ATG Article of the Week: Interview with Ann Okerson — From “Old School” to Big Data

by | Aug 17, 2017 | 0 comments

Interview with Ann Okerson — From “Old School” to Big Data


The folks at RedLink posted this fascinating and wide-ranging interview with Ann Okerson who was instrumental in setting up a partnership between RedLink and the Zimbabwe University Librarians Consortium (ZULC). Ann worked with RedLink and ZULC in her capacity as an associate of the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP).

  • Ann – many people are familiar with your work with the Center for Research Libraries, and know you from your role with the Liblicense-l listserv, but may not know about the path that brought you here.  Can you talk a bit about your career path, and key events or issues that led you to make some of the choices you have?

I started out as an “old school” serials librarian — printed journals, newspapers, continuing publications, all of them checked in manually in kardex and later via computer file.  Being immersed in the serials world for some years probably shapes much of what I’ve thought and done professionally ever since.  I left libraries for a few years to work for a NY book dealer who sold to libraries worldwide – helping them in the late 80s to fill gaps in their collections with runs of journals, specialized subject collections from scholars, estates, libraries that were closing down — that sort of thing.  Then in the early 1990s, through my consulting report on the “serials crisis” I lucked into policy work at the Association for Research Libraries (ARL) in Washington, DC, at the very moment when the Internet and electronic journals became a possibility.  While there, we published the first directories – in print – of online journals (when I began identifying such newcomers, there were exactly nine!).  That role in turn led to an associate director (collections) position at Yale, at just the point when we all began doing serious licensing and then forming consortia for licensing.  After leaving Yale, I broadened my interest in international activity particularly and have done a lot of work with libraries and with their efforts to support researchers in developing countries to master the art of using digital resources.  And suddenly it’s today! 

  • Much of your work, with the International Federation of Library Associations, with ICOLC, and with INASP, gives you a global perspective on the academic library space.  Are there assumptions that US librarians might make about the role of librarians in other places that you would caution them about?  Do you see any significant regional differences?

American libraries are all worried about having adequate resources – and from an international perspective, they are all rich beyond the dreams of Croesus.  At the same time, American libraries are also diverse, independent, creative – we have dozens and dozens of consortia in this country — and so suffer from not being able to act towards, for example, aggressive national licensing, from not being able fully to benefit from real cooperation and coordination on an appropriate scale.  We invent instead many organizations (like HathiTrust, DuraSpace, DPN, etc.), and we have commercial partners like OCLC to organize some of our work at scale.  There’s a fair amount of overlap in the varied projects and enterprises we create, so I’m of two minds whether our diversity is entirely a plus.

An assumption that some US librarians might make is that librarians in emerging nations are less well informed or educated than western professionals.  Over and over, in training sessions and conference encounters, I’ve been in awe of the smarts and commitment of librarians in countries in the “global South.”  For example, I recall teaching a licensing workshop to the Bangladeshi consortia and observing in the role-playing and Q&A that I wouldn’t wish to be a publisher negotiating with individuals so astute, prepared, and committed!  Earlier this year in a workshop in Nairobi, I sat at meals with librarians who fluently spoke at least three languages:  English, Swahili, and their local tongue (Africa has hundreds of languages).  Do not underestimate these colleagues:  we have much to learn from their passion and skills…

Click here to read the remainder of the interview in which Ann continues to discuss her work with INASP, RedLink and ZULC as well as universal issues facing libraries, how the role of consortia has evolved in recent years, and her work with the Center for Research Libraries, and the Lib-License -l listserv.


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