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Something Old, Something New: NISO Plus Conference Blends Tradition and Innovation
Posted On March 3, 2020
Juxtaposed elements of tradition and innovation characterized the first annual NISO Plus Conference, which attracted a sellout crowd of some 200 librarians, scholarly publishers, and other information industry professionals to Baltimore, from Feb. 23 to 25, 2020.

At last year’s 61st and final National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS) annual conference, organization president Deanna Marcum announced a planned merger with NISO (National Information Standards Organization). In making the announcement, Marcum promised that NISO would continue NFAIS traditions such as the annual conference and its centerpiece, the Miles Conrad Memorial Lecture. At the same time, she sketched out a vision that the new organization would blend NFAIS’ strength in discussion and ideas with NISO’s action orientation, especially in the development of industry standards.

Logo for NISO Plus Conference

The NISO Plus Conference delivered on those promises. The event itself was every bit as stimulating as past NFAIS conferences, and the tradition of the Conrad lecture was upheld in exemplary fashion by speaker James G. Neal (university librarian emeritus at Columbia University). At the same time, innovation permeated the program, which included a mix of sessions devoted to broad concepts and principles with others focused on practical implementation. Another innovation, a standard session format emphasizing audience participation plus the clever use of technology to capture and augment the conversations, was well-received.

Bohyun Kim (CTO at the University of Rhode Island Libraries) set the pattern with her pre-conference program, a nontechnical overview of the history, potential, and challenges of AI. At several points, she paused to ask questions of the audience, including “When AI is adopted everywhere, what will the world look like?” and “How will AI and machine learning affect people’s information-seeking activities?” Note-takers summarized both Kim’s key points and audience comments in a Google document, which any attendee could edit, while others tweeted (#NISOPlus).


Subsequent sessions followed the pattern of heavy audience engagement. Typically, each session had two components: a 45-minute presentation by invited speakers, followed by a short break and then a separate half-hour audience discussion. In practice, several sessions proceeded to the audience participation phase well before the end of the first 45-minute segment, blew right through the scheduled break, and were still going strong as time ran out on the discussion period.

In some sessions, members of the audience contributed information and insights that built on what the presenters covered. In a session on search, retrieval, and discovery of information, audience members offered perspectives on the history of citation search and graphical presentation of search results that went beyond the speakers’ presentations. In a session on privacy, audience members pointed out that libraries safeguarding privacy must encompass not only what they collect, but how they use, share, and store what they collect. In the same session, another member mentioned a new effort, begun at the recent ALA Midwinter Meeting, to review library practices for handling patrons’ personally identifiable information.

While some sessions were oriented toward broad concepts, others focused on specific challenges and solutions. For example, Tim Lloyd (CEO of LibLynx) gave a lucid and entertaining presentation on the work of the Coalition for Seamless Access, which is in charge of SeamlessAccess, a service that leverages the RA21 guideline to offer a means of giving end users distributed, privacy-preserving access to digital library resources.

Lola Estelle (digital library specialist at SPIE) and Peter McCracken (electronic resources librarian at Cornell University) managed to combine general observations with specific applications in their presentation on electronic resource management. Estelle noted that in an informal audit of university library discovery implementations, she learned that most libraries don’t actually implement access to all of the digital content they have acquired licenses to, because they don’t correctly manage their electronic resource knowledgebases. She proceeded to discuss NISO’s Knowledge Bases and Related Tools (KBART) Recommended Practice. McCracken complemented her presentation with his discussion of the FOLIO open source library platform.


Keynotes and the Conrad lecture also reflected the mix of broad concepts and focused applications. Opening keynoter Amy Brand (director of MIT Press) used the information infrastructure as her topic, surveying current challenges and a variety of initiatives aimed at solving, or at least mitigating, them. The closing keynote was delivered by the well-known activist and scholar danah boyd (a partner researcher at Microsoft), who brought her unique insights to the problems of data misuse and disinformation in contemporary society. In the process, she introduced what seemed to be a new word to most of us: agnotology, defined as the study of the production of ignorance.

In between, Conrad lecturer Neal gave a tour de force survey of the strategic challenges facing today’s information professions. It’s been said that the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson are so packed with insight that each sentence could be a paragraph. Neal’s lecture was like that. When the recording becomes publicly available, it will be well worth viewing.

Another laudable initiative of the NISO Plus Conference was the awarding of 12 conference scholarships to early-career and diverse information professionals. The contributions of scholarship recipients and other diverse professionals notably enriched the discussion, and NISO leaders vowed to continue the scholarship program.


If any elements were in short supply compared to past NFAIS conferences, they were the voices of end users and entrepreneurs. Gone was the NFAIS Startup Challenge, in which entrepreneurs pitched their fledgling companies, often envisioning solutions to real challenges not addressed by traditional information services. One is also reminded of last year’s keynote by Samuel Zidovetzki, an emergency medicine specialist who described his use of Wikipedia and other public sources to supply medical knowledge to rural healthcare workers in developing countries—bypassing established library collections and services. Voices like these provide an outside-the-box perspective and a useful counterpoint to the tendency to think of libraries and library collections in traditional ways.

Still, the first annual NISO Plus Conference was a promising new beginning. If NISO can retain all of its positive attributes and address a few gaps, next year’s second annual, planned for Feb. 21–23, 2021, in Baltimore, could well be even better.

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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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Donald Hawkins3/4/2020 4:01:26 PM

It is true that the NFAIS Startup Challenge was not transferred to NISOPlus, but in its place there was a Lightning Talks session that featured 10 5-minute presentations about new services, technologies, and events in our industry. So it was effectively the same as the former NFAIS session.

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