Two Nights in Philly (Visiting SLA 2011)

On Monday and Tuesday evening this week, after a long day at work I hopped on the train to meet and dine with my fellow librarians in Philadelphia. The Special Libraries Association annual conference was in the area and I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to meet with a whole new set of librarians that I generally only know through Twitter, Facebook, or the blogs. Monday was a chance to meet students from Pratt at the Hack Library School meetup and then onwards to the people I consider to be my tribe, Library Society of the World. Tuesday, I will say, was the night I was really looking forward to as I got a chance to share a meal with Ned Potter. We’ve been corresponding back and forth for months on various library advocacy things so it was great to actually meet him. Later on, I was glad to meet Laura and Bethan as well as the other British librarians who had made the trip over (Chris, Sam, and Natalia) at the SLA Dance Party.

In reflecting on two days worth of conversations (both sober and slightly less than sober), I will say that it was a nice change of pace to hear about libraries that don’t face the same obstacles as public libraries. While socializing with the SLA Pratt students, the range of environments in which they were operating their libraries was fascinating. From hospitals to government agencies to non-profits, each person brought a new set of difficulties and challenges to the table. As someone who works in a public library and is generally surrounded by public librarians, it was like visiting a different culture which spoke the same language but had different customs. It was fun to question and explore what these students were doing and how their library experience was radically different or surprisingly the same as mine.

To me, it poses it’s own conundrum: how does one advocate for special libraries? This was uncharted territory for me; on top of that, it is very contextual. In some cases, it’s not an issue when the company, agency, or business has an output or product based on knowledge resources. In other cases, it’s a matter of convincing an executive or government bigwig that the library is not a cost center and has value on its own merits. In assessing it in the scope of Big Tent Librarianship, it begs its own question: so how does it fit under the tent? Where is the give and take as it relates to other libraries? These are things I’m going to have to think on now, but I welcome other insight.

It was a couple of great nights in Philadelphia. I hope to be able to see everyone again; in the meantime, I’ll see you online!

North by Northeastern Pennsylvania

I just want to thank Brian Fulton and my graduate school classmate Sheli McHugh for inviting me to speak to their Spring workshop yesterday. After driving up the northeast extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike under weather conditions mimicking the end of the first Ghostbusters movie (lots of lightning, some wind, and a little rain for ninety minutes straight), the weather was gorgeous yesterday at Misericordia University.

The topic of my talk was “Advocacy & You” which was a misnomer from the start; it really should be “Advocacy is You”. It was my first time using Prezi, an excellent alternative to the loathsome PowerPoint platform. Having rehearsed my talk for over a week (the lessons of Pres4Lib are finally paying off!), I felt very confident about how the talk went and at ease in going over everything I wanted to present. I really hope the attendees took away an idea or two from my talk; I’ll be waiting to hear back from the comments sheets to get feedback on what things stay, what things need sharpening up, and what things need to go.

Afterwards, Sheli and Brian took me to the Albright Memorial (Scranton Public) Library fundraiser. I have to say that these people know how to throw a fundraiser. Live music, food, and a band on a blocked off street? It was a great vibe and an excellent way to end the day. The library itself is gorgeous albeit crammed for additional collection space. Stained glass windows, dark stained woodwork, and marble floors and columns made me ask if it had been a church a couple of times (the answer is still no). With a plastic wristband and drinking Yuengling out of a deep plastic cup, we mingled with Sheli’s old coworkers and other people attached to the library. There were hundreds of people in attendance and I could not help but think about how amazing a fundraiser it was. I certainly hope it bulked up their coffers for the rest of the year, especially as the Pennsylvania budget shakes out.

In getting home today, I wanted to thank Brian and Sheli again as well as the Pennsylvania librarians and trustees (yes, this workshop had trustees at it) who attended. It was a great trip and a good start to the Memorial Day weekend.

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.

