Fight the Power 2.0: Young Turks edition

I’ve been following the ALA 2009 conference on Twitter for the last couple of days. It’s been interesting to pick up bits and pieces of people’s experience at the conference (as well as a ton of librarians to follow), but earlier today there was two tweets (here and here) from a librarian pal that grabbed my attention. (Based on the tweets around them on my timeline, I’m guessing they are regarding the ALA Council I session on Sunday morning. If I’m wrong, someone correct me in the comments.) While I was not there to listen to the remarks, I did retrieve the platform that (now) ALA President Camila Alire ran on. Here is the passage as it relates to advocacy:

The Advocacy Initiative will focus on “member-driven advocacy“ content and training – for librarians, library staff and supporters of all types of libraries. This complements ALA’s existing advocacy efforts focusing on local, state, and federal legislative advocacy. This front-line advocacy features a most critical emphasis on the competencies and content needed to advocate for the library and library needs within the library structure and within our respective communities — cities, counties, higher education environments, and schools/school districts. A Leadership Workgroup will be formed and will build out the vision, articulating both what it is and what it isn’t; identify target audiences to receive and deliver the message; and establish goals for the Initiative as well as outcomes for members. In addition, the Leadership Workgroup will create products, match delivery and content to target audiences and determine marketing and public relations to deliver content to target audiences.

There was also a mention of the formation of a “Young Turks” type of group within ALA so as to increase young librarian involvement in organization. My gut reaction to these ideas was pretty positive; to me the ALA is still an organization of mysterious purpose mentioned in passing by colleagues and friends. I’m not entirely sure what they do (the subject of debate in some library circles, so I hear), but the concept of reaching out to young librarians like myself and expanding the advocacy issue make it more appealing. In turning this over in my mind over the course of the day, the initial luster wore off. It could be my aversion to the political syntax of the passage, it could be that I somewhat uncertain as to what a “Leadership Workgroup” actually means (despite looking it up), but the passage as a whole feels a bit dated to me. I don’t presume that it excludes Web 2.0 and other technological products, but the steps listed appear to be rote marketing practices.

For me, I am still fascinated with the power of the grassroots as expressed in my first library advocacy post. The highly social and collaborative efforts of user generated content has undeniable appeal for putting current and accurate information into the hands of the end user. The virtual word of mouth was a powerful advocacy tool in organization lobbying efforts, rallies, and documenting everything from protesting patrons to signs of support. Personally, I leads me to believe that the librarians in the figurative trenches have a better gauge as to the points to emphasize in their respective debates and can tailor it to their patrons and audience. The initiative presented by ALA President Alire feels very “top down” when the library advocacy movement feels very grassroots at the present time.

However, I’m still curious enough to see how a Leadership Workgroup would take shape and what sort of proverbial seat at the table awaits my generation of librarians (in both advocacy and “Young Turks” groups). Personally, it does beg a larger question about future membership with the ALA and involvement; something that has been encouraged in the past but no attractive opportunity has arisen until now. As mentioned in “Fight the Power 2.0”, there needs to be a change in the dialogue; libraries need to be portrayed as an essential service for digital literacy in an information driven economy. Libraries are no longer a community luxury, but a population necessity.

In taking the macroscope view of library advocacy, I personally think that there is a fundamental societal flaw that needs to be addressed because it directly affects the underlying nature of our work. We need to confront the fact that we as a society in America are not serious about education. Our state and national priorities and spending habits betray us on this point, for we provide unequivocal support for education up to the point when we get the bill. I believe that we will not see widespread support for lifelong learning that the library provides if we can’t even bring ourselves to pay for the best education possible that we mandate for our children.

I will readily admit that the fixing of our educational system is far beyond me and the scope and purpose of the ALA, but more importantly I believe the cause for lifelong education is intrinsically linked with childhood/teen education. We can (and should) find allies in other national education oriented groups for the purpose of promoting this ideal. I believe we should start looking to our fellow educators and their respective organizations for alliances in the much larger picture. Surely, we cannot pretend that an effect on one education oriented institution does not have an effect on the other. Our common cause is our calling, our strength, and the requisite bond to speak as one voice in the name of education. Let us act accordingly.

