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11th National Library Technicians Conference
Returning to Ithaca to get on with the mission: Defining value in terms of our contribution to our customers and our profession
Ian McCallum Director, Libraries Alive! P/L firstname.lastname@example.org
The key points are:
It's a great conference theme: an information odyssey ...a long and eventful journey.
Since we are all so much like the star of The Odyssey, Odysseus - wise, curious, resilient, shrewd, brave, eloquent, resourceful and courageous, we too can be tempted to wander around in strange places and foreign lands. But because we're information professionals, sooner or later we realise we must return to our Ithaca, and recover our metaphorical home and kingdom.
Ultimately, the justification for our professional behaviour is the value we provide for our customers, and the mark of our professionalism is the support we provide for each other.
But let's consider Odysseus' journey first. What did he do, and what can we learn from his travels?
If you're like me, you might appreciate a refresher ... Here's the condensed version.
Background to The Odyssey
In the tenth year of the Trojan War, the Greek fleet sailed away, leaving a colossal wooden horse behind. The Trojans, thinking it a gift, took it within the walls of Troy. That night Greek soldiers under the command of Odysseus emerged from the horse and opened the city gates to the Greek army. Troy was destroyed. Then it was time for Odysseus and the other Greeks to return to their kingdoms across the sea.
Now Homer helps Odysseus account for his adventures.
"My name is Odysseus of Ithaca, and here is my tale since setting out from Troy. We sacked a city first off, but then reinforcements arrived and we lost many comrades. Next we visited the Lotus Eaters, and three of my crew tasted this strange plant. They lost all desire to return home and had to be carried off by force. On another island we investigated a cave full of goat pens. The herdsman turned out to be enormous, with a single glaring eye in his forehead. This Cyclops promptly ate two of my men for dinner. We were trapped in the cave by a boulder in the doorway that only the Cyclops could budge, so we couldn't kill him while he slept. Instead we sharpened a pole and used it to gouge out his eye. We escaped his groping by clinging to the undersides of his goats."
When Odysseus has finished his tale, King Alcinous orders him sped to Ithaca. The sailors put him down on the beach asleep. Athena wakes him, warns him of the situation at his home - his mansion is infested with suitors for the hand of his wife Penelope - disguises him as an old man, and instructs him to find his faithful swineherd, Eumaeus.
Eumaeus welcomes the bedraggled stranger and, observing Zeus's commandment to be kind to guests, slaughters a prime boar, and serves it with bread and wine. Odysseus, true to his fame as a smooth-talking schemer, makes up an elaborate story of his origins. That night the hero sleeps by the fire under the swineherd's spare cloak, while Eumaeus himself sleeps outside in the rain with his herd.
Athena summons Telemachus home. He evades the suitors' ambush, and following Athena's instructions, proceeds to the farmstead of Eumaeus. There Telemachus makes the acquaintance of the tattered guest and sends Eumaeus to his mother with news of her son's safe return. Athena briefly restores Odysseus' normal appearance, father and son are re-united, and they plot the suitors' doom.
Disguised once more as an old beggar, Odysseus journeys to his home. At Athena's urging Odysseus begs food from the suitors, but he is abused. He breaks one man's jaw in a fight, and another, Antinous, strikes him with a footstool. This makes the other suitors nervous, for sometimes the gods masquerade as mortals to test their righteousness.
Penelope takes kindly to the stranger, who has not yet revealed his identity, and orders her maid Eurycleia to bathe his feet and anoint them with oil. Eurycleia, who was Odysseus' nurse when he was a child, notices a scar above the hero's knee, and recognizes her master. Odysseus silences her lest she give away his plot prematurely.
Penelope now appears before the suitors. She carries a stout bow left behind by Odysseus when he sailed for Troy. "Whoever strings this bow," she says, "and sends an arrow straight through the sockets of twelve axe heads lined in a row - that man will I marry."
None of the suitors is strong enough to bend the bow to string it. Odysseus asks if he might try, and though the suitors refuse, Telemachus agrees. As easily as a bard fitting a new string to his lyre, Odysseus strings the bow and sends an arrow through the axe heads. Telemachus arms himself, joins his father and with Athena's help they manage to kill all the suitors and unfaithful servants.
The mansion is purged with fire and brimstone. Penelope still won't accept that it's truly her husband without some secret sign. She tells a servant to make up his bed in the hall. "Who had the craft to move my bed?" storms Odysseus. "I carved the bedpost myself from the living trunk of an olive tree and built the bedroom around it." Penelope rushes into his arms.
