Gracelyn Cassell-2008 LITA Forum Travel Grant Winner

Gracelyn Cassell, Librarian, Montserrat, West Indies
2008 Errol Hill LITA Forum Travel Grant Winner


I was indeed fortunate to have been the Librarian from the Caribbean who received the 2008 Errol Hill Travel Grant to attend the LITA National Forum that was held in Cincinnati October 15 to 20, 2008. The process of preparing this report on my attendance at the Forum had me spending quite some time reflecting on the journey that led to the LITA National Forum in Cincinnati where I attended three general sessions and six of the concurrent sessions.

It all started back in 1979 with my undergraduate studies at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Jamaica when students there were still using punch cards. On graduation in 1982, I started my library career in the Montserrat Public Library which became the local hub for regional initiatives in the use of technology for information management. The software that was then widely in use in Caribbean libraries was CDS ISIS (DOS version) which was developed by UNESCO’s Giampaolo Del Bigio in whose training session, I once sat and whose jokes around the dinner table I enjoyed immensely.

From the mid-80s and right into the 90s, I was very much involved in such information systems and networks as:

CARISPLAN (Caribbean Information System for Social and Economic

CEIS (Caribbean Energy Information System)

CAGRIS (Caribbean Agricultural Information System

CARSTIN (Caribbean Science and Technology Information Network)

OECS INFONET (Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, Sub-regional Information Network)

MEDCARIB (Caribbean Health Sciences Information Network)

Those were the days when pioneering work was being done by change agents such as Wilma Primus who was Head of the Documentation Centre at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UNECLAC) which is based in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. Her efforts were ably supported by the work of Carol Collins, who was then Director of Information and Communication for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretariat, Fay Durrant, now Professor and Head of the Department of Library and Information Studies (DLIS) at UWI, Mona and recently deceased librarian, Audrey Chambers whose last appointment was that of head of the Library at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute for Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) UWI, Mona.

These were people with whom I worked closely during those formative years. I was very impressed with their vision and their relentless thrust to get information technology into Caribbean Libraries, to ensure that as many persons as possible were trained in the use of CDS/ISIS and that all efforts were directed at having bibliographic control over information generated in the region.

I accepted unquestioningly their vision of Caribbean libraries working together to maximize on limited resources and when in 2007, I started the process of gathering data on the state of libraries in our region I became all too conscious that there had been a gradual erosion of that vision. I recognized that few of the early initiatives had been sustained and librarians were starved for dialogue with colleagues and missed the kind of networking that was prevalent in the 80s and 90s. There was some reassurance that all was not lost when Sandra John, another of my mentors, who before retiring as Chief, Caribbean Knowledge Management Centre at UNECLAC organized an “Information Specialists Expert Meeting and Content Management Workshop” from May 15 to 16, 2007 in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

This workshop covered digital content management, the impact of ICT on Caribbean people and knowledge management in the public sector. This was an attempt to “accelerate progress being made by the Caribbean sub-region towards an information society” and to provide “a practical opportunity for establishing a viable human network, supportive of knowledge sharing.” Workshop participants were also made aware of open source software such as Drupal, Joomla! and Plone that are available for content management.

Since that 2007 survey of libraries, I have been pondering long and hard on the most efficient and effective approach to developing dialogue with persons who have the technical skills so badly needed to assist Caribbean libraries to make far better use of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Alongside the dialogue would be the networking that would sustain the deployment of information systems and services that would take our libraries into the 21st century. To a large extent, these concerns determined my choice of sessions at the LITA National Forum. It was difficult but personal interests in institutional repositories and information literacy had to take second place to issues that had wider implications for the region.

The theme of the 2008 Forum “Technology and Community: Building the Techno Community Library” and the presentations that I attended provided a wealth of information as to low cost solutions that could be utilized by libraries in the region to improve their operations. During the 4 days, I experienced a number of Eureka moments as I recognized potential solutions to some of the issues with which I had been concerned.

The Pre-Conference “Innovations in Next Generation Library Management Systems” by Tim Daniels (PINES Programme Manager), Diana Weaver (Northeast Kansas Library System) and Andrew Nagy (Villanova University) showed how open source applications are already being used to deliver integrated library services comparable to those afforded by proprietory systems. Tim spoke about Evergreen which is a library management system for cataloguing and circulation. Diana discussed Koha another open source ILS while Andrew dealt with VuFind an open-source OPAC replacement/Library portal. They were quite convincing about the benefits of this kind of software, benefits that libraries without the financial resources could very well exploit.

The Opening General Session “What is Social Cataloguing and Where is it Going” by Tim Spalding who created LibraryThing.com was welcome information for a number of reasons. Many of the libraries in our region have been trying to get their catalogues online. Not only does LibraryThing provide functionalities for quickly getting library collections on the internet, it also simplifies the whole process of cataloguing and provides an application programming interface (API) for developing social networks. I personally feel that far too many libraries are still doing original cataloguing and while this may be necessary for local publications, it is incomprehensible for material already in other online catalogues. LibraryThing pulls cataloguing data from over 600 library catalogues, including the Library of Congress and could easily eliminate duplication of effort allowing time to be better spent on other information services.

