A Conversation with Kristin Antelman

Teapots In a Tempest by GaijinSeb / CC-BY-NC-ND

“Teapots In a Tempest” phot by Flickr user GaijinSeb  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Only a few information technology organizations predict the future by inventing it. ((The full quote by Alan Kay: “Don’t worry about what anybody else is going to do… The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Really smart people with reasonable funding can do just about anything that doesn’t violate too many of Newton’s Laws!” He said it during an early meeting of PARC members and Xerox planners.)) One of the canonical examples is Xerox PARC, which in the early 1970’s produced the first mouse, pioneered Graphical User Interfaces, invented Ethernet, and developed the first laser printer, along with dozens of other innovations. Among contemporary organizations, the inheritor of this lineage appears to be Google.

The Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago during its early years is probably the most widely accepted Xerox PARC analog within librarianship. If libraries have a Google equivalent, a contemporary organization that is both synthesizing the best work in the field and shaping its future, it’s North Carolina State University Libraries. Under Susan Nutter’s directorship, NCSU Libraries became the first university library to win the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Excellence in Academic Libraries Award and received the American Library Association’s Library of the Future award; Susan Nutter was Library Journal‘s Librarian of the Year in 2005; and it places someone in LJ‘s Movers & Shakers list pretty much every year. Observe NCSU Libraries from afar and you can’t help but be impressed. Study it up close, as I did two years ago this week, and you get a sense of what it must have been like to work at Xerox PARC or, I expect, what it’s like to work at Google.

Two years ago, I was a library school student enrolled in Steven Bell’s Academic Librarianship course at Drexel University. The major assignment for the class was to conduct a field report on a library, and Susan Nutter allowed me to spend a day interviewing her management team, mostly individually or in small groups. One of the major themes I noticed was how fortunate they felt to work with each other. They believed they were working more hours than their colleagues at peer institutions, but they also believed they were having more fun (in my experience, both beliefs seem to be accurate). As complimentary as they were toward all of their colleagues, when they began listing the colleagues who they most admired, who drove them the hardest, who made them feel like what they were doing was important–and just about every member of the management team cited just about everyone else by name–inevitably they started that list with Kristin Antelman.

The sense I got of Kristin, in part from our conversation, but mostly from hearing her colleagues talk about her, was captured by Steve Yegge, a programmer at Google, in a post entitled Done, and Get Things Smart:

“At first it’s entirely non-obvious who’s responsible for Google’s culture of engineering discipline: the design docs, audited code reviews, early design reviews, readability reviews, resisting introduction of new languages, unit testing and code coverage, profiling and performance testing, etc. You know. The whole gamut of processes and tools that quality engineering organizations use to ensure that code is open, readable, documented, and generally non-shoddy work.

But if you keep an eye on the emails that go out to Google’s engineering staff, over time a pattern emerges: there’s one superheroic dude who’s keeping us all in line.” ((Yegge writes later in the essay: “Incidentally, they hired plenty of other brilliant seed engineers who were equally responsible for Google’s great technical infrastructure. I’m just using this one guy as an illustrative example.” I’m doing the same. A lot of people are responsible for making NCSU, in my opinion, the best library in existence. But I got the sense, from my conversations that day, that they credited Kristin with keeping them all in line.))

The trait Kristin shares with Yegge’s coworker at Google is that she excels at understanding how decisions made today—or left unmade today—can impact the future. And she insists on looking at reality as it is and seems likely to be, not as people might wish for it to be. As NCSU’s Associate Director for the Digital Library, one of her major initiatives over the past few years was to lead the group that first introduced faceted browsing to library catalogs, using the Endeca software that was previously used only on commercial websites like Home Depot’s. After rolling out the catalog at NCSU Libraries, she and her colleagues worked with their peers in the Triangle Research Library Network to create an Endeca-powered union catalog (in addition to NCSU, the network comprises the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, and North Carolina Central University). In an article for the April 2009 issue of College & Research Libraries News she co-authored with TRLN’s Mona Couts, they emphasize the ambiguity inherent in the project:

“TRLN librarians were in agreement that our catalogs were bad, and that what NCSU had in its Endeca catalog was, if not the answer, at least an improvement. The harder challenge is that the very concept of the catalog is in transition. Implementing a “next-generation” catalog doesn’t answer the question, what should a library catalog be anymore?”

