Steve Abram: Getting Out in Front of the Curve

Stephen Abram

Who would turn out out at 8AM on a Monday morning to hear a talk?  Lots of people, that’s who.  And of course when the speaker is Steve Abram, that just increases the attraction!  Steve hardly needs any introduction to readers of this blog.  He has had a long and distinguished career in the information industry, and continues to entertain audiences wherever he speaks.  Now with Gale Cengage Learning, Steve was formerly with Sirsi-Dynix and is a past president of SLA, as well as the Ontario and Canadian Library Associations.

Steve gave his usual excellent presentation and delivered a strong challenge to librarians as he discussed how they should behave in the coming technological environment.  He said that we have a big opportunity to become the MBAs and CPAs of the next generation economy.  Although there are some obstacles to this, some of us are not thinking through things.  Are we marching towards irrelevancy if we are not marching where the people are?  Why would we not take advantage of something (like Twitter or Facebook) that is aligning with something we care about?  We are in the midst of huge changes that are bigger than the financial or industrial revolutions.  Copyright is a big issue because copyright laws will govern how the next economy will work. This is a massively disruptive change.  Active negotiations on copyright are happening in secret.

There are two kinds of people: those who work with changes, and those who resist them.  We only get so many once-in-a-lifetime chances to do great things.  Humans have materially changed in the last 25 years.  Our brains have shifted, as have our understandings.  We must align with what we know now instead of with our old prejudices.

The Internet has progressed into its infancy.  We are at a critical juncture–control beginning to happen based on the device.  Why should Steve Jobs dictate what should be banned from the iPhone and the iPad?  We are being remarkably silent on the shifts that are happening now, and the shifts are happening extremely rapidly.  In the past 20 years, remarkably little happened.  The shift that is about to happen will cause 20 to 50 times more change than in the last 20 years.  Our role is moving into a world of sense-making.  How do we make sense of information?  We have not begun to arrive at information overload yet.  We can already index everything spoken on video–being overloaded is on a fundamentally different scale.  There will soon be 150 million books online.  Are you ready for that?

What are the 4 things getting in the way of doing something? According to Seth Godin, they are:

  1. You don’t know what to do.
  2. You don’t know how to do it.
  3. You don’t have the resources or authority to do it.
  4. You’re afraid.

The emphasis is not about the technology any more; it is about representing our role in the technology.  Now that everything is online do we need librarians any more?  All the laws are online, but we still need lawyers!  It is the same with librarians.  If you believe that you suddenly have know-how by having virtual access to everything, then you haven’t figured out what librarians do.  We make sense of the information.  We know that improves the quality of questions, and we know that libraries are for learning, discovery, and making progress.  We are asking for money to explore something and we do not know what end result will be.  We just know that if we are not on the journey, we will die.  Here are some questions for libraries today.  What is the role of human beings and end users?

End users have changed and are different.  75% of the Millennials are now in the workforce.  Now we are looking at the post-Millennials who are all infinitely connected and read electronically like we read print. How do we train our colleagues to deal with different social behaviors?  Physical access and basic reading have already evolved to intellectual access with new capabilities.   The ecosystem has annotation and sharing capability embedded into it. Libraries will not be at the center of the campus in the future.  Students are receiving their information at the lesson level of learning.  Researchers are connected beyond their host institution.

We are moving into a world of intentional experiences.  Can we help people find a job, get the health information they need, etc.?  Then we get to experiences on demand: co-create experiences with your end users.  What is the end user going to be like at the end of an experience with our products?  Librarians have a vital role in building the critical connections between information, knowledge, and learning.

Many of us are good text-based learners, but that is a minority learning style.  Many people are visual-based learners.  How do we put together the learning styles?  The visual part is the most important.  How do we structure our organizations to integrate all these styles? We need to plan for interactions.  What should a group of knowledge portals look like?  Don’t just give them databases!  Users are not bad at searching, but they do not have good finding schools.

Librarians must be biased towards quality.  Information from search engines can be manipulated and is dangerous for your company. What changes with ubiquitous access?  Is your organization working to adapt to the learning styles of the users you serve? Information becomes knowledge through a process of learning.

Strategy is a choice.  Find reasons not excuses.  Our research results need to be customized to end users.  As technology advances, emboldened librarians hold the key.  Putting a mouse on a book or a library will not work; we must get mobility and bring the information to the users.  When we make mobility free across the country, that will shift our users behavior.


There were many more valuable insights in Steve’s talk.  The slides are available on his blog, Stephen’s Lighthouse.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor

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  1. Living in More Than One World » Blog Archive » The End of SLA 2011: The Future Starts Now - June 17, 2011

    […] was not time to do everything (for instance, I missed the presentation by the always-interesting Stephen Abram) or to talk to everyone. But I still became friends with many interesting people and renewed […]