ALA Midwinter Meeting 2010 Recap

4289596648_e2ebdef4b5_b[1] 2010 ALA Midwinter Exhibit Hall panorama composite (click to see the original size)

As much as I have written about the ALA, I was still curious to see the organization up close and in action. I’ve talked with librarian friends and certainly read enough online (both positive and negative) about the organization. But there is something about going, seeing, and experiencing it for myself that requires satisfaction. So I set hotel reservations, rummaged through the social events calendar of various subgroups, and excitedly drove by way to Boston, sensing adventure in the air.

My objective was to put everything out of my head and just examine everything anew. It’s difficult to set aside the compliments and complaints I have heard for this organization, but I gave myself a simple strategy of objective questions. I’ll outline my approach (please consider answering them in the comments if I did not speak to you personally).

  1. “Are you a member of ALA?” (If no, why not? If yes, continue to 2.)
  2. “Do you serve on any committees, roundtables, and the like?” (If no, why not? If yes, continue to 3.)
  3. “What does that committee/roundtable/whatever do?”

In listening to the answers, I was also taking into account word choice and tone. While my polling size and choice was not very scientific, I found the answers that I heard to be most enlightening. With a few exceptions, most answered that they felt rewarded by their involvement with the organization. However, this group diverged between feeling effective and frustrated. Cheery explanations were tempered by acerbic rants, each providing clues to the bigger picture for me.  With an organization as large as the ALA, these many glimpses from the top on down gave me much to think about as I assessed the organization on the way home.

If I was to liken the organization to something, I would say it is a Rubix Cube. Some of solved how it works, its meaning, and purpose; others struggle with the apparent complexity and mechanics; and a minority simply don’t get it and/or won’t try to get it. (And, for the more cynical out there, some are arguing about appropriate colors on the cube. Or as one person put it when I mentioned this idea to them, “I’ve solved it and I don’t care for the answer.”) What I would say is true and apparent is that, despite how people feel about the organization itself, I did not meet one person who was not passionate about their career in librarianship. This speaks well for the true potential of the organization should it ever overcome its inefficiencies. From what I understand, talk of reformation has been going on for awhile and that it is a matter of action and resolve to see it through.

Even with this new knowledge in hand, I am still reserving judgment on the organization. Part of this is that I still disagree with the politicization of resolutions, but the other part cannot help but feel compelled by those who strive hard for the profession within the association. From my experience in organizations run by member volunteers, it is no light undertaking to produce results. Where others might make light of their efforts, they have my respect. There are additional discussions ahead, I feel, so I await more input and information.

Beyond my own inquiries into ALA, I really had a great time meeting and socializing with many of the people who I have been communicating with through Twitter, Facebook, and blog comments. It is extremely flattering to tell someone how much you love their blog and they reciprocate in kind. I even had a couple of people tell me my name and/or my posts came up in various meetings, though I’m not sure whether the context is favorable or not. It is heartening, for certain, to have the personal conversations reinforce your choices of inclusion in readers, followers, and Facebook friends. I left with a renewed sense of community and a strengthened feeling of professional bonding.

Photo by Peter Bromberg/Flickr My only actual obligation of the Midwinter Meeting was to co-present “Set Sail for Fail” with Karen in the Networking Uncommons area. For those who missed it, you can watch it the entire thing either through Buffy Hamilton’s raw footage or Jenny Levine’s Ustream clip. I was not certain how many (or if anyone) would attend, but I was pleased to see at least a dozen people interested. As time went on, this number easily doubled. It was a good natured lively discussion about what hasn’t worked out for people and the lessons in evaluation that could be applied in the future. It also provided Karen and myself with some feedback about the type of topics that could arise as we plan out a FAIL conference for the future. I’d like to thank everyone who attended, tweeted it, and shared their stories.

(You can also read about it on the American Libraries Inside Scoop blog or listen to Karen and I talk about it in the video interview linked below.)

(I’m not exactly sure what is going on with my face in this frozen moment, but I assure you it is not permanent.)

As I drove back to New Jersey, my reflections upon this experience have induced me to give the annual conference a try. For those with suggestions as it pertains to the annual conference, please do not hesitate to add your comments. This was a good time and I’m eager to see what waits for me in Washington.

