By Meredith Farkas | November 6, 2007
Today [Note: This part was written Monday] will be my first day back at work after the marathon that was Internet Librarian and the LAUC-B conference. I ended up giving 5 talks in one week, which is a record for me (and probably for most people other than Roy Tennant, Stephen Abram and other similarly superhuman beings — it wiped me out so I am decidedly not superhuman). Between the conferences, the time zones, and the time change, my body clock is completely messed up and I feel like I’m coming down with something. Last night I couldn’t fall asleep, so I ended up watching Waterworld until well after 2am (you know you’ve hit rock bottom when…). These were both absolutely wonderful conferences though, well worth any sleep disturbances.
Prior to the conferences, I’d come to the conclusion that I shouldn’t live-blog conferences. Some people are really amazing conference bloggers like Jenica Rogers-Urbanek, Jenny Levine and Erica Reynolds. Me? Not so much. I’m more of a commentary person, so I didn’t want to bore you with badly done outlines of what people talked about. I was never that good at taking notes in college and I definitely haven’t changed. I noticed less conference blogging going on at this conference. Maybe I’m not the only one who came to this conclusion or maybe it was all the problems people had getting Internet access.
Like any conference, some were excellent, some were abysmal. It’s always depressing when you read a description that sounds so interesting and then the talk has no relation to what was submitted. As a speaker, even the bad ones are interesting, because you learn at lot of “what-not-to-do’s.” One thing that’s critical for me is enthusiasm. If a person doesn’t deliver their material enthusiastically, it’s hard for me to stay interested, no matter how cool their topic. I respond to people’s energy. One of my other pet-peeves is talks that are about really idiosyncratic projects that could never be replicated anywhere but their own institution. I come to talks looking for inspiration; things I can take back to my job. It’s selfish to give a talk (or write an article) on a project that no one else can benefit from. Maybe people should really write up some learning objectives before they create their talk.
One bright spot was the Evidence-Based Practice talk by Frank Cervone and Amanda Hollister. Frank talked about the usability program at Northwestern. I was really interested in the fact that people who wanted to become members of the Web Advisory Group must read a list of required readings on usability and go through a training. Sometimes these groups can get so bloated with people who aren’t knowledgeable or all that interested in usability or design. I love the idea of an induction process. The only problems is that Frank didn’t tell us what the required readings are and I know many of us are eager to hear (Frank?).
Amanda talked about the tool her library developed for analyzing the paths users take on their website. She got code off the web for dynamic page-based bread crumbs for web pages that would recreate the path you took instead of showing a specific static path. They adapted it to make it more usable and that created an XML crumb file that traps pages visited, IP, and page timestamp. So they can see where people went and how long they spent on each page to figure out what might be confusing people and what pages people are most keen to find. You can pick a single page to analyze and it will show you how people got there (and how people got lost). I’d say the only negative about this talk is that what they developed isn’t freely available online for us to download and start using. But it definitely got me thinking about better ways to do usability testing!
I also enjoyed Erica Reynolds’ talk, Web Lessons from 4,000 Years of Art, where she talked about how she and her team applied inspiration they got from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to their web redesign. Considering how amazing the redesign of the Johnson County Library website is she is definitely someone I would listen to on the subject of web design. Her slides are here if you’re interested in seeing what it was all about. I have loved every post she’s written on her blog about art and design; I just wish she would post more often!
The other highlight for me was Joe Janes’ keynote. His column in American Libraries really doesn’t do him justice and should definitely be changed into a podcast. I nearly peed my pants during his talk he was so funny. And so right. His insights about reference were spot-on and really made me question how we do reference. I actually ended up quoting him in my talk at UC Berkeley a few days later (and got laughs from it! Thanks Joe!). To actually see what he talked about, Jenica Rogers-Urbanek and Erica Reynolds both did a beautiful job covering it.
Between the sessions:
I really do enjoy Internet Librarian, but so much of the material covered in the conference is a review for me. While I always get some insights and inspiration from the sessions, I find that I get the most value from the conversations that take place before and after the sessions. So many of us spend all our time in libraries where we are the only ones who care about social technologies. To be with a group of people who share my interests and my frustrations is absolutely energizing. I feel so comfortable among these people I see at most 3 times per year. I always have so many great conversations at lunches and dinner, over coffee and drinks, or even at karaoke! I’m lucky to have such a great group of friends in the profession.
I come back to work with a recognition that I’m not alone in this, that there is a huge network of other librarians struggling to create better subject guides, better information literacy tutorials, better communication tools. The reality though is that we shouldn’t need a conference to share that information. Some of us share information informally over Twitter, IM and on our blogs. But the knowledge isn’t collected in a single space and some of it is totally ephemeral. I created the Library Success Wiki in the hopes that people would share information there about the projects they’re working on. What do you use to create your subject guides on the back-end? How is your gaming program set up? How do you provide outreach to distance learners? It’s hard to motivate people to do that without someone asking specific questions though. I’ve been thinking of setting up wiki barn-raisings on certain topics. Maybe I could put a question out on my blog and/or on Web4Lib and ask people to contribute the answer to the wiki. That way it would be easily findable by everyone and everyone could continually add to and update the answers. I sorely wish I had more time to devote to the Library Success Wiki, but fortunately, it is constantly growing thanks to so many wonderful people in the profession. And remember, we all own the wiki, so if you have an idea for making it better, go for it! Some saint was in the wiki last week adding categories to pages that didn’t have them. Rock on!