When I learned that a group of Assistant/Associate University Librarians and Assistant/Associate Directors (AUL/AD) in academic libraries, known as the Taiga Forum, issued a series of provocative statements on the future of libraries, it was no surprise to me that Kristin Antelman was on the steering committee that helped create the document. And when I read the statements themselves, I was sure I detected some of her ideas.

Over the past few weeks, I had the good fortune to interview Kristin about Taiga, the statements, and the future of libraries. Although during the course of our conversation we chose not to dissect the Taiga Forum members’ creation or discussion of each statement individually, ((As Kristin noted, “I’m uncomfortable speaking for the group in that way, i.e., interpreting the meaning behind the statements or characterizing the discussions of the day (I couldn’t even accurately recall such, even if we didn’t tell people they were confidential).” I think this makes a great deal of sense, especially once you understand how Taiga works and the reason the statements were drafted.)) we encourage you to use the comments section that follows this article to share your thoughts on the statements themselves as well as the other ideas Kristin shared.

Why did you agree to join the Taiga Steering Committee and to moderate a session? What was it about Taiga that appealed to you?

I got involved with organizing Taiga 4 because I had attended the first three Taigas and found them to be great meetings. They were unlike any professional meetings I had been to; we spent a whole day talking honestly about big and difficult challenges facing academic libraries. At the end of Taiga 3, I felt I wanted to have some input in how the next one was done.

The Taiga meetings were conceived as a venue for people at the Associate University Librarian/Associate Director level in academic libraries to get together and discuss common challenges. We tend to have few peers in our home institutions and, sometimes, in smaller institutions, none at all. The premise of Taiga was that, while directors had venues to talk amongst themselves, there was no such venue for administrators below the level of director to talk frankly about issues across functional lines and with colleagues from other institutions.

The first year saw the development of ten provocative statements. Those statements ended up serving as the basis for lively conversations not only at the first Taiga meeting itself, but in academic libraries across the country for years afterward. I think they struck a chord because they dared to express fears and forebodings about our collective future that many of us were feeling but that we may not have had the courage (at that time anyway) to speak freely about. Taigas 2 and 3, very successfully in my opinion, employed the “open space” approach to participant-defined meetings. You could even say we were ahead of the curve on the “unconference.”

The aspect of Taiga 4 that has received the most attention was its revised “Provocative Statements” document. What was its purpose?

For Taiga 4, which was held this past January before ALA in Denver, the steering group had the idea to revisit which (if any) of the original provocative statements were still valid, and then to add to them. The new statements would be focused around the theme of this year’s meeting, “Organizational Change: Professional Identity and Personal Commitment.” We asked the Taiga community for feedback and took those responses into account when we wrote the new statements. As it happened, we did not carry forward any of the original statements, but incorporated a lot of the same themes in the new ones. The statements were written by a subgroup of the steering committee over several phone calls and wiki work. They were then commented on and edited by the full steering committee, and were distributed to the people who signed up to attend the meeting.

We then asked for volunteers to do “lightning talks” on the statements at the Taiga 4 meeting. Those talks were each followed by 10 or so minutes of discussion, which planted many seeds for conversation for the rest of the day. At the end of the meeting, we reviewed how we felt about the statements. That recap resulted in minor changes, including deleting statement #3 (about the dominance of Google) as not very provocative.

One of the misconceptions about the statements has been that the Taiga meeting participants believe that these things will happen, or, more interestingly, should happen. Actually, their purpose is largely rhetorical. We hoped the statements would inspire conversation—and resistance!—at our meeting. We very intentionally meant to say that we feel that research libraries are facing serious challenges to core areas of what we do and that we want to talk about these challenges without presuming any answers. I would also add (and here I’m speaking for myself and not the group) that I think the statements also explicitly confront superficial optimism about how academic libraries—and librarians—will transition into new roles.

