controlled vocabulary, tagging, and the structure of the ALA

The structure of ALA seems to me like a controlled vocabulary. Everything has its place on the org chart; every new term (subunit, committee) must be vetted and approved by deliberative process.

I appreciate the utility of controlled vocabularies — I use them regularly when I do research — but in my messy, information-novelty-seeking, let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom heart of hearts, I’m a tagging girl. I think, really, I am part of a tagging generation, and when I see people (including, but not only, Gen Xers) talking about the disconnect between ALA and younger librarians, they’re talking about the divide between a slow vetting process and a system that’s nimble, fast, long-tail-friendly, decentralized — chaotic, uncertain, unpredictable, emergent.

To go on what may briefly seem a tangent: I’m working on a book chapter about leadership development through communities of practice, and one of the things that keeps coming up in the sources is you can’t control lightning in a bottle. (Communities of practice, in case you haven’t encountered the term, are informal groups that coalesce around some shared domain, and tend to operate independent of the formal hierarchy.) Some organizations, particularly in the corporate world, try to channel that lightning to capture and disseminate best practices and preserve institutional knowledge. And you can do that. You can, as an organization, create an environment in which communities of practice are more likely to flourish. You can support or neglect them in line with your strategic objectives. You can get a lot of mileage out of them. What you can’t do is decide, in advance, what kind of mileage you will get.

In other words, communities of practice are the tagging of organizational structure. They can spring up spontaneously, flexibly, in response to immediate issues, without waiting for any sort of process. They can adjust their domain and goals rapidly, as the environment changes (when was the last time you said “Cookery”)? They can be incorporated into your catalog — er, organization — in ways which augment, even bypass, traditional functionality — or create it where it wasn’t there.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of the LITA streaming controversy. (Which I was present for; streamer-in-chief Jason Griffey is a dear friend and colleague.) I want to see virtual participation expand, not so much for its own sake (although I think that’s great) but as part of a structural shift toward a communities of practice ethos in ALA. I want to see the round table and interest group ideas expanded into much more ad hoc, dynamic, and empowered elements. I want to see the organization think of itself less in terms of agendas and more in terms of strategic goals and providing support for people who want to achieve them. I want to see the membership — which is already creating networked, grassroots initiatives — be able to look at ALA as the strategic ally with resources and reach, to whom you can turn right now when you have some scheme for changing the world — and which, insofar as your goals and theirs align, is excited to be a part of that.

You want to know what I spend a lot of time thinking about these days, it’s this: how do you cultivate the metaphoric parallels of tagging in a controlled-vocabulary world? How do you get there from here?

four leadership lessons (and three questions) from ALA Midwinter

My head is racing with thoughts from ALA — you know, “my brain is full, may I be excused?” Little to no hope of ever digesting them all but, in the spirit of reflective participation in the Emerging Leaders program, I’d like to make a spirited attempt to write down thoughts on leadership: as Maureen Sullivan advised us, to be “aware and intentional” about developing this skill. So, in no particular order:

1)Be scared every day and have a drink in your hand: Peter Bromberg‘s distillation of Leslie Burger‘s talk to the ELs, capably (and quickly!) blogged by EL Lessa Pelayo-Lozada. The scared: throw yourself into situations where you don’t know what you’re doing but you need to succeed, and the crucible makes you learn how. The drink: is not actually to counteract the scared; it’s to force open body language while you go to the happy hours where all the real work happens.

Me on drinks: My ALA, for the record — my relationship to it, my involvement in it, the successes I’ve had in it so far — all started at the LITA happy hour at ALA Midwinter 2010 in Boston.

Me on scared: I keep gaining appreciation for how much the capacity to be scared, the ability to walk into ambiguity and not freeze or run away or give up, is a real skill, and matters.

2) Be generous. ALA leadership seems to be a gift economy, and I can’t count all the people who have been incredibly generous to me as I learn the ropes (though I have to mention Peter, Jason Griffey, and Janie Hermann). I am keen to be in a place in my career where I can pay it forward.