It stands to reason that if the discussions are the best part of the conference for some people, then perhaps more of the conference should be dedicated to those informal conversations. Interested in subject guides? Get a group together to discuss that. Interested in Facebook and MySpace? Form a group to talk about that. People can submit what they would like to discuss and other people can sign up if they’re interested in talking about that. The person who proposed it isn’t the speaker or even the facilitator; it’s just a free and open discussion. Everyone is simultaneously the teacher and the learner.
Unconferences are a really neat idea, but I think so many unconferences get such big crowds that intimate discussions are impossible. I think there should be no more than 15 people in a group for any discussion or it becomes a conversation between the loudest and most dynamic people in the room (even 15 is a bit too big for in-depth discussions). That means that lots of different conversations must be going on at the same time. After going to the Readex Digital Institute at which there were only 30 participants and speakers invited, I am really a fan of the small, intimate conference setting.
I also would love to see conferences designed for those of us for whom Internet Librarian is a review and Code4Lib is way over our heads. A conference for the techie-non-coder (I’m sure there’s a better name for us, but I’m not good at coining phrases). I hear that LITA may be looking at creating a conference like that, but hopefully they won’t charge as much as they charge for Forum for people to attend. Really, I’d like to go to a conference that’s more about strategies than technologies. Ok, I already know what the tools are and how to use them in my library. How can I sell them to administration and staff? How can I market them to patrons? How can I mange projects. How can I do effective tech-training? How can I create organizational change? How can I make 2.0 stuff happen within a 1.0 organization? How do we know what our users even want and how do we get from assessment results to creating new services? That is the stuff that, to me, isn’t covered enough at conferences. And maybe talk of strategies is best suited to an unconference. Whatever the format, I think it’s the area that we really need to start talking about more. Otherwise, we’re just implementing these tools willy nilly without a thought about sustainability and user needs.
Peter Brantley once told me I should try to get a job at UC Berkeley. I said, “yeah, but I’d have to live in a cardboard box” and he replied “yes, but it’s a cardboard box in Berkeley.” I get it now… sort of. I’d actually never been to Berkeley before last week, so it was really neat to see the area. I can see why people live there, but I’m a country-girl at heart. Not really my scene. Still, gorgeous campus, great city, lots of nice restaurants. Probably wouldn’t kill me to live there (though the whole cardboard box thing would).
I gave the keynote at the Librarians Association of the University of California-Berkeley conference. It was really weird to be giving a keynote when all of these really distinguished librarians were there. I mean, Michael Buckland was giving a talk!!! I was at dinner with him (and some of the other speakers) the night before and was too nervous to say anything to him other than “nice to meet you.” I still get totally star-struck over certain people. Buckland’s What is a Document is the only article I saved from library school. And I, with less than three-year’s experience in the profession, was giving the keynote. Power of Web 2.0, I guess, or maybe the world’s just gone crazy.
Maybe that pressure had a positive effect on me, because I think it was the best talk I’ve given. I never got such positive feedback from a talk before, and I felt really good while giving it. I’d finished creating the presentation a while ago, but at Internet Librarian, I ended up revising it because I got so many good ideas. The talk was about Academic Library 2.0; what I think it means in our work with our patrons and in our internal workings. I really think organizational change is critical to being able to make the sort of changes necessary to be more user-focused and agile, so after detailing all of these characteristics, I asked the question “Is your organization (as it is currently structured) able to make all this happen?” I think most of us would say no. Some libraries might need a McMaster-type change of their entire organizational structure. Others might need to just focus on creating a culture of learning and risk-tolerance. Others might need to give people more freedom to make decisions and nurture talent in their organization. Either way, I think it really does require changes from within to create an organization that can respond rapidly to user needs and really nurtures the talent of their staff so that they can do great things for their patrons.
Michael Buckland’s presentation (with some of his colleagues) was definitely one of the most interesting talks I’ve been to in a while. It really piggybacked well on Joe Janes’ keynote on changing the way we do reference. Buckland sees reference 2.0 as being more about self-service than finding all sorts of cool ways to communicate with our patrons. Many patrons would much rather find the answer themselves than ask for help, so we should be looking to create online reference tools that are easy-to-use and reliable, taking advantage of the hyperlinked nature of web pages to link to contextual information about any topic. He also discussed the importance of having reference material grounded in time and space, which is often difficult to accomplish.
To this end the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative came into being, of which Buckland is the co-director. It is “a global consortium of people who share the vision of creating a distributed virtual library of cultural information with a time and place interface.” It’s a project that’s been in existence for 10 years and is well-worth checking out if you haven’t heard about it before (their site is rich with information). I found the whole talk fascinating and it made me realize just how incredibly insufficient what we currently have in terms of online reference resources really is.
I finished this post on Tuesday night, because I sadly was right about coming down with something. I’m achey, fatigued and have all the fun respiratory symptoms. Not surprising with all the people sneezing on me during my four hour layover at JFK on Saturday (what is with people not covering their mouths! Eww!). I had to leave work early today and ended up sleeping the entire afternoon away. While I do enjoy speaking and I do enjoy the discussions I have at conferences, they take a lot out of me. Then again, were I not to travel so much, I wouldn’t feel that same sense of joy at coming home and sleeping in my own bed. All in moderation.