By Meredith Farkas | April 20, 2007
I got back home from Computers in Libraries yesterday afternoon. The sky was a beautiful blue (still is) and the weather finally convinced me that it might be possible to get my snow tires removed. What a nice change from the weather I’ve been experiencing in Arlington, VA and New York City over the past few days. Before I went to CIL, I gave the keynote at the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Tech Day (and also got to see my terrific little brother who lives in the city). My slides and links to everything I mentioned in the talk can be found here. The same holds true for my wiki preconference at Computers in Libraries.
So I gave four talks over the past week and I think they all went pretty well. I have no regrets about them, which is probably the first time I can say that. It’s kind of amazing to me that it was just a year ago that I gave my first real conference talk ever, and how much a little 15-minute cybertour struck terror into my very heart. Jenica (an absolute sweetheart, btw) remembered it too:
I was at her presentation last year — the wiki Cybertour — and she was so very very nervous (for no good reason; she was great). And now? Now she’s not the least bit nervous. Which is cool to see, and just, well, a nice thing.
Yeah, it is kind of cool. I think it really shows that anyone can become a good speaker with a lot of practice, a little chutzpah and a real passion for your subject area. I feel more comfortable and learn something new every time I give a talk. Hopefully we’ll see Jenica giving a talk at CIL 2008.
I also had the pleasure of giving a presentation with my partner-in-crime, Michelle Boule on Learning With Blogs and Wikis. We talked generally about how blogs and wikis can be employed in educational settings and then about how we used them in Five Weeks to a Social Library. The slides can be found on our presentation wiki (with the promised pony, of course). We’ve done two major projects together and I would, without hesitation, get involved in any project Michelle wanted to do (even if it was to open an ice cream shop or a pet store). She is a joy to work with and I think our personalities complement each other well in the project management arena. It can be exceedingly difficult to find someone you like working with on projects that much; or at least that’s the case for me.
This was certainly the least I’ve ever blogged during a conference, though I think it was a good thing since I spent more time really enjoying the conference and thinking more about the themes I was hearing and what they meant to my work and to the profession in general. Here are just a few observations from the conference based on the talks I went to and the conversations I had:
On Crystal City and Space Issues
Crystal City seems to be just one big concrete jungle and with the weather being horrible for most of the conference, it was difficult to get to the restaurants (most of which are at least 1/2 a mile away). The hotel rooms are really nice, but the restaurant facilities are not really set up well for a conference. Also, the conference rooms were not great. One was way too small and one had big pillars that made it nearly impossible to see both the speaker and the slides. I also think that there were certain tracks that maybe aren’t as hugely popular as they once were (search engines) and others that are now hugely popular (anything involving Web Design, Community, Social Tools, etc.). Probably it would have made sense for the Web Design track to be in the big room and for the search engine track to be in the smaller room. Pretty much every talk for the Web Design track required an overflow room, and sometimes even that filled up beyond capacity. The things we are interested in as a profession are always changing, so probably it would be good for a reevaluation to take place for next year regarding which tracks to put in big rooms versus small rooms.
Twitter is Great for Conferences
I’m still generally on the fence about Twitter and whether or not I will use it in the long term, but I must say that it is a brilliant tool for conferences. Twitter makes it so easy to keep up with where your friends are and what they’re doing (and thinking) at conferences. Forgot to decide where to meet for lunch with friends? Just twitter a suggestion. Want to let people know you’re in the hotel bar and want to hang out? Twitter them your location. During sessions it made for a fun little back-channel where we could discuss our off-the-cuff impressions. I’m still having fun with it even outside of conferences, but it’s particularly great when you’re collaborating with folks or are in the same place geographically. It’s also great for getting feedback on stuff.
