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Notes from the Charleston Conference

I appreciate the people who blog conferences, in the sense that they sit in the sessions and record what’s said, questions asked, answered, and dodged. Not my way of working, so apologies if that’s what you’re hoping for. Conferences sessions get me thinking, and all too often my mind heads off in some new direction because of some incidental remark or pattern in the discussion. I’m at a Charleston Conference session right now, “I Hear the Train A Comin’,” in which a number of well-known library and publishing people discuss what they think lies ahead in 2007. Apart from the too predictable repetition of the term “Web 2.0,” the thing that jumps out is how much reliance librarians place on big publishers, and how comfortable they seem to be with mergers like that between long-standing competitors Blackboard and WebCT (it’s called a merger, but one must have bought the other). The result of this reliance is big publishers’ monopolistic behavior, yet I have never heard a librarian or speaker at a library conference talk about the danger this poses. I have heard endless wisecracks about Elsevier, Gale, and some of the other big players, but never anyone saying they won’t buy from them or choose to diversify their spending to encourage healthy competition and support new, innovative companies.

Of course I’m alert to this because I run a small publishing business, but the fact is that there’s a lack of consistency here, in both depending on large companies and criticizing them when they take advantage of their market position. Just as consumers are increasingly aware that their choices can encourage local agriculture and artisan food production, I’d love to see librarians more alert to the fact that their purchasing decisions influence the long-term availability of diverse creative and scholarly content.

This is where another mantra of panels like this, “common user interface,” needs to be looked at more closely. I understand the desire for common user interfaces, no question, but the more one company becomes a standard—Google is one example, and Microsoft is of course the poster child—the harder it is for real improvements to be made. Depending on large companies to innovate is appealing, clearly, but the likelihood of that happening isn’t supported by history.

I met with Katina Strauch yesterday to talk about the issue of Against the Grain I’m editing. One of the articles I’m especially pleased about is “A Healthy Knowledge Economy” by Howard Burrows, whom I’ve come into contact with through Larry Sanger, the cofounder of Wikipedia, who asked both Howard and me to serve on his advisory board for the Digital Universe. Ironically, both Howard and I have doubts about Larry’s conviction that the traditional publishing enterprise is fatally flawed and that content should be free. And this morning I met some of the people involved in planning the next Fiesole retreat, which is to be held in Hong Kong in April. I’m hoping to help with bringing people and perspectives from China to the event.

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