The subtext of many of the statements is the as-yet-unknown impact of a potentially prolonged period of tough budget times, which was just becoming evident when these were written. How libraries build collections and are staffed now is a product of many decades of pretty robust growth. It remains to be seen what path libraries will take when budgets are shrinking, but ideas like realizing we cannot support a hybrid print/electronic model indefinitely, or cannot continue to work around underperforming employees, are a couple responses to these pressures that we explored.

Are the reactions you’ve seen—the ones that respond to the content rather than the context—in any way satisfying, even if their writers appear to be dismissive of the ideas expressed within the statements? Do these librarians’ strong reactions mean the statements are doing what they’re supposed to do?

Any reaction means the statements have had an impact. Response to the statements’ content and their context have been quite intertwined, however. Having made the decision to send the statements out into the world, we made a mistake in distributing them in a static way, with a lack of transparency about their context (who did this? what was the purpose?). We were rightly criticized for that. ((Some of the writers who have been involved in the conversation inspired by the 2009 provocative statements include: Steven Bell (ACRLog); John Dupuis (Confessions of a Science Librarian); Meredith Farkas (Information Wants To Be Free); Steve Lawson (See Also…); Dorothea Salo (Caveat Lector); and Roy Tennant (Library Journal Digital Libraries).))

Apparently, the Darien Statements might be a response to Taiga, although they don’t claim that. ((The official version of the Darien Statements on the Library and Librarians is hosted at John Blyberg’s blyberg.net. For more on the Darien Statements, see posts by Cindi Trainor at Citegeist and Kathryn Greenhill at Librarians Matter.)) Aside from being both being list-like and appearing around the same time, I don’t see too many commonalities. Except, that is, in the section called “as librarians, we must…”, where the Darien Statements have quite a bit in common with the spirit of Taiga, including their own expression of some of the points made in the provocative statements.

One aspect of the responses that does concern me is that there seems to be a pervasive, and enthusiastically embraced, gap of trust with administrators. While maybe that’s just something that always has been and always will be, it concerns me because these divisions weaken us. Those of us who are currently AULs or ADs are not MBA-types dropped into libraries; we have spent most of our careers working in various non-administrative librarian jobs. In fact, my impression is that a significant number of AUL/ADs attend Taiga soon after arriving in their positions.

Another criticism I’ve seen is that we’re too negative, that we don’t propose answers. It’s worth noting that, while most of the statements themselves don’t propose answers, the discussion at the meeting did very much address answers. How libraries address the challenges facing us often gets back to organizational culture. Acknowledging the need, and then adjusting what we do and who does it, sometimes in significant ways, is not an easy task for any of us, whether you are a front-line library worker, a manager, or an administrator. A couple colleagues and I have been working on a project to find out more about what future library leaders are thinking. This dovetailed with the Taiga 4 theme, so we prepared a little video of interviews with some of these librarians that we showed at the beginning of the meeting.

Will there be a Taiga 5?

Since Taiga is not a formal organization, we see where it takes us year to year. Thanks to the continued generosity of our sponsors, Innovative Interfaces and R2 Consulting, a Taiga 5 meeting will be possible, but what form it will take remains to be seen.

Time for some non-Taiga questions. What do you think library schools should be emphasizing? Requiring? Or, put another way, what are the abilities you consider most important in potential NCSU Fellows?

Library school programs are becoming increasingly differentiated it seems to me; and they have to in order to survive. Distance education will make it possible for prospective students to find the program that best meets their needs. These are both positive developments. I think that internships are even more critical than ever. Every recent MLS we hire tells us that they learned more in those experiences than they did from their educational program. Separating the Masters coursework from learning library practice would also help address the theory/practice identity crisis characteristic of MLS programs.

In terms of skills, I like to see librarians who have the ability to think through problems in a systematic way, who can learn independently, who are fearless and enthusiastic about technology. It’s critical that they be able to communicate effectively, including in writing, and that they show leadership qualities. They should be focused on the big picture and be pointed toward the future, thinking about what libraries are for, not what we do, because what we do is changing very quickly. I’m very encouraged by the graduates I’ve seen in recent years. The applicants to our Fellows program just seem to get stronger every year.