The Library Ecosystem

Late Saturday night, after the various bar socializing trip during the 2010 ALA Midwinter Meeting, I was sitting on the bed in my tiny hotel room (more on that when I do my recap post tomorrow, hopefully) thinking about the different types of libraries and how they might be interdependent. I grabbed my notepad and sketched it out (this is a cleaned up final version of that idea).

4286696021_e2f26a2572_b[1]Please allow me to explain a few things about the chart.

First, this is a very simple chart of the possible relationships out there. With a tool like Mindomo, I bet there could be more connections made between the different library types. In sketching this out, I went for the idea that felt to be the greatest connection between the two types. I’m sure there are some better ones out there, so please tell me with a brief explanation in the comments.

Second, I’m sure there are a couple of people that thought, “Well, why are special libraries a block on the outside? Where are their connections?” To be blunt, it’s not that they are not connected, it’s that the diversity in the types of special libraries is such that it would be hard to pin down a connection to each other type of library. I wanted to include it on the chart (to acknowledge its existence), but I was hard pressed to make it work. So, there is it.

Third, whether my connections are right or wrong, I truly believe that the different types of libraries really do depend on each other. Academic libraries provide the greater depth and breadth of scholarly knowledge to which the public and school libraries rely upon. Public libraries provide broad support for the curiosity that fuels the inquiries made at the academic and school libraries. School libraries provide the crucial building blocks for a lifetime of literacy in both scholastic (academic) and recreational (public) information seeking skills.

As a greater community of librarians, we really must not lose sight of what the different types bring to the table. Without public libraries, would school and academic libraries have the resources to sufficiently cover personal non-erudite inquiry? Who would act and advocate for information access for all? Without academic libraries, where would scholars delve into deeper meanings of accumulated research results? Would vast archives be relegated to those cities and communities that could best afford to collect and store it? Without school libraries, who else will represent our ideals of intellectual exploration and inquiry to the upcoming generation in their formative years within the walls of the school building? Teachers are bogged down by instructing towards the test standards and administration is smothered by education regulation.

I believe that our fortunes are not singular but collective; and that when one type is threatened, all types are threatened. When a public library closes, the impact is felt in the local school and academic libraries as they will bear some of the load that puts them slightly askew from their mission. When an academic library sees its funding cut, the public library takes on collegiate inquiries that go beyond their available resources and school libraries lose out on more advanced materials for their gifted students. When school librarians are removed, the public library loses an onsite literacy advocate and the academic must expend time, money, and effort to provide basic inquiry skills rather than focus on more advanced ones.

The words of Benjamin Franklin come to mind here.

We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

Recognition is in order that all library types count. In a year that will be heavy on advocacy, no library is insignificant. Everything is connected and we should act accordingly.

set sail for fail!


Have a good story of a program, event, or service that didn’t work out the way you thought it would? We want to hear from YOU!

SET SAIL FOR FAIL” is a Networking Uncommons event on Sunday January 17th at 2pm. This moderated discussion/commiseration will be lead by Karen Klapperstuck (Virtual Branch Manager, Monroe Township Library, NJ) and Andy Woodworth (Librarian, Burlington County Library System, NJ).

What we are looking for are additional volunteers to shares their stories of programs, events, and services that ended up in the FAIL bin. Without additional people, this will probably end up with Karen and Andy talking about how an impromptu discussion group about failing… failed. (In case of an epic fail [NSFW link], they will be talking about it just to each other.)

For those interested in sharing their tales, please arrive at least 15 minutes early so you can sign up on our speakers list. (Here is what we look like via our Twitter accounts: Karen, Andy.) Every story of fail should include:

  • the name of the program, service, or event
  • the purpose of the program (e.g. to attract new patrons, etc.)
  • what happened to make it result in failure
  • and what you think made it fail

One lucky(?) speaker whose tale is chosen the most epic of fails by our judges (Karen and Andy) will be given a $25 gift certificate to Barnes & Noble. 

Attendance does not require participation. (But you know you want to.)

Come for the morbid curiosity, come to lend moral support, come to try to figure out why one of your programs failed in the past, but if anything, come because there is much fun to be had talking about failure!

