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.


ALA Annual Conference 2011: Learning With and From Our Colleagues

June 24, 2011

For those of us whose attendance at conferences is an essential part of our teaching-training-learning, there is an unofficial game that keeps us coming back for more: the game of wondering how quickly we will first run into someone we know.

I have yet to top the time I boarded a shuttle for the ride from my home to San Francisco’s airport and, five minutes later, discovered that the next stop was at a colleague’s home. Which was almost as good as the time that another colleague was on the same flight out of San Francisco even though we were leaving a couple of days before that conference was scheduled to begin. And it began this time when another cherished colleague and I, on our way to the American Library Association’s 2011 Annual Conference here in New Orleans, spotted each other on our way to a connecting flight that had us both in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and had nearly an hour to catch up on what we had been doing since our last encounter.

The extended game of Catching Up With Colleagues continued yesterday—the day before preconference activities were even underway. After conducting an orientation session for conference volunteers, I saw Peggy Barber, one of my favorite marketing colleagues, not far from the main conference registration desk. Because neither of us had any appointments scheduled—a rare occurrence at events where so much is offered in a relatively brief period of time—she and I were able to have a two-hour lunch that carried us far beyond our usual and all-too-infrequent hello-goodbye exchanges. There’s a level of magic that accompanies each of these unexpected encounters and reminds us why we go to all the expense and inconvenience of traveling all the way across the country. It’s what Frans Johansson describes so lovingly in The Medici Effect: when those of us who do not frequently see each other face to face have those concentrated bursts of face-to-face time, the exchange of information and ideas is as intense and rewarding as any well-run day-long workshop—and often far more productive. From her side of the table, there were thoughtful and thought-provoking observations about how many of us confuse advocacy with marketing and end up ineffectively promoting issues rather than taking to the time to listen long enough to determine what our clients and customers need from us. From my side, there were plenty of stories about what all of us are doing to promote effective learning opportunities in a variety of settings.

And our options for making those wonderful connections seem to be increasing at such a rapid rate that it’s hard to keep up with all that comes our way. But not impossible.

Even though I don’t have a smartphone and therefore am not constantly Big-C Connected at all times, I’ve learned enough from colleagues to check in for conference updates via Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media tools that can serve rather than enslave us if we use them effectively—at our moment of need. I also have learned to arrive onsite before activities are underway so I can see where the essential points of contact are: shuttle stops; information booths; meeting rooms; food courts; the onsite Internet cafés that mean we can leave our laptops behind; and those onsite lounge areas where tired colleagues tend to congregate and talk when they find themselves beyond the capacity to absorb even one more word from all the first-rate presenters we came to hear.

Much of it is serendipitous, and some of us comes from planning. After leaving my lunch-time colleague yesterday, I spent some time alone to absorb a little of what had already come my way. Then joined a small group of workplace learning and performance colleagues from libraries
all over the country.
And once again, the magic was a product of the meeting: our conversations went far beyond the routines of our day-to-day work. We meandered through conversations about our more personal pursuits. Talking about the loss of colleagues, friends, and family members who have left us since the last time all of us gathered. The changes and innovations occurring on a daily basis in workplace learning and performance. Our own creative pursuits.

And as Johansson suggests, the rewards are immediate. Visceral. And moving. As I confirmed for myself this morning when I woke up at 5 am and had to move more words from mind to paper so I wouldn’t lose all that our gatherings inspired.


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