What are the most useful things ALA can do for us as a profession?

I think ALA is most effective when it works as an advocate for public libraries, promoting the contribution that public libraries make to communities across the country. Our public libraries are a tremendous achievement of this society, really unique in the world, and yet one that we cannot take for granted will always be there, especially as local governments are hard hit economically.

ALA and its divisions also serve as a valuable professional development opportunity, where people can find leadership and other opportunities even if their jobs do not offer them the chance to develop in that way.

Are there any other professional associations or consortia that are more important to you than ALA?

Actually, ALA is pretty important to me. LITA is my primary home in ALA, and I try to stay involved with LITA committees, etc.

Closer to home, the Triangle Research Libraries Network is an important professional connection. TRLN is very active both in developing shared services and sponsoring information sharing and professional development events for staff at the TRLN libraries.

The Digital Library Federation (recently folded into CLIR) and the Coalition for Networked Information have been important associations for me as well. Both organizations hold semi-annual meetings where members can share ongoing work.

What data do you wish you had available to you in figuring out how well the library is meeting its constituency’s needs?

Data about fast-changing areas, such as discovery, would be useful to have. I’m concerned that we understand only in a sketchy way how our different users are finding the information they need, and where and when that leads them to library collections or to library-provided tools.

Two or three years from now, what will be the minimum requirements for a really good library website/catalog? What will its users expect it to be able to do?

I anticipate users will expect to have to interact with the library website or catalog much less, or hardly ever at all—which, I note, is hardly a provocative statement! The library website will continue to lead our users to information about our spaces and services, but our goal should be to make its footprint as minimal as possible in our users’ lives. The resources they can get to by virtue of their institutional affiliation should be seamlessly linkable from course sites and search engines. For this to happen, linking technologies, like OpenURL, will have to work even better than they do now. But we also will have to make this vision a priority—from negotiations with information providers to how we make local investments of our staff time and development resources.

Do you foresee anything changing the dynamic between libraries and information providers?

One frustration for me is that we have not had much success in buying/licensing just data; providers will only offer data in the context of their products, their interfaces. Had libraries been able to buy metadata for scholarly articles, for instance, we could have conceivably developed reasonable metasearch solutions. But that time is passed, now, with Google Scholar. Good data to support reference linking services is still hard to get, and it hurts our services. Quality metadata to drive OpenURL-based services for ebooks is also an area where the information ecosystem has a ways to go. Ebooks themselves have all kinds of platform restrictions that create challenges for libraries. But whether libraries have now, or will ever have, the leverage to get access to more open content is debatable. As the market consolidates around Google and a handful of major publishers, we will likely increasingly be at their mercy, in terms of APIs into their content and services. Even if that’s the case, though, there’s much that can be done with those tools; I think libraries by and large underutilize those opportunities to develop integrated services that are already made available to us.

What could we be doing to better utilize the available tools?

Just looking at the catalog, there’s no reason that any library should be running a last-generation ILS OPAC interface. There are open source and relatively low-cost commercial options that can give your library a current, faceted interface with good relevancy in keyword searching. There are also a range of APIs from Google, OCLC, LibraryThing, etc. that should be employed to make searching the catalog a richer experience, better integrated with the larger information environment.

Is there anything we could do to that would keep us from being at the mercy of Google and the major publishers?

I’m much more concerned about being at the mercy of publishers than Google. Google has advanced access to information worldwide far more than libraries ever could dream of doing; where they encroach on our area they are changing the paradigm for the better (for example, full text-based rather than metadata-based discovery of books).