Blatantly Berry Bumbling

This morning, while I was reading through the latest issue of Library Journal online, I had the distinct displeasure of reading John Berry III’s article entitled “Don’t Muzzle Librarians”. While watching David Rothman’s reaction vlog provided some levity for my irritation (a must watch for the purposes of this post), there are some outstanding points that Mr. Rothman did not touch upon that I feel should be addressed.

First and foremost, freedom of expression does not equate to freedom from accountability. While my various forms of expression are generally protected from civil and criminal liabilities, it does not render me immune to social ones. Those seeing, hearing, or listening can hold me to account for my words and choose to continue, engage, or withdraw. While Mr. Berry wields the freedom of expression concept as if it were a hammer (in the most ironic way as noted by Mr. Rothman), it does not render null and void the accountability that the magazine has for the words of one of its blogger employees. While traditionally publications have stood with their contributors (and rightfully so), there are business and social consequences that can occur. For example, the affronted party can discontinue reading the offending publication and tell others not to buy such a magazine. This is the subtle difference between what Mr. Berry is implying and what Mr. Rothman actually said in his previous video regarding the Annoyed Librarian and Library 101. I defend the right to free expression, but I am not compelled to read or listen to such acts nor prevented from enacting my own set of social consequences.

Second, as noted in Mr. Rothman’s response, there is no one calling for the end of anonymous writing. Pseudonyms and unsigned letters have served society well in various capacities over the course of history. However, in terms of the internet, anonymous writing and commentary have presented an additional set of results. Observe this chart that precisely documents this phenomena:


(Original NSFW cartoon here.)

Thus, the fine anonymous art of “trolling” has come to exist. While the Annoyed Librarian certainly makes fine points that I can agree with (like here), the amount of vitriol displayed at times towards other professionals is pure emotional spectacle. The nature of those postings does not rise to the great anonymous writers (as touted by Mr. Berry) but becomes synonymous with the legions of unknown insensitive boorish commentators whose affection for naked cruelty is disturbing on a multitude of levels. While I certainly support anyone’s right to write anonymously for whatever personal reason, it would be folly to think that such practices (especially on the internet) do not come with its own particular set of perceptions and disadvantages when it comes to evaluating the content.

Third, after proclaiming the merits of freedom of expression in the previous paragraphs, Mr. Berry then derides the findings of the ALA New Members Round Table regarding a survey conducted which shows that “its members feel ALA should avoid expressing itself on what they call ‘nonlibrary issues.’” Again, in a bout of unnecessary quotation marks, he raises the specter that most issues can be argued as being library issues, calling thoughts to the otherwise “[a] disease of deciding what is ‘appropriate’”. (I presume this disease must be some sort of brain cloud.) I have written about this before (so I won’t rehash it here), but I’d like to add another thought.

While political activism has waxed and waned through the history of the United States, the political climate at present0 is extremely emotionally charged and divisive. In my reckoning, there is no reason to introduce resolutions that do not advance the mission of the library but work towards creating divisions within the membership. Especially in this budget climate, I would hope that the ALA Councilors would be working on measures to save and expand funding and provide morale support for librarians across the country rather than broad proclamations outside the organizational scope and purpose. A focus on unity would be prudent in this time of financial infirmity and politically charged rhetoric.

In closing, I’m reminded of a famous quote by the journalist Edward R. Murrow.

We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

One cannot announce a great history of the defense of free expression while attacking another for exercising it. Nor can the democracy of the ALA Council be praised in one post and be labeled with the derision of implied infirmity when the majority does not favor one’s outlook. It does no favors to question the good faith intent of those who are in opposition to one’s position simply because they contradict. The only thing being muzzled here is the legitimacy of dissent in a profession that thrives on the inclusiveness of differing viewpoints. This principle cannot be heralded at each and every library when it fails within professional circles and discussions. It must be upheld, embraced, and loved for what it is: a uniting dogma of this profession.

Mr. Berry would do well to remember that the freedom of expression he cherishes for himself and his employee also applies to Mr. Rothman and this blogger. As the saying goes, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism”. We will not all agree on the issues facing the library community, but we are all patriots of the library.

