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Home > Portal > Events > SLA Conference 2003 > Interview with Stephen Abram

Interview with Stephen Abram by Annabel Colley, FreePint at the SLA conference New York, 2003.

Stephen is Chair of the SLA's Branding Taskforce and Vice President Corporate Development, Micromedia Proquest Canada.


NB: When you have finished, click here to see photos and read other FreePint dispatches and interviews from the SLA conference.


The SLA have just voted an hour ago to retain the name Special Libraries Association. As chair of the Branding Task force, can I have your reaction to the vote?

Well I have got to admit I am disappointed because of all the work of the branding taskforce. I am heartened, however, by the fact that the vast majority of members voted for the change, for the information professional positioning, and for "International". So, even though it didn't in the end meet the 2/3rds plurality, it still means that we can go forward with the principles of how we want to market and position our members to their external publics.

How democratic do you think the vote was in terms of representation? Bearing in mind that there were under a thousand people who actually voted in the final motion to change the Bylaw allowing the preferred name change?

Democracy isn't about having everybody who can possibly vote, vote. Democracy is about those who show up.

There were about 7,000 delegates at the conference this week weren't there?

Yes and there are around 12,000 members in the association.

What would you like to say now to those people in the SLA who wanted a change to "Information Professionals International" and who now are disappointed? What would you say to them is the next step now?

Well the prime directive is still being met. It was never about a name. It was about the strongest positioning we could take, and which name was going to give us the most lift when you go out with a communication plan. Our research shows that the executives we want to communicate with thought that the "Special" Libraries Association was the disabled Librarians Association. That it had something to do with special needs or special education. That's the problem. So, what we have to do is work with the name we have, in which the members see value and tradition, and move forward. Basically, our members want to have it both ways. They want all the old stuff, all the traditional librarian positioning, and they want to be seen as respected, talented information professionals prepared for the future as well.

And will retaining the name 'Special Libraries Association' enable it to both retain the tradition and move forward too? With the right recognition and positioning?

I think it is going to cost us more, and be more difficult to say we are an association about information professionals and individuals when our name says "buildings" (libraries).

Now obviously this name change vote was just the final stage in the long term strategic re-positioning and re-branding. What's next? For example, how can the SLA attract more members outside North America?

There are a number of strategies. There is an international globalisation report. We have been experimenting with virtual members, partnerships with other associations. So, we will get there. We have to go international, it is the only way we can get the population. It is the right thing for the profession because information is global.

Strategically, how is the SLA leadership going to get people to believe that information professionals are truly experts in putting knowledge to work? Do you have any tips for business information professionals as to how they can do that within their own companies?

We will be rolling that out gradually as we build the strategic plan. At this conference, we did a lot of branding, marketing and sales sessions. Probably our biggest weakness as librarians is that we don't have the selling skills. We are doing a lot of PR and marketing. But until you actually ask for the sales, to use you and to promote you, you aren't going to get it. This can be done over the next 3, 4, 5, 10 years - it is a long-term strategy.

You wrote in an article on personal packaging in Information Outlook (April), "One thing is said a thousand is understood". This said that we present different images according to the different roles in our lives - both personal and professional. How can librarians get round the perennial problem of perception? We have always had to justify and clarify our relevance to gain recognition in a technological world?

Well there is a new identity coming from the SLA that will meet the needs for us to be consistently more dynamic. New taglines and slogans that talk to what we are, that re-position what we do more effectively. Then there is just being what you are. Most of our members are in the new positioning already, but that positioning doesn't seem to transfer out of the public image.

When we position ourselves with libraries we're competing with public, academic and school libraries, where the positioning is quite different. They are about the buildings, the collections, the service mentality, as opposed to the specialised way that we practice. So, we need to get a message out that is more about the professionals and less about the building and the collections.

Sure, which is why in a way it is disappointing that the vote was to keep the Libraries word in the name.

Yes, nearly everybody in SLA can practice their job outside a library.

I want to move on now from the branding debate Stephen because I know that you have lots of interesting personal viewpoints on other issues. What motivates you to get up in the morning?!

[Laughing] What, you mean you want to talk to me about other stuff?!

Yes, absolutely.

I like to get out and make changes. I like to innovate. My core current job is part of development and trend watching, and working with the market. Our library, our users, our analysts.

Tell me more about your current job as Vice President Corporate Development, Micromedia Proquest Canada.

I manage all relationships and rights for our information products. I manage our relationships and overall strategy for some of our product lines and partnerships with the product managers. I look at where the trends are in technology so we can apply them.

For those people who may not know, who are Micromedia Proquest?

Micromedia Proquest is Canada's largest electronic publisher. We publish directories, financial information, databases, indexes and abstracts, full text databases and school products like electric library, Canadian business and current affairs, Canadian Almanac and directory.

I have an electronic publishing question for you. The development of Digital Rights Management Systems (DRM) that address copyright infringement issues, means that document suppliers can now provide fast access to all material electronically. Does this development mean that the physical library is now an anachronism?