CIL bound

For the next couple of days, I’ll be in Washington DC crashing the 2011 Computers In Libraries conference. I’ve been looking forward to this for awhile since I get to see a lot of the librarians who I know through blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.
Right now I’m on a train heading south, the rising sun shining through the Amtrak Quiet Car like a blinding headlight. When I can look out the window, it’s a reminder as to all the sections of Philadelphia has. Rich, poor, middle class, industrial parks, abandoned lots, playgrounds and parks come and go as the train lurches forward across the landscape.
I’m writing this on my iPad which I’ve never posted from before; so, any errors will be blamed on it. You can follow me at CIL on Twitter through the link in the right sidebar.
Alright, time to watch the world go by.

Blatant Berry Bottom Line

In leafing through the issue of Library Journal from earlier this month, the latest John Berry article made me sit up in my seat. Entitled “Half Way to ALA”, he discusses the true cost of conference attendance in terms of dollars and (more importantly, in my estimation) professional advancement.

As to the first part, the financial estimates that Mr. Berry tosses out ring true to me. Even in taking transportation out of the equation (Boston and Washington DC, the locations of the past Midwinter and Annual, are within driving distance for me), the sum total of hotels, meals, and other expenses puts it easily well over $1,500 for an attendee. While some of my friends have worked out ways to save money by sharing rooms or seeking alternative housing venues, the other costs still remain the same and leave it hovering around $1,000 to attend. Not exactly small change by any stretch of the imagination.

The more important and salient point that Mr. Berry references in his piece is that of the cost of professional development to younger librarians. The statement made by Mr. Berry is that the conference is attended by those who get the least use out of it: directors, top management, and others who are well established and well compensated through their position. It creates a ‘generation gap’ in which the new librarians are generally shut out of the professional development opportunities that would benefit them the most in their nascent career. I can’t illustrate it in terms other than horticultural: when you plant something new, you take care to make it grow. You give it water, ensure that it gets the right amount of sun, fertilize the soil to provide essential nutrients, and protect it from predation and temperature extremes. This is no different than the ideal treatment for our up and coming librarians in providing them with the professional development and networking opportunities in order to create a stronger and smarter profession.

This is not meant as a vilification of the older generation of librarians. I’m certain that there are some that would consider the benefits of compensated attendance as a perk of their position and their work to reach such a place. Nor is there an easy answer for providing the financial support that would be necessary to allow young librarians. You’d have to be living under a rock for the last year to not know about the current state of library budgets. This puts some library vendors in the same boat with us as their revenues are partially married to our own expenditures.

The question that this post leaves in my head is this: what are the options that remain for younger librarians to attend conferences? In attending ALA annual this year, I heard a raffle over the convention loudspeaker giving away trips to the conference next year. That sounds nice, but it doesn’t specifically address young or new librarians. I know ALA has a list of travel grants and scholarships, but that helps a handful of librarians (and I see one of the travel grants is not available due to lack of donors). Not exactly overwhelming, but I have not given the subject a rigorous inquiry.

The thought did cross my mind: what would it take to someone to sponsor someone like myself to attend a conference? Could I wear one of those NASCAR jumpsuits and sell advertising space on it? Could I sell sidebar space on my blog? Endorsement deals? Booth appearances? Appear in advertisements? What would it take for someone to put up the money that would pay the way to attend?

I’d wonder what people thought about ‘selling out’ (either for me or themselves) and what would be an offer they couldn’t refuse. I’m not sure what would be the line for librarians. I have a feeling there is a strict adherence to objectivity even when none is called for. I’d like to hear from people on this, so please leave a comment with your thoughts.

(And if anyone is looking to sponsor a librarian, I’m all ears for your offer. I think I’d look decent in one of those NASCAR jumpsuits.)