The actual future of the library

This past Saturday, Buffy Hamilton sent me the link to Seth Godin’s new post, “The future of the library” as well as some reaction blog posts. (I’ve put the links at the bottom of this post.) It’s the opening line that really started the ball rolling on this post and has lead me to take issue with Mr. Godin’s post (hereafter quoted in blue).

What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?

And this is my answer: Nothing. Why? Because we are already relevant in the digital age. The general population as a whole (more or less) believes that a public depository of knowledge is a necessary component for the common good. There’s no fact based rebuttal to this belief; I have yet to hear an argument with merit opposing the continued operation of the library. They prophesized the end of libraries with the rise of computers and, once again, they roll the bones and see the end of libraries in e-readers, Wikipedia and mobile technology. With all of the hoopla for the portable wonders, they are poor replacements with licensing agreements, DRM, and proprietary software. Wikipedia, while the netizen’s encyclopedia with proven accuracy, still has overhead to pay for despite legions of volunteers. Mobile technology has wonderful merits to it, but it is a very long way to go from its touted potential of putting a whole library into one’s hand without the required telecommunication infrastructure, increased display and computer power of the mobile handheld, and price structuring that allows anyone (read: the working poor) to have a data plan. This is not suggest that the library should not change or evolve, but the pronouncements of our imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated.

To say that libraries are irrelevant is a statement about the individual perception but not the greater societal whole. What is more important in such a statement is that raises the issue of how general apathy and indifference for the financial fate of the library really harms cogent funding arguments. The “everything on the internet” perception is easy to handle and is relatively innocent; the real dangerous perception is “I don’t use the library so I don’t see how losing it would affect me”. There is no recognition that this person receives a second hand benefit from the library from the people in the community who do use it; there is a disconnect from the notion that the improvement of the individual is an improvement of the greater whole.

That’s where our advocacy efforts need to be applied. We already have people who believe in us, whether they use the public library or not. It is those on the outside who do not see the benefit on the community as a whole that we need to reach.

They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That’s not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.

Ah, but we can survive as a community-funded repository for books that individuals can’t afford to own (or for reference books that have no internet counterpart). While the latter is becoming a scarce creature (and rightfully so), the former harkens back to the concept that the library is a public institution for the common good. And, on the whole, I’d say that that a majority of my customers at the public library could afford the materials that they check out, but opt to borrow instead for whatever reason. But my library is in a mostly middle class area; any shift in demographics on the education or pay scale would dramatically change the underlying reasons.

What I really take issue with is this notion that there are different tiers of entertainment. Reading for pleasure? Good. Watching a movie for pleasure? Bad. But why? One is a story written on paper and the other is a visual presentation of a story. While purists may sniff at a film production of their favorite author, are they not both acts of telling the same story? Where does listening to the audio recording of a story fall? It’s a slippery slope of information judgment. (Or, to use the words from Lori Reed’s reply on the theanalogdivide post, “It is also one of the core tenets of librarianship that we do not judge the information people seek. It is our job to connect people with information whether we personally agree with it or not.”)

To the librarians lamenting the borrowing of DVDs, I can think of three things. First, place your DVDs are deep into the library as you can while still preserving their security and reasonable access. This makes your patrons have to walk through the library and pass by other things you have to offer. Second, place advertising for services, programs, and other offerings in and around this DVD area. Third, get over it. I’m sure there are patrons who just use you for your large print collection or newspapers or magazines or even just databases when they have a paper due. In that way, the library is acting in its intended capacity: to connect people with information.

Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative.

Initiative is really not the problem. The internet search engines have made it easy to look for something on a whim. Librarians already encourage people to delve deeper into the topics that interest them. From my observations, the real issue is one of online information source vetting.

Here is where the library rubber meets the road. The information on the visible web presents an mixed bag of accuracy; this is not to say that it is wrong, but it means that some resources lay on the cusp of academic dubiousness. The challenge for librarians and other information professionals lays in getting people to examine the source of the information as well as looking beyond what is immediately within reach (translation: the first page of a Google search). This can lead to information exploration in the invisible web in areas beyond search engines (e.g. databases, subscription content). This is one area where our librarian expertise lays; not simply in search assistance, but also in providing guidance and coaching for people in their investigations. It is the training and teaching of people to use critical thinking in information source examination that is part of the bigger package of developing research tools as a life skill.