Scholarly publishers, operating in an increasingly consolidated market, will continue to raise prices beyond inflation and restrict libraries through complex big deal licenses. They do have us at their mercy. Open access may be the eventual solution (and I think it is) but, in the interim, the detrimental impacts of their dominance (smaller market for monographs, for instance) will continue to be significant. One thing libraries can do—and many have done—is never again enter into big deals, where flexibility is traded for cost savings. Another thing libraries can do is to be less fixated on collecting for posterity. Scholarly work is increasingly preserved beyond our walls: a significant percentage of the best articles are already openly available on the web (and this segment is growing), while another significant percentage is made openly available by publishers after an embargo period. Libraries, collectively, will have to be less dogmatic about licensing (and replicating) complete and official versions of the STM (scientific/technical/medical) literature. At risk are two dimensions of our mission that have historically (and justifiably) defined us as research libraries: developing collections of significant breadth to meet the needs of all our constituents and maintaining the capacity to invest in new services.

If a large library had to make big cuts, what are the first expenses that should go? What are the programs/positions, etc. it should absolutely protect?

This is very much a local decision and depends on where the library has already had to cut back and where its strengths lie. While downsizing is an opportunity to be strategic about positioning our organizations for the future, I don’t think we’re yet in a climate where our parent institutions will tolerate unbalanced cuts, i.e., cuts that too disproportionately affect either collections or services. One of the provocative statements (or perhaps two) addresses the need to reduce speculative spending; ((Statements 2 and 7, which read as follows:

2. In five years collection development as we now know it will cease to exist as selection of library materials will be entirely patron-initiated. Ownership of materials will be limited to what is actively used. The only collection development activities involving librarians will be competition over special collections and archives.

7. In five years libraries will have abandoned the hybrid model to focus exclusively on electronic collections, with limited investments in managing shared print archives. Local unique collections will be funded only by donor contributions.

)) I think that will have to come to pass, and sooner rather than later. I also think we’ll have to get out of the local catalog business within a couple years, and that has significant implications for our technical services staff. Digital library development is still starved in most institutions, resulting in the poor discovery tools and websites that we see now. How each library faces these challenges, both the process they take and the outcome, will reveal much about the character of an organization and its leadership. I also see that libraries will have to focus somewhat less on serving the broader library community and community of future scholars, and much more on their mission within their own organization.

For libraries with limited resources, there’s often a tension between serving the broader scholarly community and meeting local needs. How do you see this playing out?

This question gets at what I think is a big challenge for us. Our special collections may be where we are unique, and can make the greatest contribution to the cultural heritage community at large, but they will never be where we will make the greatest contribution locally. And the path forward (digitization) is expensive. So the question arises, why would—or should—our universities fund that work? One of the Taiga statements mentioned that these efforts would be privately funded, and I think that will have to be the case, although this will result in organizational inefficiencies and relatively slow progress overall.

But special collections are not the future for most academic libraries. The future that we all share is becoming much better integrated into campus life, and closer to teaching and learning (there’s a Taiga statement about that, too, the “blended librarian” idea).

Let’s finish on a positive note. What have been some of your most pleasant surprises over the last five years? What’s happened for you professionally, for NCSU Libraries, or for the profession as a whole that’s far exceeded your expectations?

As far as NCSU Libraries goes, the biggest surprise has been that the state legislature funded a new library for NC State University. The $126 million library, the James B. Hunt Jr. Library, is currently completing the design phase and is scheduled to open in 2012. Librarians who have lived through retrofits and add-ons to existing buildings know how constraining that can be in terms of creating new spaces for users. The opportunity to participate in the design of new learning, collaborative, and research spaces, rich in technology and good design, has been a huge thrill for me. If we do this right, it will serve as a model for what an academic library can be going forward.

In terms of the profession as a whole, I would return to the topic of the new graduates that our library schools are producing. I would say that, without question, the graduates of the last five years are more well-rounded, smarter, and better prepared to make immediate contributions than at any time since I’ve been a librarian. These people are, by definition, our future. It’s up to us to give them the tools they need and the latitude to realize their potential within our organizations. If we can do that, libraries will have a bright future.

Thanks to Kristin Antelman for her thoughtful responses and her generosity, and to Stephanie Atkins, Beth Picknally Camden, Claire Stewart, and Hilary Davis for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.

