ALA Annual Conference 2011: Technology, Community, and Collaboration

Attending the American Library Association (ALA) 2011 Annual Conference in New Orleans last week once again inspired a deep appreciation for how technology, people, and dreams are combining to create onsite and online communities extending beyond anything imaginable even a decade ago.

As those of us involved in workplace learning and performance continue reading the reports we collected, thinking about the numerous inspiring conversations we had with colleagues, and recalling the overwhelming number of opportunities we had to see what is happening in libraries and the communities they serve today, we’re struck again by how the themes of community and collaboration are at the heart of what many are doing and exploring in contemporary libraries. And nowhere is that more clearly evident than in the pages of Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public Library, a first-rate report written by ALA Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) fellow Roger Levien.

The writer quickly moves from the obligatory lofty statement we often see—“Public libraries play a distinctive and critical role…that is essential to the functioning of a democratic and market-oriented society” (p. 12)—to more from-the-heart suggestions of how libraries are partners within their communities: a “place at which most people could learn how to use innovative devices and media even before they became widely available and affordable” (p. 24)—an essential service at a time when learning never ends and many of us feel perpetually overwhelmed by all the new information and technology that comes our way. A place that “would also facilitate collaborations among individuals” (p. 24)—in other words, a real player in building and sustaining a sense of community. And a place offering “a range of specialized equipment and facilities to help authors, editors, performers, and other creators prepare new works, alone or in groups, in new or old media, for personal use or widespread distribution” (p. 26) as we already see in facilities as innovative as the Chicago Public Library’s magnificent YOUMedia collaboration with the Digital Youth Network for teens.

Levien persuasively reminds us that staff members of responsive and innovative libraries are providing resources for almost every imaginable member of our communities. They offer events “designed to educate, inform, and entertain children.” They provide a “safe, neutral, and flexible environment that many teens and their parents strongly prefer.” They have an increasingly wide array of services “to help in searching for employment, completing unemployment insurance applications, finding books and courses on new skills and new careers, and simply enabling adults to have a quiet place to read or relax. Many offer courses in the use of information technologies” (p. 17). They also create reading, meeting, and social learning centers that are better equipped than other community centers are.

There are even better times ahead, Levien suggests. Libraries are continuing to build bridges between their physical and virtual sites to meet the needs of onsite-online customers. Members of library staff are looking for ways to combine a focus on individual needs with a focus on community needs. Libraries are not only collecting but creating content to the benefit of those they serve—in essence, becoming content libraries that develop the very communities that they help sustain. And libraries are finding new ways to serve as portals to information as well as being accessible archives of information resources.

“The creation library has extended its role and become a place where media conveying information, knowledge, art, and entertainment are created using the library’s specialized equipment and facilities,” he notes (p. 20)—a reminder that those who have fallen away from using libraries can learn a lot simply by revisiting them onsite and online to see how much positive change is taking place within those community centers.

And we, as trainer-teacher-learners, have our own role to play. We have the responsibility to continue shaping what our libraries are offering; remain more than proficient in using what libraries offer us; and help our learners become more aware of, comfortable with, and effective at using library resources. Libraries are a critically important element of our local and extended communities in our onsite-online world. It’s up to us to be sure that the old and new technology they harbor doesn’t hide the opportunities they offer us—including their role in fostering business partnerships and community collaborations to support creative learning opportunities in even the most challenging of times.

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