Dead Wildebeests and the Self Conscious Crocodile: Pres4Lib 2009

The Library is a learning place!On Friday, I went to the Pres4Lib conference organized by the bloggers of Library Garden. It was a conference for presenters and trainers and focused on ways to improve presentation skills and use of media aids. I generally don’t do a lot of presentations in a month, but I do run programs and classes so any sort of help for talking in front of people is a boon to me.

After a good night’s sleep and a glance at my notes, there is a theme that emerges for me: presentations are the product of a human and media symbiotic relationship. While it is true that a person can present without any outside aids (slides, handouts, and the like), the norm for presentations has shifted to a multimedia experience. At a minimum, there should be a visual aid to go along with the speaker’s dialogue. This is the axis point that the relationship of person and technology revolves around, for one can dramatically impact (even overshadow) the other. This isn’t something new to presenters, but it is more of a cautionary tale as presentation tools gain new features.  In addition, each factor is radically different: the human is subjective, the media is objective.

In the Birds of a Feather groups that I attended, there was a lot of talk about the personal aspects of presenting. It felt more like an informal presentation support group in which people swapped stories and traded tips about what works for them. The psychological value of these sessions was innumerable as reminded me that (1) I’m not the only one who gets butterflies, “ums” and “ahs”, and is trying to be comfortable in front of an audience and (2) that presentation style is unique to the person. As for the first, the conference has given me a network of fellow presenters that I can reach out to for advice, encouragement, and commiseration. A little confidence that can come from peer encouragement can go a long way. It also gave me additional ways to think of the audience that my presentation anxiety had not allowed me to previously consider: that the audience does not want the presenter to fail, that they want to get something out of it (even if it means not being uncomfortable during the whole duration of their disinterest in what you have to say), and that they should be treated as passengers in your presentation. To this last aspect, the mere mental image of being a driver giving a tour of a town to his passengers is an oddly soothing thought for me. It erases the notion of adversarial intent and puts me on the same side as those who are hearing me speak: a journey of sight and sound, if you will. 

As for the second point, it is about becoming comfortable with your own personality as a presentation style. A soft spoken introverted nature can be as powerful as a boisterous energetic extrovert when the speaker appears (for lack of a better term) natural. It is the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” of presentation skills: working with your personality strengths while minimizing your “weaknesses”. While not all personality types are equally suited for engaging an audience, it is through using your unique combination of traits that can make the presentation memorable. The comfort of being in your own skin combined with the appearance of confidence in rhetoric are distinguishing features that an audience can latch onto and appreciate. I don’t want to break down into clichés such as “You are a beautiful little snowflake”, but for each speaker, the presentation style is personal. Find your comfort zone, be confident in the expression of your concepts and ideas, and let that move your audience to follow you.

The role of media in a presentation is devilishly simple: it is to drive home the talking points of the speaker. And the Devil, as they say, is in the details. There are a number of potential aids in the speaker’s toolbox these days: slides, movies, audio, pictures, whiteboards, and handouts are but a few items to be used. But which ones truly work to support the point you want to make?

Steven Bell’s lightning talk about using video in presentations was my major eye opening experience for the conference. The incorporation of video into a presentation opens up fresh and bold avenues of supporting the presenter’s dialogue. It’s more than just something to keep the audience awake, it is an attention-grabber-and-never-let-go-er. With interview style videos, you can create co-presenters who repeat or reinforce your talking points. It’s the ultimate in "But don’t take my word for it!” type of persuasive speech. The weight and credibility that people lend to a third party is a powerful tool that should be utilized more often when telling a narrative. In addition, it is more exciting than a graph, figure, or other non-moving visual demonstration. Don’t let a chart say it if you can have a real person proclaim it. The ability to use video to show people what you are talking about is an incredible tool in this increasingly visual society.

A close second was John DeMasney’s talk about Picasa presentation slides. While PowerPoint is a standard to most speakers, the flexibility of Picasa in image generation was exciting to me. Static pictures can be used to suggest themes and ideas to get the audience thinking about something before you even say a work about it. With Creative Common images, there is a massive multitude of copyright safe images that can be used in slides. Let the pictures be the accompanying visual to your words. It’s so simple yet so powerful for a speaker; for me, it was a reminder that even the most simple of visual materials can create the desired audience reaction and engagement. 

(Note: Each of the Lightning Talks was excellent. I could talk about all of them but I wanted to pick the ones that got me all aflutter. Check out the video archive on the Pres4Lib wiki to see all of them. I highly recommend it.)