7 Responses

  1. Thanks for this very interesting (should I say “provocative?”) interview.

    I wanted to respond to the idea that some of the negative response to the Taiga statements comes from a general distrust or dislike of library administrators. I’m not sure I see that, even in the admittedly harsh or hostile statements from John Dupuis, Dorothea Salo, and myself. (It might be worth pointing out that John Blyberg, one of the authors of the Darien Statements, is himself an AD, though of a public library. While there have certainly been some negative reactions to the Darien statements, I don’t think they have directed at Blyberg’s job title.)

    I think the response is to the content of the statements and to the lack of context and transparency that Antelman acknowledges to be a problem. The Taiga participants apparently had a very lively, open discussion with each other, but it so far it has seemed like they aren’t really all that interested in having such an exchange about the statements with the outside world (with the notable exception of Steven Bell).

    When people are “provocative” on the internet without engaging with their audience in good faith, we call that “trolling.” This interview is very different, with Antelman providing context, opinions, questions and answers of her own. I’d rather read ten such revealing interviews with ADs or AULs than read ten more provocative statements.

  2. I’d hazard a guess that some of the response might be a combination of the lack of context/transparency and the origin of the statements from library administrators. As has been noted in some other posts on the statements, there is a “smoke-filled room” aspect to the document that be too analogous to relationships between administrators and the “rank and file” librarians.

    This type of published conversation with one of those administrators is/would-be a much more effective way to be provocative and engage discussion. Kristin’s statements certainly add context to some of the Taiga statements.

  3. thorn

    this interview, and the taiga 4 ‘provocative statements’ raise some larger questions in my mind.

    – higher education as a whole is changing, too. how will libraries and higher ed as a whole affect each other?

    – who will have access to all of this information? in the past and present, the quality of library resources and access has been, and is a ‘selling’ point for each institution to attract the highest-quality students, graduate students and faculty. in the future, will that continue to be ‘siloed’ as it is now?

    – what is to become of individuals’ access to current information to keep their knowledge and skills up to date once they’re ‘out in the world’, given that only a small minority of university graduates end up working in academia? will this improve over time, remain much as it is, or will it get worse? and, given that failing to remain informed is the surest path to rapid obsolescence of the human resource, what about use?

    just thinking.

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  5. To bring up something a little different from the post, I’m interested in exploring the “gap of trust” in administrators Kristin mentions. One theory on the matter is that the shift from librarian to administrator is akin to the shift from library school student to librarian, or from grad student to professor, in that the preparation is woefully unequal to the task! Where our leaders stumble, I think, is in lack of management training, not a lack of good intentions. And where libraries differ from other academic units is that (in most places) we are not empowered to select our leaders. A lack of involvement in the process of hiring our administrators translates as a lack of investment in the result. Then, above all, it is much easier to criticize than to take the time to understand.

  6. Quoting Antelman: “…linking technologies, like OpenURL, will have to work even better than they do now.” Can’t agree more with this statement. The greatest problem in this area is not the technology, however, but our lack of human investment in the technology. Most libraries woefully understaff their link resolvers, and think that by licensing some vendor KB that it can be managed in a few hours per week. As she notes later, digital library development is generally starved, and this is one of its key manifestations in the realm of direct user services.

    Going beyond this issue, there’s also the issue that a fair percentage of academic librarians (yes, even those fresh from library school) couldn’t explain how a link resolver works nor contribute in any useful way to its maintenance, even if their contribution were only occasional feedback informed by just a bit of knowledge and understanding.

  7. Kim: That’s a great point about administration and training. I’d be curious to see some kind of data on administrators, training, and the criteria for which they were chosen for their position. Obviously, not the kind of data one could get.

    But I wonder if administrators are often chosen for a) previous administrative experience and b) performance/accomplishments at non-administrative level, with b preceding a in a career path.

    I would suspect there is a perceived correlation in minds between performance at a non-admin job and potential for an admin job (i.e. I’m do great as a reference librarian so I should do great as an administrative librarian). A correlation that is, probably, often, not necessarily true.