ALA Annual Conference 2013: Keeping Up

June 28, 2013

“How do you keep up?” is one of those perennial questions we repeatedly hear and/or ask at gatherings like the 2013 American Library Association Annual Conference (which formally began here in Chicago late Friday afternoon with keynote presentations and the opening of the Exhibit Hall)—and the only reasonable answer is “Who’s keeping up?”

ALA_2013_Chicago_Logo_FINAL_CLR_0 (1)We ask it of colleagues or new acquaintances who seem to have read far more than we are reading or ever will have time to read, or have taken one more course or workshop than we have taken, or not only already know every session they are going to attend during a conference, but also already know exactly where those sessions are being held—because they’ve explored every nook and cranny of convention center buildings that appear to be larger than the towns in which we grew up (and, by the way, they also seem to have memorized the map of conference hotels—several of which host offsite events).

Keeping up in the context of a conference that has attracted at least 25,000 attendees can be approached in many ways. One is to assume that we’re going to run into people who know much more than we do and are willing to share that information with us. Another is to hold a printed copy of the official program and begin skimming it to sift through offerings that could keep any one of us busy for years. A fine alternative is to search the online version of the program or download a copy of the free conference app.

To put this in perspective, let’s note that The 132nd Annual Conference & Exhibition Program & Exhibit Directory has more than 300 pages of content, including two full pages of Association acronyms (pp. 68-69, attendees!), a five-page section of “conversation starters & ignite sessions” (pp. 82-86), 71 pages of program descriptions (Friday – Tuesday, pp. 91-161), 10 pages of author events (is there anyone who is still seriously suggesting that we no longer read?), and a section of exhibitor listings that could probably cover all the walls in a typical conference attendee’s hotel room if the pages were meticulously detached from the Directory and affixed to the walls from ceiling to floor—and then extended across the ceiling for good measure.

A friend once offered an aural version of the ALA Annual Conference experience by standing on a chair, dropping a copy of the brick-like Directory onto a table, and producing an explosive noise similar to what we hear in one of those wonderful summer thunderstorms that provide brief periods of relief from the local heat and humidity. Keeping up with all that information and all those opportunities? About as likely as building a snowman on the shores of Lake Michigan before the conference ends next week.

Freakonomics_coverAnd yet we try to keep up. Because we’re fascinated. Because we can’t turn down a challenge. And because we know it’s far more fun to be sitting in that large auditorium when the opening presentations and keynote address remind us that the conference is now underway. And we don’t want to be the one who hours later is scanning the conference Twitter feed (#ala2013, with many also using the shorter #ala13) and regretting not being at the live presentation when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel makes an unannounced appearance as part of the welcome committee. Nor do we want to try figuring out after the fact why Freakonomics and Think Like a Freak co-author Steven Levitt has most of us in hysterics through a keynote address that somehow weaves together the disparate revelations that the best ideas are those that become obvious only after the first person proposes them; the badge of honor in economics is being able to mess things up and then explain why you weren’t responsible; the author’s father was once dubbed “the king of farts” in GQ; and his most successful research project showed that Chicago prostitutes are more likely to have sex with police officers than to be arrested by them.

We also don’t want to be left out when that magnificent Exhibit Hall opens and major mainstream publishers began handing out free prepublication copies of books that won’t be available to the general public for weeks or months yet. Nor do we want to lose the wonderful memories and stimulating thoughts that come out of attending gatherings that are this well-organized. So we skim our paper and online copies of the Directory. We push ourselves to visit one more publisher’s booth or carve out time for one more conversation with a vendor whose products and services we adore or find intriguing. We stop in crowded aisles and corridors and coffee-shop lines to ask colleagues we don’t see nearly often enough what they are attending, doing, reading, writing, and thinking. And then we stay up long past our normal bedtime to write about it so we can safely preserve a few of those experiences, share them with others, and prepare to do it all over again tomorrow in another futile yet appealing attempt to keep up.


ALA Annual Conference 2012: To Tweet or Not to Tweet

June 28, 2012

Although I was more intensely engaged in the twitterverse than ever before while attending the 2012 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference this week in Anaheim, I was surprised to find that at some levels it was a far different experience that participating in the recent American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) International Conference & Exposition Twitter backchannel.

Both conferences had streams of tweets that were virtually impossible to completely follow; there was simply too much content for anyone to absorb. And I was relieved to hear an ALA colleague who was dedicated to keeping up with it finally admit, halfway through the conference, that even she was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the flow. Both conferences also had a core group of tweeters who recorded and disseminated information about what was happening in conference sessions.

But one thing that was distinctly different between the two conferences was that ASTD members who were prolific at tweeting were capturing content from a teaching-training-learning point of view—live-tweeting from sessions to share information that the rest of us could later incorporate into our own workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors—while many of the more frequent conference attendees who were tweeting in Anaheim were producing a combination of personal tips about where to find the best conference freebies; sightings of keynote speakers and other celebrities onsite for conference events; personal observations about the experience of attending a conference with more than 20,000 other people; or, at an extreme edge of the backchannel, an overtly snarky set of observations—sometimes live and from sessions where the subjects of their criticisms were in the front of a workshop room or on stage in a crowded auditorium. Fortunately for those tweeters, none of their targets seemed aware of or inclined to respond to those criticisms in the moment as happened in a situation described by Cliff Atkinson in his book The Backchannel.

Anyone inclined to think the comparison between the two groups of backchannel contributors is unfair or an apples-and-oranges sort of effort needs to remember that members of library staff are increasingly finding themselves in the role of trainer-teacher-learner as a core part of their responsibilities to those they serve, as Lori Reed and I document in Workplace Learning & Leadership. Members of library staff also need to be as up-to-date in their knowledge of tech tools as workplace learning and performance practitioners need to be—yet there were signs at the ALA conference that we’re somewhat behind others in our acceptance, use, and promotion of those tools.

