ASIS&T 2007: Wrap-Up and Thoughts

I had a great time at the ASIS&T 2007 conference, Joining Research and Practice: Social Computing and Information Science, in Milwaukee. I blogged most of the sessions I attended — see the list at ASIS&T Sessions. A few thoughts about particular sessions or things I picked up.
I experienced one of those so-simple-it’s-genius moments during the session on “Live Usability Labs” by Paul Marty. The technique Paul employed — running a usability test with two people, each in different roles for the event — worked stunningly well. It completely avoided the awkwardness of one person thinking aloud — hardly a natural state for most of us — while explaining the actions being taken on screen. By play-acting, two people in the roles of graduate student and faculty member, or two colleagues, elicited great feedback from each other about what was on the screen, how it worked, and how each person expected it to work. It seemed a particularly effective technique for teaching usability to others, but I’d bet it’s very effective in a more traditional usability testing situation, too.
The session on “Opening Science to All: Implications of Blogs and Wikis for Social and Scholarly Scientific Communication” was one of my favorites because it showed both some empirical research as well as effect. Jean-Claude Bradley’s presentation of UsefulChem as a place where scientists can record their experiments, successes, and — this is the key point — dead ends gave me another “Aha!” moment about the impact of blogs and wikis on science, education, and society. Janet Stemwedel’s talk on the societal implications of blogging — particularly within the scientific community — was also very interesting. The divide in the sciences between those who embrace the openness two-point-oh technologies engender is even starker than in the social sciences and humanities, domains in which I’m more comfortable. At the same time, the potential short-term benefits to the general population are even greater in the sciences than in the humanities.
Clifford Lynch’s keynote address on open access was also informative and engaging. He asked the audience to consider what it was that academia wanted to achieve when it created the institution of the academic press and whether that role is currently being met. He says that one of the biggest challenges for universities is to decide if they still have fundamental role in stewardship of intellectual research. While this is a fundamental role of research libraries, their parent organizations expect them to accomplish it without the depth of funding or support that is necessary. If libraries, or universities, are the stewards of intellectual research, they must make great strides in technologies to ensure that today’s research is fully usable in the future. Lynch left far more questions unanswered than he answered — it was truly a thought provoking and stimulating talk.
On a very much related note, I was struck by the fact that numerous academic researchers made comments in the course of their presentations about how information — reports, documents, data, etc. — are all available on Google and so not much attention needs to be paid to stewardship. I fear that too many people, in and beyond the academy, view Google as the universal library. This is far from the truth. Perhaps Google is the universal card catalog, but even that is a stretch. Google’s business model is very different from that of a library. Google is all about access (local copies for indexing aside); libraries are all about preservation and stewardship of information. (Saturday’s Unshelved comic strip makes this point more humorously and succinctly.) As a librarian, I grow concerned when academics — the primary user population I support — so blatantly misunderstand the role of the library.