The next morning Odysseus goes to the vineyard where his father, old King Laertes, labours like a peasant. Meanwhile, the kin of the suitors have gathered at the assembly ground, ready for revenge. Odysseus, Laertes and Telemachus meet the challenge. However, Athena stops the fighting and tells the contending parties to live together in peace down through the years to come. 
What are the lessons?
Libraries' operating environment
The latest data we have, covering the 1999-2000 financial year, comes from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and is based on a census of local government libraries, national and state libraries and archival service organisations.  Here's a snapshot.
Whilst we need to remember that these statistics describe the public library world, and omit academic libraries, specials and schools, and no doubt other libraries as well, this is nevertheless a picture of a healthy "sector", and a picture borne out by parallel customer satisfaction surveys. We're not in as much strife as Odysseus.
The tide of information technology
Library land, Internet world
I examined the (20) advertisers in the 24-page black, white and red January 1995 issue of ALIA's inCite news magazine with the (27) advertisers in the 44-page full colour August 2001 issue - more than six years on. Only two were the same: Auslib Press and the National Library. Here's how they compared:
Care to reflect on what's happening in our marketplace? On the free flow of information and ideas? On the need for constant vigilance in defending the first object of our Association: to promote the free flow of information and ideas in the interest of all Australians and a thriving culture, economy and democracy.
Despite ALIA's ad for the imminent arrival of "a full internet connection, available to all members" , only four of the 20 advertisers in 1995 listed an e-mail address, and none listed an Internet address. By August 2001, all but three had either an e-mail address or a web site reference, and most had both.
The internet has happened to us. Not simply for database access, but for e-mail - and for commerce. (The net was built on electronic mail; it is still the dominant application, although it no longer accounts for the bulk of the data traffic, the Web does. ) It is reckoned that 3.5 million Australian households are connected to the internet, that one third of all homes have Internet access, and that 53 per cent have at least one computer . Home Internet access has grown by over 50 per cent between 1999 and 2000. It is expected that by the end of 2001, every second household will have home internet access.  (Incidentally, in May 2001, the top four Australian sites, measured by traffic or visits, were Ninemsn, Yahoo, Telstra and Big Brother.)
The following usage profile emerged from a recent survey of 300 Australian households: 
"The internet is one of the most remarkable things human beings have ever made. In terms of its impact on society, it ranks with print, the railways, the telegraph, the automobile, electric power and television. Some would equate it with print and television, the two earlier technologies which most transformed the communications environment in which people live. Yet it is potentially more powerful than both because it harnesses the intellectual leverage which print gave to mankind without being hobbled by the one-to-many nature of broadcast television.
And the Net - with a mere 407 million users in November 2000, is very, very young. It wasn't until 1985 that TCP/IP was incorporated into commercial versions of the UNIX operating system. 
(Transmission Control Protocol disassembles messages into packets, transmits and reassembles them and checks for anything missing. Internet Protocol locates specific computers and handles the naming, addressing and routing of packets.)
It was only ten years ago (May 1991) that Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web software was generally released on European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) machines. We owe Tim a lot. He invented the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) which specifies where information is held. He created the Hypertext Transport Protocol (HTTP) to specify how information exchange between machines should be handled. Then he went on to invent a uniform way of structuring documents using a Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML) as a subset of the Standard Generalised Mark-up Language (SGML) which was already used in publishing.
For a language which has become the lingua franca of the wired world, HTML is remarkably simple - essentially consisting of a set of conventions for attaching tags to text. 
As Andy Grove, chairman of Intel has said: "we're just a step away from the point where every computer is connected to every other computer ...  This means that every computer user will soon be connected to every other computer user.
Our business is the provision of information. How do we position our services when the world's most persuasive marketing machines - and governments - are convincing our customers that they can serve themselves?
A recent survey commissioned by networking company Cisco Systems found:
"Fifty-five per cent of Australian companies are now part of the country's $28 billion a year Internet economy, according to a report launched last week by the Minister for Communications and Information Technology, Senator Richard Alston.
The very next page in the same paper warned of the inequities in the digital divide:
"Some people could not get access because it was too expensive - they were on low incomes or were homeless, living in refuges, unemployed single parents or young people.