Once again, the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books. What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.

Alas, information is not truly free. The communication revolution has increased access to information to the point that it gives the illusion of being free. That would be akin to find an apple tree along side a country lane and declaring that it sprung up from the aether. Someone or something planted the seeds along the road; the conditions were conducive to its growth and survival; and on a long enough timeline, it grew into the fully formed tree that appears before the observer. The fruits of the tree are the end products of time, energy, and effort. Information on the internet is no different; someone had to take the time to write and create the content. Bobbi Newman’s answer to Seth Godin reply on the theanalogdivide post is more succinct to this last point:

Information is not free. As an author and a blogger you should know better. Even the often [cited] Wikipedia has had a plea up for funding recently. We all know Google isn’t scanning books out of the goodness of their heart. Even the simplest things on the internet cost time. With the plethora of information out there the skill to determine if it’s accurate (or crap detection as Howard Rheingold puts it) is even more important that ever. At the very least information takes time, something so many seem to be short of these days.”

(Emphasis mine.)

As to the last sentence in Mr. Godin’s post (the one mentioning sherpas), I think there is something there that is much bigger than libraries. While I mention that the library is a public institution that has arisen out of the idea of a common good, there is a silent caveat tacked onto the end of it which states “so long as it is not too expensive”. To me, libraries exist in broader scheme of public education, another community expense that falls victim to this same silent conditional.

For me, this nation and society is not serious about education. Our spending priorities give us away on this issue, from the federal budget down to the family budget. Our country’s well documented altruism towards humanitarian causes is strangely tempered by the bottom line when it comes to our own next generation. We as a society provide the ideals, dreams, and testimonies of academic success, yet we do not provide the required money, tools, or educational infrastructure to make those lofty objectives more accessible. We want the best results but are hesitant about the material cost, ignorant or indifferent to the fact that the success of each generation benefits the greater whole.

When it comes to the library, it is no different. An intellectually based public institution, created under the ideals of a common good for all who seek it, a home for honest and free inquiry, is tethered by layered bureaucracy and constant budgetary inadequacies. I’m not asking for a blank check or a complete free hand here, but some financial certainty and community pledge of support would go a long way.

While I admire the aspiration that Mr. Godin creates in this final sentence, what I think needs to happen is a broadening of the education commitment. This is not a simple of matter of money and materials, but a paradigm movement by the community to commit to the better education of the next generation through all the means available. Knowledge has always been a valuable commodity. There is no time like the present during this information revolution to raise our voices and make it a greater priority in the lives of our fellow citizens. I believe that the lifting up of an individual lifts up the community; to this end, I believe that the library fulfills this exalted ideal.

Other blog reactions to Mr. Godin’s post (by no means a complete listing):

theanalogdivide (complete with Seth Godin comment), SarahGlassmeyer(dot)com, Digitization 101, Lucacept, Neverending Search, Blue Skunk Blog,, Justin the Librarian, A Curious View of the World, The MLXperience, Cathy Nelson’s Professional Thoughts, Library Idol.



I had thought of this a couple of weeks back, but I had to wait till the holiday season passed to give it a go. Since #followalibrarian may or may not have been usurped by Twitter lists, I thought this meme would be something fun to replace it. Why toss a search into Google when you have your fellow librarians who can point you to nice sites they consult on a regular basis? Nothing quite like having an explanation and endorsement!

Here is a saved search. I intend to go back and mine the links out of it.

Library Day in the Life Round 4 Announced

Bobbi Newman announced on Thursday the start of the 4th round of her Library Day in the Life Project. Like the title suggests, it is a blog post detailing the day in the life of a librarian. Round 3 (for which I wrote an entry) had a fun array of takes on the library day, from Marianne Lennox’s Photo Diary to Julie Strange’s multipart post of the week (more of a ‘week in the life of…’).

I’m looking forward to another round of the project. It’s an interesting insight into the lives of my peers; sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s serious, but it always has a lot of heart to it. I find that I like these kinds of posts the most because it shows how much librarians love what they do.

Be sure to read the directions and then hop right in!