The lesson here is to marry the presentation media with your style in a way that compliments each aspect the most. In mentioning marriage, the rule of thumb attributed to bridal parties might actually explain it best: the bridesmaids (your accompanying media) should look good, but not as good as the bride (you). The right kind and amount of visual and auditory aids should intertwine and support your talking points. Every additional material should move the audience closer to the goal of your talk, whether it is to inform, train, or otherwise. It should also compliment the presenter’s style and manner which is (as stated above) uniquely their own. It is the symbiotic relationship between person and media that makes the presentation a memorable full sensory experience.

I am very thankful to the Pres4Lib organizers for putting this together. And I am certainly looking forward to another shot at Battledecks next year. I plan on improving upon my previous effort.

As to the title of the this post, I offer you the following convoluted anecdote:

I have been reading the book “Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life” by Len Fisher. In one of the chapters, he talks about a game theory scenario called The Volunteer’s Dilemma. This situation entails a group that is facing a problem in which an action needs to be taken but the person who volunteers to take the action opens themselves up to a greater risk of a negative effect. However, if no one takes the action, the entire group suffers. In the book, Len describes a herd of wildebeest crossing the plains of Africa. To reach new grazing lands to sustain the herd, they have to cross rivers. These rivers are the domain of very hungry and territorial crocodiles. If the herd doesn’t cross the river, they will surely die of starvation from the lack of adequate food. So, the first arrivals stand on the edge of the river until the pressure behind them builds to a point where a wildebeest “volunteers” (pushed or of own volition) to start crossing the river. This brave beast risks being the crocodile’s first meal, but the rest of herd can now cross at a (relatively) reduced risk.

I told that background story so I could tell you this story as it relates to Pres4Lib.

So, in the first Bird of a Feather session in the morning, the topic of discussion was called Getting Started. We’ve talked about “hooks” (grabbing the audience’s attention), about introducing any elephants in the room as an icebreaker, and had turned the topic to transitions (moving between different talking points and formats). Amy Kearns had asked about what to do when you ask a question of the audience and no one answers. Someone said that you just leave the question out there till the audience actually answers when I rather “brightly” said to the group.

“Oh! That sounds just like The Volunteer’s Dilemma!”

After explaining what this was, I related the presentation situation to the dilemma. The audience is the herd of wildebeest, the crocodiles represent the feeling of being self conscience, and the river is the question posed by the presenter. While it is true that the presenter can get the audience off the hook by answering the question, they have all lost a chance to open up a dialogue with the presenter. A fear of being wrong or awkward or other possible negative outcomes in answering in front of a group is “the self conscious crocodile”, the thing preventing people from freely answering the question. No one wants to get eaten by that dinosaur throwback and so they stand at the proverbial river bank shifting in place. Even so, with a taciturn audience, you could even mention this scenario as a secondary icebreaker and a means to further elicit an answer.

So, there is no need to think of your audience naked. Unless, of course, the thought of a room full of naked wildebeests is somewhat soothing.

Relevancy of Libraries in the Future

Earlier this week, the assistants on Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Daily Dish (rated one of Time’s Top 25 Blogs of 2009) sought to perform an experiment. They asked for readers to submit questions that would be posted to the Dish audience with follow-up entries showing the feedback received. This reminded me of a post by Peter Bromberg in Library Garden a couple of months ago. The part of Pete’s post that stuck with me was the last paragraph.

I worry every day about whether libraries will be relevant, three, five, or ten years from now. Unless we start allowing our customers to make decisions about their own personal data, AND start building systems that offer them a social networked experience based on their ability to selectively share their heretofore private info, I fear that libraries will grow increasingly irrelevant to our customers.

So, I took the theme of relevancy and crafted it into a question for the Dish.

What can the library do to stay relevant in the lives of the community? The methods of information delivery are increasing as well as the sheer volume of information resources. The quick and convenient Google search is replacing the more thoughtful human depth of a reference librarian’s answer. Librarians have transitioned from gatekeepers to guides, yet requests for our expertise in navigating the spectrum of information mediums and systems are in overall decline. There is an urge to offer more types of materials and services within the library, but there is also an enormous pull to provide greater forms of outreach through our website and other mobile technologies. What can we do to reverse this trend?
(While overall library usage is up due to the flagging economy, the most reported types of increased library use are borrowing materials, use of computers, and increased attendance to programs, specifically job related. This does not encompass my overall question.)