There’s some other lessons in there that I’ve elided, because I’m not sure I’m ready to commit them to a blog. But you might be able to get them out of me in other channels. (Particularly if you’re generous at happy hours. 😉

3) There is no spoon. I got this from Andy Woodworth’s blog a few weeks ago and keep coming back to it. The world is really, truly full of opportunities just waiting for you to notice and ask, or notice and do it. “Carpe diem” doesn’t mean “ask permission”. Which is why fellow EL Kate Kosturski is running for ALA Council (vote for Kate!). Which is how Jan Holmquist, Ned Potter, Justin Hoenke, and I — and a whole world of incredibly generous people on the internet — have raised almost half the money we need to buy India a library. Since Friday.

(Seriously: check that link out. There’s a box for our Facebook page in my sidebar now, too.)

4) Relationships. Meeting Brett Bonfield alone was worth the price of admission this weekend. Among the many reasons: during our panel on personal branding he talks about how he hates the term; for him, what it’s about is relationships: which people does he want to know? to collaborate with? And what can he do to make that happen? A moment when something clicked into place, right there.

And this, all this — barely even scratches the surface of my notes; is not the much longer list of things I know I don’t know about leadership. But at least gives me a fighting chance of capturing important parts of the experience while they’re still in my head.

And you, fellow travelers? What did you learn about leadership this weekend? What do you know you don’t know? What would you tell me today, or yesterday’s you?

jumping into the Bobbi Newman/Jason Griffey digital divide debate

I’ve finally hacked away enough open tabs (oh, tabbed browsing, how I love/hate you) to get to Bobbi Newman and Jason Griffey’s fun, twitter-inspired blogging duel: Why Mobile Phones are Not the Key to the Digital Divide (Bobbi), Why Mobile Phones are One Key to the Digital Divide (Jason). And I found I had a comment that was turning into a post, so here goes:

Bobbi’s argument (and forgive me, both of you, if I oversimplify or err) is that for techno- and economic elites to be content with mobile access for non-elites is tantamount to separate-but-equal for the digital age. Jason argues that mobile phones are in some ways superior to desktop/laptop access and rapidly catching up in others, and that any preference we have for desktop access is rooted in history and habit rather than comparative advantages of the technology.

My instinct is, they’re both kinda right, because they’re making arguments about different things: one societal, one technological. I’m happy to defer to Jason on the technological claims — he’s the Web-scale pilot ninja who owns a smartphone, unlike me — but I don’t think the key part here is about technology. (This is always my bias, actually: technology is super-fun, but it’s a means to an end, and the ramifications of technology in society have more to do with the society than the technology.) So I have to lean toward Bobbi here.

Because my thought is: it’s the techno-elites who are making the web sites, and web apps, and smartphone apps. And if they are making them only with their own and their friends’ usage patterns in mind — if they are creating a web that is optimized for their laptops and iPhones but developed often without reference to other groups’ entirely different patterns of use — then the technological utility of the phones is irrelevant. There are real and major differences in how the web works on laptops vs. iPhones and Droids vs. web-enabled but less shiny phones; it does not matter if, per Jason, these differences don’t have to do with the technology being better or worse. It matters only that they are different, if those differences are not taken into account by the software designers. And we are all blinded by the nearness of our own social circles, assuming that “everyone” does things the way that everyone we know does.

(I feel certain there was a danah boyd post with a great example of class-based divides in mobile phone use, but I can’t find it. I will content myself with linking to her always-excellent The Not-so-Hidden Politics of Class Online, which isn’t quite the point I was making but everyone should read it anyway.)

In other words, it’s not about the technology. It’s about the reception of the technology. (I mean that in the sense I got from my classics education, though I’ll take the techno-pun.) It’s about the social infrastructure built on top of the technology. And if those infrastructures differ for different technologies — or different patterns of use — and those differences in technologies or patterns break down along race or class lines — then yes, we do have a meaningful digital divide. Even if everyone has a really sweet data plan. Even if they’re handing out free phones like candy.