TEDxNJLibraries Takeaway

cropped-tedxnjlibraries[1]This past Friday, I had the privilege of attending the TEDxNJLibraries conference at the Princeton Public Library. The theme for the conference was “Culture and Community”, a pair of topics that was deftly addressed by the speakers chosen. As the afternoon progressed, I heard passionate speeches about people, places, and circumstances that moved the speakers. As the world shifts and the lines of connection grow thicker, in the days afterward, I found myself asking, “What does culture mean? What does community mean?” The amount of isolation that exists in the world is dimming as the means of communication grows faster, cheaper, and more prevalent. This is not to say that culture and community are disappearing, but the walls between different forms of them are becoming translucent and permeable.

One of the talks that stuck with me was by Francis Schott, one of the Restaurant Guys. He was talking about the value of places where people can meet, interact, and enjoy each other’s company in the time of the meteoric rise of online communities and social media. In our rush to connect the world, we are touch with some of the things that go with socialization: empathy, emotional cues, and some social norms of civility in interaction. As someone who has followed different stories about New Jersey libraries in the news, I cannot help but wonder as to some of the commenters on some of the news pieces. It is hard to imagine that anyone would actually speak the things that are written if there was a actual human being physically present at the other end of the conversation. In thinking on it further, some of the comments left on library and librarian blogs that I frequent really have me shaking my head. For a more specific example, the people on both sides of any given issue on The Annoyed Librarian blog over at Library Journal really concern me as these commentators are (I can only presume) professional peers. Regardless of how you might feel for the AL, if someone were to say to you some of the comments that are left on that blog, you’d think they were a deeply disturbed or a sociopath.

Even without anonymity, there seems to be some breakdown of social norms. My monitoring of the “Save NJ Libraries” Facebook page has given me a few examples of people actively engaged in attempting to incite people within the group via derogatory comments and inflammatory statements. The practice, colloquially referred to as ‘trolling’, has induced me to keep a close eye on what appears on the page and remove uncivil or inappropriate postings. Even with their real name and picture, it will not deter people from associating themselves with the most ignorant and/or hurtful pronouncements. Likewise, I have seen similar uncivil behavior on Twitter. On one occasion directed towards me, I was told that I was an asshole and blocked by the offended user simply for questioning the basis of their opinion as to a particular stance on a library issue. (I’m not the only one to have a run-in with this individual, as some of my Twitter friends have been told how awful they are for holding differing opinions and subsequently blocked by this individual. It’s a nice validation to know that your experience is not alone and that this person is the issue.) I think this is the rough equivalent of having a near stranger walk up to your seat at a conference, scream obscenities at you, and then ban you from their library in perpetuity for asking them why you put the fiction on the left side of the library rather than the right. And this is supposed to be a professional colleague, one for whom you are looking to rely on for larger national library issues and other important matters.

Even with that said, I think the state of the library blogosphere is pretty civil overall; it is these aforementioned cases that are the exception to the rule. And I’d rather not think that the TEDx conference left me on a sour note for the state of discourse in the librarian social sphere and the greater societal realm. There were great talks about what microfinance is doing here in the United States and in countries around the world. I got to hear about taking jazz to school kids around the country and taking rock music to the Middle East are bringing new perspectives to the next generation. To me, the power of the communication and transportation technologies lies in allowing people to share and celebrate in the other cultures and communities in the world. Even with the advent of the television bringing images of far away lands into people’s living rooms, the instruments and tools of media and mobility today take it a step further in allowing for more immersive travel experiences. You could watch it on television, or you can hop a plane and be there within a day: those are radical experience choices that are becoming more accessible every day.  

As a fleeting thought, I wondered if the library experience is our remaining attraction. In the same way that Starbucks does coffee and Five Guys does burgers and fries, people will pay more for a premium quality product and experience. Translate this over to a tax line or levy and you get roughly the same equivalent. Our competition is not the bookstores, the internet, Google, or coffee shops; rather, our competition is ourselves. It is up to libraries to provide an experience that is reflective of the communities served; I think people want something that reminds them that this is their library in their hometown. While the majority of our materials and resources are national and international in origin, it is the local staff and materials that make the local library experience unique.