The flight down to Dulles on the Socata TBM 700 was smooth as glass and surprisingly quiet for such a fast airplane. A short shuttle ride got us to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, an enormous facility which provides enough space for the Smithsonian to display the thousands of aviation and space artifacts that cannot be exhibited on the National Mall. The two sites together showcase the largest aviation collection in the world and accommodate more than one million visitors per year. The Center was made possible by a $65 million gift in October 1999 to the Smithsonian Institution by Steven F. Udvar-Hazy, an immigrant from Hungary and co-founder of the International Lease Finance Corporation.
You have to see it to believe it. The Boeing Aviation Hangar is 103 feet high, 986 feet long and 248 feet wide which makes it about ten stories high and the length of three football fields. The nearly 300,000 square feet of space is filled with airplanes — more than 160 — including a Boeing 707, a B29, a Lockheed SR-71, all manner of fighter jets, a 1903 Wright Flyer and everything in between. Adjoining the Aircraft Hangar is a Space Hangar — a mere 80 feet high, 262 feet long and 180 feet wide. The 50,000+ square feet includes more than 150 space artifacts, with the space shuttle Enterprise as the centerpiece.
We got to downtown D.C. in time to walk around the National Mall after checking into the hotel and then had a nice dinner at Olive’s. The next morning we headed over to the Convention Center for the SLA 2009 Annual Conference. I expected attendance would be down due to budget cuts and travel freezes but it was actually up from the prior year — nearly 6,000 people attended. It proves that even though you can find almost anything on the Internet there is still an important role for conferences where people can network in the halls and during breaks and meals.
The attendees were Information Professionals from 75 countries. The roles played by the library and information science experts have changed but are no less vital to libraries, information centers and corporate information and knowledge resource departments than before. Libraries are in fact very special places. A couple of weeks ago we took our granddaughter to visit the Yale Library. It was a busy place with a lot of computers but also a priceless collection of materials and most importantly a cadre of people who know how to help people find things.
I only had time to visit one of the 400 exhibitors at the conference — Knovel Corporation, where I have been a director and investor for almost seven years. It has been exciting to see the company grow by serving a large number of corporate librarians and engineering executives.
The closing conference panel was moderated by TV newscaster Judy Woodruff. The panelists were Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Robyn Meredith, and yours truly. I learned a lot from my fellow panelists. Judy did a terrific job of brining out important points about the future of information technology. A lot of it was focused on healthcare. I spoke about how important it is to move to an electronic model — how it can improve healthcare outcomes and reduce costs.
Audience questions were provocative. One gentleman asked whether the Internet is making it possible for a very large company or a few companies to dominate the control of information. He was obviously referring to Google. I said no and reminded the audience how the press said in the 1970’s that IBM was going to take over the world. Then in the 1980’s it was Microsoft that would dominate. Now some believe Google will dominate. I have no fears about this. The barrier to entry for a new company is close to zero thanks to cloud computing. Google Docs is nice but check out Zoho.com. The race has only just begun. The bigger fear is monopolization by telecommunications and cable companies that has been made possible by intense lobbying of the FCC. I am cautiously optimistic that the new chairman will keep things “open” so that innovation and competition can thrive.