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ARL-CNI Fall Forum 2019 Explores Research Libraries as Catalytic Leaders

Madelynn Dickerson, Wendy Blixrud Beckmann,
Ellworth Beckmann (left to right)

This past September, I attended the ARL-CNI Fall Forum as the 2019 Blixrud Scholarship recipient. I am honored and grateful for the opportunity to attend and learn at the forum this year. I am particularly grateful to have learned about Julia C. Blixrud, both personally and professionally. As other scholarship recipients have noted before me, the impact that Julia had on this accomplished community of library scholars and practitioners is profound. People’s faces truly light up when speaking about her. I am grateful to have met Julia’s sister, Wendy Beckmann, and Wendy’s husband, Ellworth, at the forum. They were deeply generous with their time, and I take this scholarship in Julia’s name very seriously.

The theme of this year’s Fall Forum was “Research Libraries as Catalytic Leaders in a Society in Constant Flux.” ARL president Lorraine Haricombe (vice provost and director of libraries at The University of Texas at Austin) opened the session. She introduced me and this year’s Julia C. Blixrud Memorial Lecturer, Jaron Lanier, a celebrated philosopher-technologist.

Jaron Lanier started his talk by observing that libraries have been influential in his life, and describing the societal role of the library as juxtaposed with the profit-driven advertising business model of the internet. He described libraries as refuges from corporate surveillance culture, and called librarians the “keepers of context.” He said, “The library has a role to play in facilitating personhood,” while discussing the disingenuous motives behind things like social media, in which generations of young people are addicted to a responsive feedback loop that allows little time for personal reflection. He explained, “If you want to find yourself authentically, you have to do it outside the manipulation engine. The only place you might do that is the library.”

Following the keynote, David Leonard (president, Boston Public Library) moderated a panel on “Emerging Opportunities.” Panelists covered a range of nuanced topics, not all of which can be covered here. Susan Haigh (executive director, Canadian Association of Research Libraries) noted the role of the library as an active agent of decolonization and inclusion, as well as a trusted partner in open science initiatives, particularly in the role of caretaker of research data output for an institution. Gina M. Siesing (chief information officer and Constance A. Jones Director of Libraries, Bryn Mawr College) discussed the library’s role in helping students develop digital competencies in their academic programs by designing student employment opportunities around curricular needs. Louis Soares (chief learning and innovation officer, American Council on Education) noted declining public trust in higher education and discussed the intersections of free speech and campus inclusion while emphasizing the powerful human-focused way in which colleges are “communities of people.”

After lunch, the forum took another turn for the technological with a panel on “AI and New Forms of Reality.” Jason Griffey (director of strategic initiatives, NISO, and affiliate researcher, metaLAB, Harvard University) and Keith Webster (dean of university libraries and director of emerging and integrative media initiatives, Carnegie Mellon University) provided in-depth explanations of artificial intelligence technologies in the context of libraries, which made a helpful through-line to Jaron Lanier’s previous discussions of AI work being done by corporations such as Google and Amazon.

Following a panel on “Organizational Readiness,” the final session was a breakout of small-group discussions. I participated in the group discussion focused on the theme of “Catalytic Leaders.” Together, we brainstormed the ways that libraries lead in the higher education ecosystem. Our conversation focused on the role libraries play in preserving the human record and, by extension, libraries’ expertise in managing and preserving collections. We also touched on the role libraries play in providing education in areas such as information literacy, which connected to Jaron Lanier’s previous comments on libraries as “keepers of context.” I found these observations to be simultaneously simple and profound.

The Fall Forum was just the right size to enable the small groups to reconnect in the larger banquet room and share out remarks. I ended the day with my head full of ideas. Overall my time at the Fall Forum provided me with extremely helpful context for thinking about my own work in digital scholarship, and thinking about how digital scholarship drives the catalytic library.

I am so grateful to have attended the ARL-CNI Fall Forum. Thank you again to Julia C. Blixrud and her family, to the scholarship committee, and to the wonderful ARL staff who made me feel so welcome.

See also tweets shared with the #ARLCNIforum19 hashtag.

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