And they ended up using it. I was pretty surprised when it came across my Google Reader, but I was eager to see how it would be received. Later that day, they put up a post of selected feedback.

As a public librarian in a large metropolitan city, I can attest that our patronage is up…substantially now more than ever due to people seeking out resume advice, and our usage of computers has skyrocketed.  Which goes to show you one thing: people need libraries.

Regardless whether they own their computer, many patrons still need assistance in navigating the ‘Net, or advice on how to compose a resume, or where and how to use the templates available on word processing programs. Or they come for information on community resources to assist in their job search, or simply to discover free events in their community for their families.

They come for book discussions and debates, for senior "Wii" programs, for children’s play-reading times, for how to start your own business seminars, for teenage events that encourage good reading and learning habits, or simply to just enjoy reading the racks of magazines and newspapers knowing all the time they are all…free.

But they also read. A lot. Fiction and non-fiction books are still checked out. There is a warm, fuzzy comfortableness about taking home books and reading – especially escapist type of genres.

But what can a library do to stay relevant?  It still needs ‘place.’  A library was always a place first.  A haven to escape the hustle and bustle of their jobs, or even their family home. A place where every square inch of information and recreational reading is there at their fingertips. A place where librarians still answer reference questions and are available to help them navigate that almost-overwhelming mass of information that is thrown at them each day on the ‘Net, TV and radio and in newsprint.

In short, the library is still the most precious gift we give ourselves as a nation. Librarians are now more than the old-fashioned point-that-dewey-out individual-they are now information miners, resume makers, recreational reading advisors, gamers, events-planners for all ages.

The library is the still the best place in town.

And:

My inclination is to say that libraries could very well become central to communities — but that they’d have to shift emphasis from distributing information to editing it.

"Librarianship" is a skill that is only becoming more important. The question that the librarian seeks to answer is, I think, a defining one: How can I deal intelligently with this mass of information?

I think a great many of your readers go to the Daily Dish to answer that very question. They go as one goes to library: not only does the blog provide content (the analytic function of blogging), but it sorts through it (the curatorial function of blogging). Libraries do both. They provide content and they help people sort through it.

But as the former becomes more accessible, the latter becomes more important. Some ideas would be this. Libraries should focus on:

Community

  1. Hyperlocal news aggregation

Discovery

  1. Personalized reading lists and recommendation like "new books you might like" and "new articles you might like"

Editing

  1. Helping people create information consumption regiments
  2. Parsing paragraphs and quotes from books and aggregating them
  3. Collecting book reviews

(Emphasis mine.)

In reading it, the first commentator turned my present thinking on its head. Whereas I had been looking to expand services, to reach out to the patron population, and to widen our influence on the communities around my library, the commentator is looking inward towards what the library has going for it already. The draw of a destination is certainly something I see everyday in my library since we are situated in the residential community. We are lucky to have patrons who are within walking distance and come to the library as part of their daily routine. They read the paper, check the movie selection or email, and we know each other well enough to wave and greet each other by name. Maybe I have a destination already and I just need to tap into that vibe and capitalize on it.

The second commentator reminds me of a theme I’ve heard since I started my MLS degree a couple of years back. There is an awful lot of information out there, the likes of which that the majority of people had not previously seen in their lifetime. My generation grew up on cable television, but we came to age in the dawn of the internet. Perhaps we are more accustomed to the increasing abundance of resources that are available, but there are those before my generation who are not. Even now, there are those in the coming generation who are not able to edit it as well. I’m not saying that my age group (early 30’s) is better adapted to do so, but I will say that we straddle times before and after the digital revolution. 

I can personally say that I remember the library when it had card catalogs, when it got the first line of OPACs, and when it went online with its catalogs. These are huge leaps that were done as I came to age; in other words, as I grew, information technology grew with me. Perhaps it is time for the library to reclaim this essence of destination, a place where people want to be to enrich their lives. Librarians become guides and interpreters, to distill the desires of the patrons, to provide intellectual nourishment, and to rescue them from the sensory overload of the dense information quagmire.

Our relevancy may depend on it.

Cross posted to LISNews