Library Have’s Versus Have Not’s
Maybe I’ve just been living in Vermont for too long, but at this CIL, I felt the growing chasm between the “have” and “have-not” libraries reflected more strongly than ever in the presentations. This may just be a reflection of the presentations I chose to go to. I went to a bunch of presentations that discussed projects I was excited about like the building of the new Darien Public Library, the new Cuyahoga County Public Library Web presence, MyOwnCafe, and myhamilton.ca. While listening to people discuss all of these amazing projects, I felt excited by what was possible, but I also started to realize how out of reach they are for most libraries, including my own. It’s wonderful that there are libraries pushing the boundaries and doing such innovative things with tech, but what about those of us who don’t have the money or tech know-how? I came out of the conference feeling like if I wanted a great Website at our library, I was going to have to pay some company big bucks to do it. What really worries me is that some people who don’t know better may think that too.
Most of them time, when I prepare a talk and I know my audience will be diverse, I give it with the cash-strapped small library in mind. The library that has a Webmaster (who is also the reference/instruction/collection development librarian) who uses Dreamweaver. The library that doesn’t have a coder. The library that doesn’t have a lot of money. If we paid a lot for something, I’d discuss low-cost alternatives. If we used server space people might not have, I try and think of alternative ways of doing it. I want my talk to be useful for the moneyed library and the small or rural libraries as well. I really enjoy the sort of talks Chad Boeninger gives, because he usually discusses how he used free and/or open source tools to provide services to his patron population. They’re also projects that almost anyone can actually accomplish with a minimal amount of tech savvy and risk tolerance. I guess my frustrations about this stuff is why I’m writing my column.
Don’t get me wrong, I think all of these talks were great! But if you’re giving a talk on something you’ve done that was costly, required heavy coding, or really wouldn’t work at most institutions, you should provide some takeaway lessons at the end of your talk that would be important for everyone. Ken Roberts of the Hamilton Public Library did that (they were GREAT lessons) and I found it so much more useful of a talk for it. I’m sure I’m in the minority, but I’m not really sure what I was supposed to take away from the Darien presentation. Cool, they’re building a fancy new library that is supposed to be “the first of the new libraries” with lots of flexible space, redefined reference desk, and lots of new tech. I guess the only thing I really got out of the talk was that we should take nothing for granted; that every assumption we have about how libraries should work should be questioned in an effort to better meet the needs of our patrons. But considering that none of their exciting new ideas about libraries (outsourcing tech services, their book ordering and delivery system, their book processing system, etc.) has been tested, I came out of it thinking “oh yeah?” I do think what they’re going to be doing is cool, but I guess I didn’t know what to think once it was over.
But How Do We Make it Happen?
Helene Blowers is an incredibly optimistic and positive person. So when she writes that her experience at CIL was “bittersweet” we should really listen up. Helene writes about how many people she heard from at the conference, who are tech savvy and want to implement all sorts of cool things at their libraries, don’t know how to make it happen due to organizational barriers. It would be great if we all worked in libraries like PLCMC, but, as Helene recognizes, not all of us would encounter such immediate and enthusiastic administrative support for the Learning 2.0 program.
A lot of the talks I went to described projects that I know would not work in my setting and some that would not work in most libraries. While many of them were really cool, I think we need more talks that are specifically about how to make technological change happen, how to convince our superiors that change is absolutely essential, and how to successfully manage tech projects. David King is one person who gives great talks on managing change, planning projects, getting along with IT and securing staff buy-in. I’d definitely like to see more talks on these topics and more general ones on practical uses of tech tools like “how to get people to contribute to wikis” and “how to manage library blogs so that one person doesn’t end up having to add content regularly forever.” I often find at conferences that these are the things people are really clamoring for.
I’d love to see an entire day at CIL (or IL!) devoted to this sort of stuff with tracks on Planning, Assessment, Selling Ideas to Colleagues and Administrators, and Project Management (all, obviously, with a techie focus).
