Pondering The Viewing Glass

An Essay of the LISNews Summer Series

One of the issues coming out of ALA Annual 2009 this year is the matter of transparency. Librarians like technology. Librarians like to use to technology. Price tags are a little daunting, though, when presented for things that seem to be so cheap as to be almost free as in beer.

Norman Oder has a report in Library Journal that outlines the costs of various options in promoting transparency. Oder's report does not explain too much in depth as to how the particular figures are derived. The annual cost of posting audio files of Council proceedings seems to be a bit high on the processing/posting end unless such has included the eventual costs of bandwidth in serving up such files. In some respects the cost of bandwidth in serving up content can be far greater than the cost of producing it.

Accessibility is also a tremendous concern. Simply put, the process of securing transcripts is not cheap. The work of a court reporter is not easy, requires specialized training, and they are quite well compensated for their troubles. The Council's lawyer also quite rightly pointed out that having transcripts of Council discussions could result in lawsuits over remarks by councilors.

Is it really practical to broadcast every waking moment of every panel, session, and hustings at ALA Annual? Is it really necessary? With hundreds of panels and multiple situations where you have concurrent panels, attention is easily divided. A vast army of observers would be required to have coverage at every single panel. Having videographers accompany the observers would only increase the manpower requirements. Post-production would be a situation more like the investigation by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board relative to the sheer volume of materials to digest. There is a reason why tech news outlets like CNET have a couple weeks of vacation prior to the Consumer Electronics Show as they leave a skeleton crew behind at the office as their army converges on Las Vegas. The only known group that would even attempt this with volunteers is PixelCorps and they have not attempted anything on this sort of scale.

Is all hope lost on covering ALA? No! The technology does not yet exist for proper tele-presence structures so that civilians not attending ALA in person could still be there virtually. The funds to outfit an army to cover the event, let alone cover the attendant logistical nightmares, are non-existent. For the cost of hardware to pull this off, one could presumably fully fund the operation of a rural library for several years. In this case one must look outside the walls of librarianship and step away from comfortable paradigms. Television networks like Universal Sports and ESPN do show ways this could be better handled.

A paradigm used as of late by Universal Sports is not to provide full coverage. Logistically they cannot wage the same level of effort all the time that is required for covering an Olympics. This is where the matter of editorial judgment comes into play. Only highlights of events are recorded for air. Not everything is broadcast in real-time as some events are shown on tape delay. The FIVB World Cup series for beach volleyball was one example of select matches being shown on a delay. Coverage of triathalon competitions, rowing, swimming & diving, and more fall under similar presentation rubrics.

Television networks already exist that could carry this programming. One would be ResearchChannel which has coverage via terrestrial broadcasting, cable television, video on-demand, webcast, satellite, and more. Northern Arizona University's UniversityHouse channel, University of Washington Television, and University of California Television are all also available by way of satellite within North America. There are somewhat traditional television-based distribution channels available for pushing conference coverage outward.

In covering only highlights, much of the nightmare of logistics goes away. If you have a smaller team picking and choosing among panels, you can provide a representative sample to viewers at home. The question of deciding what to cover is a matter of editorial control that has no simple solutions, though. In an organization that can seem to outsiders like a confederation of interest groups, the decision-making authority of what to cover is best held not by a committee but by a single editorial official. It could take years for an editorial committee to make a decision in creating a highlights reel like this while a single individual might take action more quickly.

For all the costs of bandwidth, streaming, captioning, and more involved in Internet-based distribution, DVD fulfillment through a publishing arm like what ALA already has may conservatively allow for a start to such. With online video downloads already quite large and quite costly to transfer in some cases, the use of physical media may allow for easier dissemination. Linux distributions like Ubuntu and OpenSolaris do this already through physical media distribution for this who lack the bandwidth to either download their operating systems or download them in a timely fashion. This physical alternative to virtual distribution could become a new stream of revenue for ALA, too. Selling sets of DVDs of proceedings could potentially take events to members who could not be there. As Andrew Tannenbaum wrote in Computer Networks: “Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.

All of this discussion may be great but it points out a separate issue. Is ALA Annual becoming unwieldy in its size and growth? Could more be accomplished if it was broken down into a set of separate events spread across the entire year? If that were to happen, keeping a court reporter in-house would be more cost effective and would mean an ALA film team could be utilized perhaps.

The matter now stands at a question point. What is it the membership wants? What is your ALA?


Stephen Michael Kellat received his Master of Science in Library Science from Clarion University of Pennsylvania in 2004. He presently is a librarian in private practice in southern Nevada after having worked in academic cataloging, private sector retail, and alpaca husbandry.

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With the continueing evolution of automatic transcription and searching technology I wonder how long before there is a radical change in how government operates.