Survival: adding value
Proving this value is reasonably straightforward for those working in special libraries in government, commerce, and the research and education fields. Here there is a direct connection between the adequacy of information provision and use, and the achievement of organisational objectives.
Many studies have shown that libraries:
By calculating the cost of a special library to its supporting organisation, and calculating the cost of researchers finding information for themselves - without a library and library staff, and "factoring in the benefits that would be lost by not having the necessary information, it actually would cost approximately 7.2 times more not to have a library than it does to have one." 
In the public library arena, demonstrating economic benefits is not so clear cut. A recent study (January 2001) of public library economic benefits and impacts in Florida found that "patrons believe libraries contribute to their financial well-being, provide economic benefits to local businesses, and support the prosperity of the community."
This same study reports an approach to calculating library value by breaking down each service provided by the library and determining an average retail price for that service. The total of all services is taken as the total benefit, or value received by library users. The cost to the taxpayer of supporting the service is then subtracted from the total benefit, resulting in a total return on investment. The finding (1998/9) was $6.27 for each tax dollar invested. 
The researchers concluded: "The economic impact and benefits from public libraries in education, small business development, computer training, support to local institutions and organizations, and directly supporting individuals' well-being ...are clear and profound. The public library also provides important intangible and indirect impacts and benefits, and has become increasingly vital in this era due to the reliance on - and expectation of - public access to networked information services and resources. Indeed, as the world and nation as a whole continue to move into the networked environment with increased access to a broad range of digital information, one may reasonably expect additional economic impacts and benefits to result from public library networked services and programs." 
In Australia, it seems that only Brian Haratsis has done the numbers. After listing the direct economic benefits of cost savings from avoiding book purchase, the value added through cataloguing, and the below marginal cost access to library materials, library technology and facilities, he went on to comment: "My broad estimates suggest that for every $1 in operating costs invested in the public library sector there is at least $2 of benefit created." 
The profession: us!
The 1996 census uncovered 9567 librarians and 5502 library technicians. At the end of June 2000 3823 or 40 per cent of the librarians belonged to ALIA, but only 414 or 7.5 per cent of library technicians were members of our professional association.  It seems that many people - and many more technicians than librarians - who could chose to make their information odyssey in company, chose to do so alone.
And this despite the obvious benefits of belonging: (Here's a few)
Perhaps this low participation rate is what makes it so hard for many of our colleagues to score well on my litmus test of library liveliness. Here it is. 20 questions. A list derived from a whole clutch of consultancies. A self-administered health check and reality test.
The pass mark is 13, a credit 15, a distinction 17, and a high distinction 19 plus. ALIA members usually score highest.
I have no doubt that by now the answers to many of these questions will be coursing through your consciousness. If you find your thoughts vaguely unfulfilling, chances are the remedy is a stronger dose of ALIA. But if you found your thoughts downright depressing, it could be that you feel a little isolated - like Odysseus alone with Calypso - that you want to get back into the boat, and with your colleagues, pull in the same direction. It is even conceivable that you are not a current member. If you fall into this latter, tragic category, all is not lost.
For delegates who join ALIA at this conference, special benefits are available. These include:
All you have to do is visit Phil Teece or Yvette Turner on the ALIA stand in the Trade Exhibition, mention the password, "Odysseus' odyssey is over", and complete the application form. That password again ...
First, technician's roles. You can lead an organisation from anywhere in the hierarchy, especially when armed with the lessons from The Odyssey, which I am about to re-state.
Second, management effectiveness. My advice here is to be wary of the predominant styles: management by jargon (eg. right-sizing, market testing), management by cliché (eg. maximising shareholder/stakeholder value, optimising returns), management by threat (eg. I feel a restructure coming on, or, we need to cut our cost base - not grow our customer base), and management by ego (eg. if I task you in an area of your weakness rather than your strength, then I'll feel good when you fail). Beware also the siren's sibilant song: structure, staff, services. They're in the wrong order. It must be services first, then staff, and then, if you must, structure.
And finally, appropriate skills and the responsibilities of the profession to its members. As luck would have it, our president's address tomorrow morning  deals emphatically with these issues and more. Having read Alan's paper already, I can confidently predict that his delivery, although short, will be yet another event in our journey, together.
And, for good measure, if you want it summed up on a bumper sticker, a la Kinky Friedman:
Look after your customers Look after each other ...and you can't help but arrive at Ithaca!