September 23, 2008

Science in the 21st Century conference recap

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was at the Science in the 21st Century conference at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario for the week of September 8th. The conference location was terrific. The PI's building is a great site for a small conference, the food in the Black Hole Bistro was fantastic and the PI library is small but very nice and really starting to grow.

Overall, it was a fantastic experience, one that will take a long time to properly digest. I'm not going to bother with session summary posts for a couple of reasons. First of all, videos of nearly all the sessions are available; second, the FriendFeed room has an amazing amount of really good microblogging about the conference. You can really get the essence of the sessions. Chad Orzel of Uncertain Principles has also blogged a bunch of very good sessions summaries. There was hardly one single bad or even mediocre presentation at the entire conference; it's well worth the time to watch several of them. The organizers should be proud of assembling such a fine roster of speakers.

There's also a good compilation of blog reactions on the conference site.
Before I forget, there's a really nice photo of most of the conference attendees available.

Since summary isn't that useful at this point, I thought I'd maybe talk a little about some of the main impressions I got out of the conference.

First of all, science 2.0/open science still are pretty minority interests and movements, with not much happening in the broader community yet beyond the early adopters. This seems to be mostly due to issues in incentives and workload. On the other hand, there's some very interesting stuff going on in some disciplines and with some scientists. I think there's enourmous possibilities for a sea change in the way science is both done and communicated over the next decade as the current crop of young scholars become the senior scholars in their various fields. In particular, today's undergrads and grads see open content and social networking the way fish see water.

So, everybody is grappling with the 2.0 stuff and it's hard to say if the science community is ahead or behind the curve. In some ways libraries and librarians are perhaps a bit ahead of the curve, if only because we see a train-like light at the end of the tunnel and are reacting by innovating and experimenting. You'd be hard pressed to find many large- or medium-sized academic libraries that aren't at least experimenting with some of the tools; some are even experiencing some success. On the other hand, if a library news blog posts in the forest and nobody reads it, does it really exist.

One thing that was pretty apparent at the conference was that libraries aren't really on most faculty members' radar, something that may be somewhat more true of the science 2.0 savvy types at the conference. But that's something we knew already. If faculty don't come to the library anymore -- and we've worked very hard to make sure that they really don't have to -- we might have to find other ways to let them know what we're doing and to engage them in what we have to offer.

As a result of our success (or joint success with publishers and OA advocates), faculty can tend to be somewhat unaware that their students still use and value the library. This trend may be more prevalent in disciplines with generally small numbers of majors, but I think is also be pretty widespread. It's going to be a challenge to both find our roles in the evolving context as well as make a case for that role with faculty and administrators.

Are we in danger of being shut out from the research process unless we find a way to be relevant -- research support, curation, advocating for and building the arxiv equivents for other disciplines? A difficult question without an obvious answer; I think part of it will be to continue to build on our relationships -- with information literacy and undergraduate education, moving into the ebook space, hosting journals, and as the place for good study space on most campuses. The good news is that for the most part people are willing to listen and give us a chance if we can get their attention. Since everyone is grappling with the implications of the web for science, there's certainly an openness to contributions from all quarters. There was about 20% librarians at the conference, something that I think most people noticed, even if they were somewhat mystified by our ubiquity. Perhaps some will go back to their institutions and drop by and see their own librarian to see what he or she is thinking about. A bunch of people asked me questions about the future of libraries and if my answers were a little fuzzy, well, there was a lot of fuzziness about the future of science and science institutions in the 21st century. In retrospect, I probably should have asked them what they thought libraries had to contribute.

The above may seem a bit pessimistic, but I can't say that I really feel that way at all, in fact if anything I'm optimistic. Sure, there are challenges but we would be mistaken if we thought that the scientists have raced past us and totally embraced all the possibilities of the web. Some them have perhaps raced past, some of them haven't embraced the web, some of the stuff we've done in the past is just just gone, some of the things we could do in the future will elude our grasp. But, change brings possibilities.

I like to quote myself sometimes from a long ago post on the future of science libraries:

I want to facilitate a future, one that is good for our patrons but one that also has me in it. And I think that's what we should all aspire to in our professional lives, to bringing about the best future we can imagine, for ourselves and our patrons.

(Still to come -- I might possibly get around to some brief session notes. I definitely have a post in the works with some more concrete ideas on engaging the science communities in online library social spaces but a lot of that stuff is still percolating.)

No comments: