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News and Programs Compete for Attention at NFAIS
Posted On March 5, 2019
Rich programs and a major news announcement shared center stage at the NFAIS (National Federation of Advanced Information Services) 2019 Annual Conference, which was held Feb. 13–15 in Alexandria, Va.

At the annual business meeting on Feb. 13, Deanna Marcum, president of the board of directors, announced the unanimous board approval of a merger with the National Information Standards Organization (NISO). The merger has also been ratified by the NISO board and hinges on a vote of NFAIS members. The combined organization will operate under the NISO banner, although key NFAIS programs such as the annual conference and the Miles Conrad Award will continue. (See “What’s Up With the NFAIS-NISO Merger” for more details.)


Opening keynote speaker Samuel Zidovetzki vividly described the challenges of getting medical knowledge to rural healthcare workers in developing countries, while the closing keynote by Willy Lai (VP of user experience for Macy’s) provided hilarious examples of poor design, followed by principles for designing effective, pleasing systems.

Zidovetzki, or “Dr. Sam,” as he’s known to his patients, is an emergency medicine specialist affiliated with the University of California–Riverside. He has experience in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Syrian refugee camps, and elsewhere. In many rural locations, poor or nonexistent internet access blocks essential clinical information. His solution was to adapt the Cuban “el paquete semanal” (“the weekly packet”) model of providing offline access to web-based content. The model was developed by entrepreneurial Cuban citizens to compensate for poor connectivity and to get around heavy government censorship. It involves periodic downloading of desired content, copying it to flash drives, and physically distributing the flash drives to subscribers.

Dr. Sam’s variation distributes content to local area networks in rural clinics, which the healthcare staff can connect their smartphones to. In the case of the Cuban entrepreneurs, the content is primarily entertainment. In the case of the healthcare workers, it’s Wikipedia, along with other resources, including Wikimedicine, WikEM, Hesperian Health Guides, and content from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Dr. Sam asserted that much of Wikipedia’s medical content is valid and useful and noted that a Wikipedian in Residence is helping to further develop the content being provided. (For an explanation of “el paquete semanal,” see “Inside Cuba’s D.I.Y. Internet Revolution.”)

Lai, whose resume includes work at Apple, PayPal, and Samsung, among others, started by highlighting examples of design failures. He showed the “smart” elevator at a Silicon Valley company (which he declined to name) that makes it almost impossible to get to the right floor on your first attempt and multiple examples involving public restrooms.

After the laughter subsided, he segued to some principles of good design. One overarching theme of his recommendations was to involve users throughout the process. User involvement, he emphasized, means going beyond listening to users—because what they say they do, or want, is often inaccurate. Instead, understand what they actually do and how they really operate and use that knowledge of needs and behavior to develop effective designs.

Evolving Roles

In her presentation, Julie Griffin (associate dean of research and informatics at Virginia Tech University Libraries) illustrated the role changes taking place in the scholarly information ecosystem. She gave a jam-packed overview of the diverse new roles being filled by Virginia Tech University Libraries. They have moved far beyond the traditional model of library services to include data management, publishing open textbooks, teaching data science, operating a variety of labs, traditional publishing, repository management, and collaborating on teaching and research programs.

Verification and Validation

At last year’s conference, blockchain was the subject of much discussion and speculation. Everybody was talking about it, but it wasn’t clear what was actually being done. David Kochalko (co-founder of ARTiFACTS) offered a welcome update. In response to an audience question, he described ARTiFACTS initiatives that are using blockchain to verify the creation, review, and authorship of scholarly works. His remarks led to further discussion and some pushback in both side conversations and subsequent presentations about what value blockchain adds to the verification and validation of research. It seems that blockchain may have passed the hype cycle’s peak of inflated expectations and is in a phase of more thoughtful trial and assessment.


Roger Schonfeld (director of the libraries, scholarly communication, and museums program at Ithaka S+R) systematically analyzed the role of library cooperatives in the marketplace for scholarly content and the systems to manage it. Starting with historical library collaboration for interlibrary lending and the compilation of union catalogs, he progressed through a review of the many library consortia that have been developed for various purposes. For content and system vendors, his analysis gave important buy-side insights into how the market works.

He concluded with some lessons learned: Every initiative doesn’t need a new organization; new nonprofits should use grants to establish their business model, not depend on them for ongoing operations; the pure membership model of consortia may not be well-suited to providing a product; and a key challenge is to maintain both inclusive governance and strategic agility at the same time.

Annual Events

No review of an NFAIS conference would be complete without two annual events: the Miles Conrad Award and Memorial Lecture and the Startup Challenge.

This year’s Miles Conrad Award winner and lecturer was Martin Kahn. Kahn is an executive and investor who has made a career of leading innovative information companies. His leadership positions span 4 decades, including for online database vendor BRS in the 1980s and Ovid Technologies in the 1990s. He’s also been part of OneSource Information Services and ProQuest. Currently, he is chairman of Code Ocean, a startup that enables researchers to share and reuse data and code on a cloud-based computational platform.

In his lecture, Kahn revisited a presentation he made to NFAIS some 20 years ago, which applied principles from Kevin Kelly’s book New Rules for the New Economy to the information industry. Reflecting on the book’s rules and his varied experiences, he asserted that the rules have been a good guide for effective action and will continue to be valid as the information industry continues to evolve.

The Startup Challenge featured a panel of three judges—Kent Anderson, Ann Michael, and Jignesh Bhate—who evaluated presentations by four startup founders. Presenters were allotted 7 minutes each to explain their ventures, followed by questions from the judges. The presenters were Peter McCracken (, Violaine Iglesias (Cadmore Media), Leslie McIntosh (Ripeta), and Nicole Bishop (Quartolio). And the winner was …

Cadmore Media, which uses the tagline, “Don’t post your videos. Publish them.” It provides tools and services to segment, tag, and index video and audio content, thereby enhancing the discoverability, searchability, and usability of videos and podcasts for scholarly and professional users. With an initial product suite and its first organizational customers already signed up, the company seems well-positioned for further growth.

What’s Next

In reflecting on the NFAIS 2019 Annual Conference, it’s appropriate to follow Kahn’s advice and revisit New Rules for the New Economy. Rule eight seems especially applicable: “No Harmony, All Flux.” In other words, stasis is not sustainable; change is the only option. Kelly refers to natural ecosystems as “temporary federations on the move,” and that’s surely what NFAIS is. The coming year will undoubtedly bring change and new opportunities to advance information services under its new identity.

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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