Some scary things… some hopeful things
So I came out of Marshall Breeding’s talk on The New Library Automation Landscape feeling just as concerned as, if not more than, when I started. Seems like you either have vendors who are family owned and secretive or you have vendors who are owned by these private equity firms that usually purchase a company so that they can wring a lot of money out of it and do the old slash and burn. Marshall stresses the importance of figuring out what an automation vendor’s business model is and how well they are equipped to cater to libraries as customers. Who owns these companies really affects the trajectory of R&D and service. Marshall doesn’t see the automation market becoming a total monopoly situation, but there certainly has been a lot of consolidation, which has been alarming to many.
On the other hand, open source options have finally become a real option for libraries. the Pines project shows that libraries can band together to develop their own O/S systems that meet their needs. Koha has become more robust and is finally in a place where U.S. libraries are adopting it and it’s a possibility for larger libraries. Best of all, there are companies out there that will manage all this for you. O/S is free as in puppies, so there is still a significant cost involved in one way or another, but the possibilities for continuous improvements in O/S are much more exciting. Open source adoptions are growing and will continue to grow. Eventually I think we will see a sea change that will result in large-scale adoptions or development of open source ILS’ or in closed-source vendors finally giving us what we want.
Are We Really SO Different?
Michelle mentioned that two speakers at CIL discussed young people’s discomfort in traditional employee-boss or comand and control environments. She mentioned “in a recent discussion with my old boss, we were discussing how she, only a handful of years older then I, thrives in a strict organizational structure while I feel stifled and unhappy.” I just don’t know if the problem is really having a boss and traditional organizational structures. I have worked in an organization where I had a supervisor who was incredibly supportive and collaborative. She provided real leadership and inspiration. I liked having someone I could look up to and she was always willing to listen to my ideas and take them to heart. We both learned from each other. In this organization, she had a supervisor and her supervisor had a supervisor, but there was still a culture of learning where people at all levels realized that they could learn from those above and below them. I never felt stifled; I felt supported.
I’ve also worked in situations where the supervisor/supervisee relationship was not so collaborative. This supervisor felt that her job was only to control and to keep up with what her employees were doing. Other supervisors provide very little in the way of advice, support, and inspiration. They don’t think they have anything to learn from their employees and they are not willing to change their views on things. And in some organizations, while the employees get evaluated by their supervisor, the supervisor never gets evaluated by the employee. There’s no accountability and it just makes the employee feel powerless.
I don’t know if it’s that we have trouble with the traditional organizational structure. I think it’s that we have a lower tolerance for bad organizational cultures, bad managers and bad leadership. This isn’t just a 9 to 5 job to me; it’s a calling. It’s something I love. I want to do great things in my work, so if I feel powerless to make things better, I won’t be happy. I want to feel supported. I want to feel inspired. I want to feel like I can make a difference. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for, is it?
Since so many of us are so passionate about our work (seeing it more as a “calling” than a “job”) we do demand more from our work environments, but good managers can get so much more out of us because we are so passionate. That’s the positive side of the coin that doesn’t get mentioned nearly enough. It’s my take on it, at least.
Librarians are Amazing
Seriously, does this profession attract some of the most wonderful people in the world, or what? I am constantly blown away by the passion, generosity and big hearts that surround me at these conferences. Maybe it’s just the people I choose to spend my time with, but I doubt it. Many librarians really do like to share what they know and like to help others in the profession. And there’s no competitiveness; everyone is so supportive of each other. I just love it. I love every minute I spend with these people. Just as Jenica said to me before lunch yesterday, I feel more hopeful when I come back to work after a conference like CIL. Yes, things can get better!!!
All in all, an amazingly fun conference. I learned from the sessions, from my colleagues and from my friends (sometimes all three at the same time!). I always find the ITI conferences the most personally and professionally rewarding and am definitely looking forward to Internet Librarian in the Fall. I miss everyone I spent time with at CIL already! Why do you all (other than Jessamyn) have to live so far away?!?!? One day we’ll all need to break away and start our own super-fantastic innovative library. A library with ponies… with monocles.