ALA Midwinter 2018 (Denver): Rethinking, Re-viewing, and Walking Through a Magical Forest

A colleague (Puck Malamud) here in Denver for the American Library Association (ALA) 2018 Midwinter Meeting, which formally begins later today (Friday, February 9, 2018), accurately observed during our brunch yesterday that librarians and other trainer-teacher-learner-doers—what Jonathan Nalder calls “edunauts”—are completely “meta.” We love to look at the thing behind the thing: if we’re immersed in learning, we love exploring how learners learn; if we’re writers, we love exploring the writing process itself; and if we’re thinking about the myriad possible futures for libraries and other critically important learning organizations, we’re going to be talking about, re-viewing, and rethinking the very processes we use to help nurture the future(s) of our dreams.

Sitting with University of South Carolina School of Library and Information Science Director R. David Lankes for dinner shortly after I arrived late Wednesday afternoon, I found the meta and rethinking flowing freely very early during a conversation about how we are rethinking the roles of libraries and library staff within the communities we serve. Responding to a question I asked him about his latest projects, he described how he and his faculty colleagues are exploring the very terminology they use to describe the sort of organization they are continuing to nurture at the university. Where we have seen “library “ schools evolve into “information” schools, Dave and his colleagues are taking it an additional step and “placing a stake in the ground” to promote the development of a “school of knowledge”—a place where the focus is not on the library or the information, but on the impact that the university’s graduates will have on the communities they serve throughout their careers through thoughtful application of the knowledge they have gained—and continue to gain as lifelong learners.

It’s a theme Dave has been developing and exploring with colleagues all over the world for the past few years—a natural extension of ideas he proposed in The Atlas of New Librarianship and other books he has written; has developed through presentations and conversations with his peers—what Jonathan would call his fellow edunauts; and will further clarify through a monograph he and University of South Carolina faculty are currently preparing for publication. And the conversation remains open to all of us through writing he has done and presentations he continues to share, including the archived recording of and slide deck (with speaker notes) for “The Opportunities and Obligations of the Knowledge School.” Although the clear and obvious target audience for that wonderfully entertaining and thought-provoking “Opportunities” presentation was a group of school librarians, it would be a shame if it didn’t reach the larger audience of edunauts engaged in training-teaching-learning-doing endeavors. All of us contributing to our wonderfully dynamic onsite-online (blended learning) environment through K-12, higher education, vocational schools, museums, libraries, and workplace learning programs need to be looking for and taking concrete actions that produce positive results. That’s what Dave and his colleagues and many others are attempting to do:

The flow of meta and rethinking continued, for me, the following night in what felt like part of one continuing and ever-expanding conversation as I had dinner with Denver-based colleagues/friends/sources of inspiration Pat Wagner and Leif Smith. The conversation, toward the end of the evening, turned to a discussion about the process of rethinking how to conduct interviews for a book in progress. I mentioned to Leif that I was capturing interviewees’ comments though the use of Google Docs for the interviews themselves. (The interviewees have access to a unique document for each interview. I post questions. They respond in real time, which means I see their thoughts taking shape on the page word by word, and I can actually be formulating and entering new questions that help clarify their response while they are still in the middle of crafting their answers. The completed document, after light editing for style and typographic errors, becomes the accurate transcript from which I draw material for inclusion in the book.) This process produces richly evocative passages in each interviewee’s own voice—often conversational, but also refined in-the-moment through that typed-chat format—and obviously contains more content than I’ll ever be able to use in the book (Change the World Using Social Media). So I have been taking some of the more focused interviews and running them, in their entirety, as separate articles on my blog along with excerpts from the manuscript-in-progress as a way of obtaining early peer review that will help shape the final content.

Leif, fascinated by what was for him a new approach to interviewing, provided one of those amazing observations that just spring full-blown from him as if poetic phrasing and inspiring thought grows on the trees in his head: “A book is like the footprints of a creature that has walked through a magical forest, and if you follow those footprints, something like the spirit of the forest enters into you. That’s what happens if the book is really good.

I later joked with friends who often gather for evening coffee and dessert at the end of the day at conferences, that I never did get around to ordering dessert after that dinner with Pat and Leif. But, I added, that lovely passage really wasn’t, after all, dessert; it was a second main course, expertly prepared by one of the great thought-chefs in my life, and a reminder that our experiences at conferences along the lines of ALA’s Midwinter Meeting extend far beyond the walls of the rooms where the formal presentations and discussions are occurring.

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