When Sharon Morris and I introduced a live Twitter feed via TweetChat into our “Ignite, Interact, and Engage: Maximizing the Learning Outcome” session at the conference, for example, one of the first tweets to go out from a session participant was one of amazement (and, we hoped, happiness) that we were encouraging our learners to incorporate Twitter into that learning experience.

There were signs elsewhere at the conference that others were not at all pleased by the presence of a Twitter backchannel and the use of the mobile devices that connect so many of us and those we serve without regard to geographic barriers. One conference attendee noted, via Twitter, that someone had yelled at him for tweeting, and another attendee reported via Twitter that she was told she shouldn’t be using her iPad during a general-assembly keynote presentation.

It’s obvious that we’re still very much in a state of transition in terms of how we use and accept the use of Twitter, backchannels, and tech tools in public settings. And I firmly believe we need to develop a better sense of etiquette—perhaps along the lines of something I usually do: asking those around me if my use of a laptop or mobile device to capture session notes and share them with others via Twitter will disturb them. I’ve never had a colleague turn me down, and only had one presenter—one who was going to give a presentation on e-learning best practices in a venue far removed from the ALA conference—defer.

Discussing this with a colleague at the conference, I found myself in the strange position of actually speaking up in favor of the tweeters—strange because, five years ago, I really didn’t want a cell phone or a laptop or anything else that I perceived as a burden/distraction rather than a resource, and I had little experience with social media tools. But colleagues, friends, and outright necessity have completely reversed my thinking, and I don’t believe it’s an understatement to say that those of us involved in training-teaching-learning—workplace learning and performance practitioners, library staff members, people involved in customer service in an onsite-online world, and many others—really can’t afford to overlook these resources if we want to be competitive and effective in meeting the requirements of our work.

My colleague’s observations about the conflicts between those using Twitter and mobile devices and those distracted by or resentful of the presence and use of tech tools and resources produced an interesting exchange. Perhaps, she suggested, we could resolve the conflicts by setting aside a special area during keynote addresses and smaller workshops for those who want to tweet. Perhaps, I responded, we could set aside a special area for those who want to be free of the presence of mobile devices and tweeters. For in an onsite-online world where the majority of those we serve actually appear to be ahead of us in their acceptance and use of Twitter and mobile devices, we might as well intellectually as well as physically make a clear and visible statement about where we stand in terms of meeting them where they are and prefer to be met—as unobtrusively, civilly, and respectfully as possible.

N.B.: To hear an extended (45-minute) conversation on the topic of Twitter as a learning tool at conferences, please listen to T is for Training Episode 101, “Instant Professional Development,” hosted by Maurice Coleman on June 28, 2012.


ALA Annual Conference 2012: Volunteers, Irresistibly Doing What They Do Well

June 27, 2012

Offering librarians a chance to provide information to their peers is like offering learning facilitators a chance to facilitate a learning experience for other trainer-teacher-learners: irresistible. Which is why the opportunity to serve as an Ambassador providing information to thousands of attendees at the 2012 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference that ended yesterday in Anaheim drew far more volunteers than we could place.

The role is simple: after attending a 30-minute orientation session online or onsite, conference attendees each serve a two-hour shift at a highly visible information kiosk directly outside the main exhibits hall or at the ALA Membership Pavilion in the center of that huge expanse of vendor exhibits. Working alongside ALA staff and paid greeters who live here in Anaheim, the Ambassadors were part of a seamless team that made life much easier for frantic conference-goers than would otherwise have been the case.

Watching those volunteer Ambassadors at work is to see artists engaged in their art. As is the case with any volunteer matched with an appropriate assignment, the Ambassadors were completely at ease, quick on their feet, calm under pressure, and amazing in their ability to find and share what their colleagues might not so easily have found without their assistance, e.g., locations for sessions; information about programs; pointers about how to take advantage of the free shuttle service that ferried attendees from the convention center to the various hotels where conference events were taking place; and, in a few cases, assistance in loading the conference app onto attendees’ tablets—which, by the way was spectacular for those of us who wanted not only to be able to track the sessions we planned to attend, but to also integrate our own privately-scheduled meetings into that central scheduling aide).

Even more worth noting is what motivates them—something that came to my attention when a colleague asked “What do they get?”, and I was temporarily flummoxed because those of us who recruited, oriented, placed, and checked in with them didn’t offer them anything tangible. The answer, however, is clear to anyone who has ever volunteered, worked with volunteers, and/or read Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. There is what he calls Motivation 3.0—Motivation 1.0 is survival-based motivation, Motivation 2.0 is a carrot-and-stick rewards-and-punishment model, and Motivation 3.0 uses autonomy, engagement, purpose, and mastery—which was clearly on display among the Ambassadors as they worked with little supervision, were completely engaged in what they were doing, understood the purpose of the assignment they had taken, and felt comfortable in their mastery of the skills required to excel at what they were doing. And asked, as they left their shifts this year, how they can return to the assignment next year when the conference is held in Chicago.

It really was a stunning example to anyone interested in designing, implementing, and nurturing a volunteer program: trust volunteers, don’t micromanage them, provide them with work that appeals to them and uses their skills effectively, and they’ll match what you receive from the best members of your paid staff.

By definition, volunteer opportunities are going to attract those who are willing to provide something without expectation of receiving tangible rewards. But those oh-so-intangible Motivation 3.0 rewards will always attract a first-rate group of volunteers who excel at what they do. Serve the constituencies they have agreed to serve. And contribute to the continuing development of the communities we all so clearly crave.


ALA Annual Conference 2011: Technology, Community, and Collaboration

July 6, 2011

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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