to build deeper, richer cooperation to deal with this challenge. Now, we have what I call “repository chaos.” We have institutional repositories, government repositories, department and school repositories, personal websites, data repositories, national repositories, and so forth. Which is the copy of record? The dynamic nature of digital information makes it hard to know. So, there are some good initiatives, but far short of where we need to go.

Shumaker: Another point you emphasized in the lecture deals with new roles for libraries. You mentioned “convener,” “enabler,” and “distributor” as well as “archive.” Is there a conflict between doing the traditional collection and preservation role well and expanding into new roles? Or do they integrate and reinforce one another?

Neal: I don’t believe they’re in conflict. There is a resource challenge. But the key point I make about radical collaboration is that we “multi-furcate” operations, with each library performing functions—acquisitions, e-resource management, cataloging, digitization, and so on—for itself. If we could build production centers to serve a group of libraries, we could do these functions more efficiently; free resources from these infrastructure, platform, and repository roles; and extend our capacity to work in new areas. I use the word “polygamy” to describe the rapid growth of working relationships and partnerships over the past decade. Because we’ve spread ourselves so thinly, many of these initiatives have disappeared. Now we’re seeing some coming together out of economic necessity. We need to replace random partnerships with what I call parabiosis and synergy. Parabiosis is a biological term best illustrated by conjoined twins, who share body systems. If we can achieve selective and deep collaborations, libraries can develop specializations and build a new type of interdependence. If we’re not all buying, cataloging, digitizing, and preserving the same things in thousands of libraries, we can use our resources to explore new roles. We need deeper integration of operations in areas of mass production, where we have hopeless redundancy.

Shumaker: Jim, as we close our conversation, what else would you like to add?

Neal: In the lecture, I wasn’t trying to communicate negativity or cynicism. Instead, I was trying to define areas where we in the information community—including libraries, publishers, and the entire information industry—need to collaborate. Early on, I mentioned three things that are essential to our future. The first was the necessity of hope: that we believe in and aspire to expanding our relevance and impact. The second was that we need to achieve power, to have authority, influence, and respect. The third was that we must focus less just on ideas and more on action: getting things done. Those are three principles that are fundamental to our ability not only to sustain ourselves, but also to grow and be influential and have impact on our communities. So, it’s hope, power, and action!

*Neal, J. (2006, Feb. 15) “Raised by Wolves: Integrating the New Generation of Feral Professionals Into the Academic Library.” Library Journal, p. 42–44.

**Neal, J. (2011) “Stop the Madness: The Insanity of ROI and the Need for New Qualitative Measures of Academic Library Success.” ACRL, Philadelphia, 31 March 2011.

Dave Shumaker is a retired clinical associate professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a former corporate information manager. He is also the author of The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed (Information Today, Inc., 2012), and he founded SLA’s Embedded Librarians Caucus in 2015.


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