Annette Bailey’s presentation “LiBX: Enhancing User Access to Library Resources” brought yet another award winning piece of open source software to my attention. LiBX is a plug-in that can be used with the Internet Explorer or Firefox browsers. It allows for direct access to the various library resources eg, the online public access catalogue, e-journals, and digital collections without having to change interfaces. Some libraries require users to search through various databases to find information while LiBX apparently allows for federated searches across databases.

The second Concurrent Session that I attended was “Re-Swizzling the IT Enterprise for the Next Generation: Creating a Strategic and Organizational Model for Effective IT Management” presented by Maurice York of North Carolina State University Libraries. He spoke about the various layers of services including security, authentication, licensing, web authoring which systems departments within libraries can provide. Unfortunately, very few Caribbean libraries have a systems librarian much less a systems department. Too often the foundational pillars of support, operations, products and applications about which Maurice spoke are the responsibility of the sole individual, not necessarily trained, with an interest in using IT for the delivery of library services. We will need to find a way to get such persons the kind of exposure and ultimately training that will re-swizzle their libraries.

Having gone to Michael Porter’s web site before his GENERAL SESSION: “Hi-Fi-Sci-Fi-Library: Technology, Convergence, Content Community, Ubiquity and Library” I was able to join in singing the “Hi-Fi-Sci-Fi-Library” song. I also accepted the notion of libraries as providing access to content and spaces for people to be part of a community. While laser keyboards, and photo pen phones may not yet be widely available in the Caribbean, we are all too conscious of how the technology is developing particularly after witnessing flexible screens and the will.I.am holograph during the coverage of the recent elections in the US. Will we ever be able to catch up or will the digital divide remain?

I was able to participate in the “Five Minute Madness” session with my presentation “Incorporating ICT and a New Vision for Caribbean Libraries.” I was rather pleased with the response to my plea for assistance. Several persons provided cards and wanted further information. Discussions have since been held with the Head of the Library School at Mona who is willing to partner in a project to get IT skills into the region to assist with developing information services. The details of this project will soon be shared with those persons who indicated their interest in assisting.

Rachel Vacek from the University of Houston Libraries made a very pertinent presentation entitled “Putting the Library Website in Their Hands: The Advantages and Challenges of a Homegrown Content Management System.” She provided information on the various content management systems eg. Drupal, IGOOGLE, and NetVibes, and brought other open source software for federated searching such as LIBRARYFIND, and sources of copyright free images such as FLICKR to my attention. This sort of information is very valuable to the library operating with scare resources. I also hope that the system she created will be made available as Open Source.

The panel discussion on “Web Site Redesign: Perspectives for the Field Panel Discussion” with Robin Leech (Oklahoma State University Libraries); Amelia Brunskill (Dickinson College), Edward M. Corrado (Binghamton University), Elizabeth Black (Ohio State University Libraries) and Russell Schelby (Ohio State University Libraries) highlighted a variety of research methods used to get feedback from users about web site design. I have an enduring interest in simple but effective web sites and realize that too often designers forget their audience and get carried away with the available technologies.

Nina McHale’s presentation “Optimizing Library Resources for screen Readers” provided an important reminder that library users may have visual impairments and their needs have to be considered when developing web sites and providing access to library resources. JAWS was in use at the Main Library at UWI Mona where I worked up to 2005 but I never thought about the impact of problems in the online catalogue being read by the software and the difficulties that this would present for the visually impaired.

David Lankes presentation “Obligation of Leadership” provided the right note on which to end the Forum. He presented a number of challenges which I took seriously. As leaders we have to be willing to fight for change and stick to the following core principles:

* Service to improve the community in which we find ourselves
* Sharing knowledge since it does not reside in things but in people
* Encourage learning
* Intellectual Freedom
* Access
* Intellectual honesty

I thank David for reminding us that libraries have to be active participants in the conversation which is part of the knowledge business. Too many of us sit and wait rather than being proactive taking the conversation forward. If there is anything that was drummed home at the 2008 LITA National Forum it is that the mission of the Library is to make the world a better place.

Without the generosity of Mrs. Grace Hope Hill in providing the grant for Caribbean librarians to experience the LITA National Forum, the kind of exposure that I had over the period would not have been possible. This kind of assistance speaks of a vision for the Caribbean which I recognized in the region’s library pioneers. Needless to say, there were additional benefits to the visit as well. Thanks to Betsy Salt, Catalog Librarian at the Courtright Memorial Library, Otterbein College in Ohio, I was able to visit her library where head of the Library, Lois Szudy, allowed me to select materials for the small collection at the UWI Open Campus in Montserrat. Betsy also took me to sales at bookshops so that I was able to acquire material for the Early Childhood Care and Education Programme and the Parenting Programme in Montserrat.

Gracelyn Cassell, B.A. Library Studies (UWI), M.A. Archives (Lond), and M Sc Computer Assisted Management Information Systems (UWI) worked in the Montserrat Public Library from 1982 to 1997 and in the Main Library at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica from 1997 to 2005. In August 2005, she returned to Montserrat to take up the post of Head of the University of the West Indies School of Continuing Studies, now the UWI Open Campus Montserrat.