[Laughs] Now what is it -- something like one one thousandth of one percent of information is actually electronic. Is the physical library an anachronism? That's silly. We're certainly being complimentary. DRM is purely an issue that meets the needs of authors and owners, and isn't necessarily meeting the needs of users. So the balancing of those rights is what they are trying to discover with DRM. It will be happening. My company uses some DRM-type packages. We publish a lot in Adobe and I think we use Sealed Media. The technology doesn't make things go away. We do a lot of re-converting microfilm into databases and making it searchable. We did the New York Times back at the beginning of its run and making it searchable. It's exciting stuff, but it doesn't mean that you don't need a newspaper.

What, in your opinion, is the status of library and information academic programmes? Are universities turning out people of the right calibre, with the right knowledge and information skills?

Oh yeah. Students coming out of library and information schools right now are just incredible. A lot of librarians haven't been back to their library schools often enough. I go back to my library school regularly, I meet the students there. I teach them, I work with them. They're incredible. They should be frightening some of the librarians who are in practice out in the world now.

So are graduates prepared for the future?

Absolutely. I think that what is happening is that there is a split in the academic programmes. A split between the high level schools - who are diversifying and doing all the different kinds of archives and records management and teacher librarianship - and then there are those that are staying with the traditional library programmes. Then there are the library technician programmes which are quite good. I think the programmes have met the challenge, which is why we have seen the word "library" go out of so many information schools. The majority don't use it anymore because they have a broader umbrella of people they are trying to attract and train using the foundations of library and information science.

So where do you personally see the information profession in 10 years time?

The old style librarianship, the gatekeeper librarian, where you sit between users and the collection was retained because it required a high level of skill to actually get into databases. Now that it requires very little skill to actually access information physically, it will actually open things up a lot more. Also the physical access was protecting itself because of multiple photocopies, etc. So in 10 years time librarianship will have split into two key roles. Librarians over on the Internet design, Intranet design, information design, product design, portal design side of things. The other is librarians on the service design side of it. Where we change the kind of service, like virtual reference so that we actually become a more scaleable solution.

As long as we try and put physical librarians working physically with another human we're not scalable. It is an inappropriate profession. We can practice a lot of what we do virtually by creating web sites and templates, and e-learning programmes that allow multiple people to experience the things we want to train or re-skill them on. With the huge retirement bulge coming out we are going to need a lot more librarians because people are not going to know what they need to know.

We have an ageing population in our corporations. Which means that we have very experienced corporations, very experienced governments, because we haven't been hiring for years. Once those people retire, people are going to come in with the cohort, that while talented, and while intelligent, are not going to be as experienced. So the risk of mistakes in our society is going to be quite high. They are going to need people who will give them access to the knowledge and resources they need to get experience faster or to reduce the risk.

Librarians will be able to do that when we get the branding programme ready at the SLA. We will be able to explain why you need librarians on the information design and service design.

If you had to name three developing technologies that will have the biggest impact on the content industry in the coming years what would they be?

On the core content side. RFIDs - Radio Frequency ID tags.

Oh that's interesting, I picked up on that for one of my FreePint Dispatches from this conference, from a conversation I had on new technology with someone else.

We are seeing it in retail now, like the bar codes you put on books. So, we can start fitting information objects and information identifiers so that they can float through things. I think that is going to create a very different way in which to move physical objects around. Many of our libraries are still dependent on physical objects and that is going to be a very exciting thing.

Presumably, there is going to be some privacy issues with RFIDs? Identification, personalisation?

Oh yes, I've read enough science fiction to know that they are constantly predicting that we will have chips put into us. We are already putting chips into our dogs.

Yes and electronic tagging of prisoners too.

At some point some parent is going to decide that they want their kid chipped because it is on GPS so they can find the kid and track him. Other important technologies are display technologies like Anacubis where we can see contextual displays of the information instead of just content. Content and context systems have to work together. It is no good if we are getting too much content systems and not enough context systems.

Do you mean visual context?

I mean that when you put in the word like Mercury into Google and you may get 10 hits, but it doesn't tell you if it is Mercury the winged messenger, Mercury the car, mercury the element or whatever. If you type Mercury into a visual display engine it will folder and release the meta-data to say "here is a group of sites that are only to do with Mercury the winged messenger" and they are not polluted with a group of sites that are about Mercury the car or the other meanings. It is critical that we actually create that kind of contextual display. Because it is not useful getting a bunch of words that mean the same. There are more words that mean the same as other words, as there are words that are unique.

And a third technology?

Virtual reference technology. So that people can interact more globally in virtual classrooms. Like conferencing with Webex - where you are much closer to interacting with people in effective ways. It won't be like the telephone. Escorted interaction and presentations in the virtual environment are going to be critical. At some point people are not going to want to leave their homes.


NB: When you have finished, click here to see photos and read other FreePint dispatches and interviews from the SLA conference.


If attendees/organisers have comments or additional photos, please contact <william.hann@freepint.com>.