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Defrag 2007: Exploring the Implicit

The Defrag conference, which took place over two days in December (!) November, featured speakers and panelists such as David Weinberger, Doc Searls, Esther Dyson, Marti Hearst, and a constellation of other digirati and hopefuls. There were a few interesting exhibits — Yahoo, AOL, and Siderean were there, among others.

I have the usual core dump available, but here are my highlights.


Beth Jefferson of Bibliocommons was at defrag, and last night she spent a luxurious amount of time walking me through her rather amazing product: the first truly social online catalog. After you see Bibliocommons, you realize that products such as WorldCat Local and Primo are at essence 1.0 technologies, and no, tacking the ability to tag onto an OPAC doesn’t fix that problem.

I won’t issue any spoilers, but think about this: we keep trying to connect libraries with users. But why don’t we get out of the way and connect users with users? Is the goal of Facebook to get us better connected with its founders — or with one another? Does the president of AOL appear every time we IM someone?

(Also, why does so much library software have to be so damn ugly? Well — part of the answer is that we let librarians “design” it, reconfiguring what was right to begin with into some librarian’s fantasy of how people think and search. Ironically, library staff have the least control over the side of the software where it matters most to them: the backend, where local workflow matters.)

David Weinberger

But anyhoo. David Weinberger set the stage with a numinous, searching, petal-unfurling keynote, the notes for which make for excellent reading but do not do justice to how well he gave it. It isn’t often that we spend the beginning of a conference exploring the implications of technology through a poem by Rilke. His speech resonated through the remainder of the conference (even as he high-tailed it for Italy to give another talk) and hence forward I will be seeking evidence of the implicit in all I examine.

Esther Dyson

The core of Dyson’s speech (which she shared the previous day with the FTC) was this question:

Over the years, marketers have become better and better at collecting data on individuals, recognizing them, classifying them and sending them personalized (you’re a segment) and even personal messages (you are member 582930, with 56,784 miles). So why can’t they use those same talents and show them personal disclosure statements?

Looking for a good LibraryLand speaker? I’d think she’d trump Colin Powell any day, but then so would David Weinberger.

On how the Grownups really do it

Of late in LibraryLand I’ve heard complaints that librarians give boring presentations in PowerPoint, and why don’t we use amazing networked applications, etcetera, like They do.

Actually, most talks at defrag were done with PowerPoint (or like Esther Dyson, they used no slides at all). The difference was how it was used. Dick Hardt of gave his “defragging identity” talk with over 400 PowerPoint slides — and it was absolutely astonishing, funny, and memorable (many slides had one word or one small image). David Weinberger’s slides had a minimalist loveliness to them and a unique font; he would tease out a phrase and put it in the upper left corner of an otherwise blank slide. Only a small handful of vendor talks followed the model of a slide with a canned template replicating the words coming out of a speaker’s mouth.

I emulated the big boys and used no background; I also switched to a font (Georgia) that felt a bit elegant and bookish; and as I have increasingly done in my slides, I spoke mostly to images. I had a few live links in my talk, and they were my only logistical hiccups, because the wifi network was crowded and there were times when I held my breath while a page sllllloooowwwwwly displayed. (Very presenters tried to go online. Their audience was online, so it wasn’t really necessary.) If I had to do it over, I’d use recordings or find some other way around not having to wait on crucial information painting a slow screen or (in the case of LibraryFind) learn minutes before my talk that the site was down.

Lesson? Wheel: invented. Just make sure yours isn’t square.

Doc Searls

Doc Searls pointed out that the business model for Facebook is no different than NBC, and he emphasized that we are not the customers; we are the consumers. He railed against the machine quite well and amusingly, and at a conference where everyone bemoaned “silos,” he puckishly observed that the free market is silo-based (a thought that kept crossing my mind as I heard competing companies complain about other products not opening their data).

Conference Logistics

This was a small, single-hotel conference. We had a good negotiated room-rate, free room broadband, free conference room wifi, delicious breakfasts and lunches, and painless guidance through our activities.

The hotel is exquisite, and everyone, including Doc Searls, commented on the video art installations in the elevators. I had several good sessions in the hotel fitness center, where I watched TV or read while pounding a treadmill facing a gorgeous cityscape view. My room even had a clock-radio with an iPod dock, and for once, more than enough electrical outlets. The hotel food was good enough that Beth and I just hung here and had good noshes for dinner.

The conference was excruciatingly well-organized and yet relaxed and fun; when the first morning slipped its schedule, everyone adjusted a little. Meals were buffet-style with a little something for everyone (I am still hallucinating about the tiramisu I walked past fifteen times, but I was brave) . We wore business casual. Everyone had laptops, and each room was set up with tables and powerstrips.

(So, how does your last library conference compare with this?)

Cautionary comments

At some point on Day 1 I realized most people at this conference assumed I had put down my rubber stamp, snapped off my shirt garters, and turned the big key in the lock of some imaginary small-town library before coming to the Big City. I knew I needed to rev up my talk with library data (and indeed, during the talk I said I wished my presentation had simply been “45 minutes of random things you didn’t know about libraries”). I didn’t say anything particularly new about taxonomies and folksonomies (although I got a few laughs here and there, plus a good poke at the way we do business), but I did get some people to rethink libraries.

To boost my talk, I went to ALA’s “I Love Libraries” website, but it crapped out on me with PHP errors. I’m glad that happened, actually, because I would have been depressed by what I find there. Looking at it today, I go to “take action” and read some confusing information about school libraries. Huh? I look at the “news”: mostly negative. The section “about” libraries has turgid long paragraphs without any punch, narrative, or take-aways. It looks written by committee. I don’t really know who this site is for, or why it’s there.

I then went to ALA’s slow, disorganized website, and though for once it wasn’t down when I needed it, after digging and digging I only found some press releases with some dated library statistics wedged in among a lot of stuff about librarian salaries. I then went to MPOW’s website hoping for something like a ten-point FAQ (perhaps pointing out that 49% of all undergraduates attend community college, that eBooks and other digital resources have been a resounding success, and that we have more searches in LINCCWeb than… well, I don’t know, many places), and instead struggled to glean a little information from a hefty PDF. My best data was stuff I had previously spent a week scrounging from various sources.

No wonder sharp, interested people asked in my talk asked if libraries were thinking about becoming community centers, etc. — in other words, what our existence will be like post-book. (Note: of the audience, exactly one regularly used libraries.) It’s a valid question (sorry: it IS a valid question, get over it) and we have valid answers… just not anywhere people like these will encounter them, or people like me can get at them easily.

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