CIL 2011 Reflections

Earlier this week, I had the chance to attend two days of the Computer in Libraries conference down in Washington D.C. I could see why some of my librarian friends really like the conference: it’s big but not too big; there is always at least one topic at any given time that is appealing; and that it attracts some of the well known librarian thinkers and innovators to attend and/or present. Overall, it was a great experience to hear some new ideas and perspectives, to meet people that I only conversed with online, and do a bit of networking. I left feeling professionally rejuvenated. 

The site of the conference was the Washington Hilton, sprawling complex of a hotel that felt like you needed a passport to go from one wing to another. It’s claim to fame is that it is where the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan occurred; the 30th anniversary of which will be on 30th of this month. While the entrance where the shooting happened has been redone, you can still see the resemblance of certain details when you look at the pictures from that day. It’s also the location of the annual White House Correspondents dinner. From the same stage that Presidents and comedians tell their sanitized humor, each day’s keynote and one track’s worth of presentations filled the ballroom.

In the end, I left the conference with more questions than answers. I sat on the dark train car on the way back Tuesday night, pondering and organizing all the presentations and conversations of the three previous days. I don’t think that having more questions after a conference is a bad thing. I think you should go into a conference with questions, get them answered (or something like it), and then leave with more curiosities than you started with. 

One such set of sessions that set my neurons into motion was from Internet @ Schools on Monday morning. In talking about the issues around eBooks in the school setting, one presenter said something that really caught my attention. “Perhaps schools are not yet ready for eBooks”, I remember her saying (I wish I could remember who said it). I thought this was a bold statement as the push has been to work on getting eBook integration into the classroom. Her reasoning is that eBook licensing and devices have not arrived at a point that make both fiscal and logistical sense. I can understand what she means in the fiscal sense; the devices are still mainly proprietary and highly transitional. The next generation is but a few months away, not exactly something a school budget planner needs to hear. As to the logistics, the restrictions on books in terms of licensing and DRM does create additional barriers to eBook and eReader collections. Add in the varied needs of the student body from age range to reading ability and it makes for an incredible amount of effort going into a collection in which there are limits to material control and device compatibility. On top of that giant mess is the end user who needs something that can be easy to understand or present an easy learning curve.

This is not withstanding the efforts of Buffy Hamilton and her work with using Kindles with her high school. Buffy is doing important and pioneering work in integrating the eReaders into the lives of her students and the faculty. I do not know of any other cases of experimentation at this kind of level; to be honest, I wish there was more projects like this to give a better data picture. And while I would characterize Buffy’s project as a rousing success for both her school and her library, it comes down to a question as to whether that success can be replicated in other venues. Under a different funding structure under a different set of state laws, could that success be duplicated? I’ll bring back around to the original question posited: are schools ready for eBooks? What are the remaining barriers (if any) for their integration into the school collection?

The other neuron agitation came the next day listening to Stephen Abrams talking about eBook models & challenges. This was my first time hearing Stephen speak at a conference in person; I had been told it was something not to be missed. I was not disappointed. (Check out Sarah Houghton-Jan’s notes on the whole speech.)

As an aside, I like to imagine that I can step back and look at the big picture when it comes to library topics. That, in tackling and turning over the issues in my mind, I have a figurative ten foot step ladder I climb to give a little perspective on the pros and cons, what sounds right and what doesn’t, and to try and put things into context. In giving his talk, I realized that Stephen’s figurative ladder is one of those ladder fire trucks that reaches up to the fifth story of buildings. His vantage point is much higher; thus he can see much further. (I can also imagine him calling down to me and saying, “What an adorable starter ladder, Andy!” in his Canadian accent, smiling and waving.)

The thing that really stuck with me from his talk is in regard to the eBook endgame. Namely, what is it? It is not a matter of current formats and devices, but how information intersects with the learning style of the person. That we as librarians can argue about how many checkouts an eBook can have, the proprietary nature of devices, and the ramifications of a licensed collection but the greater issue is how our end users take in information. In addressing the different types of learners, the answer moves from simple text to embedded video to interactive experiences. It’s not simply a matter of text on a device, but the context in which that text or other multimedia is presented.

In leaving that session, I began to wonder. Can we imagine what our collections will look like in twenty years? Ten? Even five? Will the Kindle or HarperCollins or DRM matter? Over time, will the market (meaning consumers) move away from locked down devices, away from licensing content, and from all but the lightest of file security measures? Based on how the music market changed, I would say yes. So how do we meet them at that end? What is our role in getting there?

In bringing out these two points, this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the other presentations (although some were certainly better than others). The conversations I had with people I knew from their Twitter or blogs or Facebook were pretty awesome as well as the new people I met at the conference itself. It reinforces that social aspect that I think works to make for a better library community as whole; we just don’t get enough face to face time that builds stronger social bonds. It’s a shame, really, because this would be a good time for such kinds of meetings. Perhaps I’m being a bit too cynical in regards to online interactions and their new role in people’s social lives, but I digress.

I hope that my fellow conference attendees left with their own questions. I’m keeping my eye out for their tweets and posts. And I certainly look forward to seeing everyone again at another conference, hopefully before CIL 2012.