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: Technology, Training, and Buster Keaton

June 28, 2011

With any learning experience, the best part often occurs after the formal lesson ends. And the same can, in some ways, be said of the American Library Association (ALA) 2011 Annual Conference which had its final association meetings in New Orleans today.

Since I’m still in New Orleans as I write this, I can refer to what I did earlier this evening as my not-yet-home-work: reading an ALA Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) report that was released this month and very much complements a 90-minute session organized by ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy to highlight four innovative projects a few days ago.

Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public Library, written by OITP Fellow Roger Levien and the subject of a separate conference session I was unable to attend, is stimulating and highly recommended reading not only for those working for or interested in libraries but also for anyone involved in training-teaching-learning. The five-page summary, taking up nearly 20 percent of the entire report, provides the sort of concise overview we might expect from an information technology group: factual and focused on technology. Where the report really comes to life is in the remainder of the document, which includes eight cases describing possible versions of the sort of libraries we might see over the next 30 to 50 years; descriptions of how libraries might continue incorporating new technologies into the services they provide for their face-to-face and online users; and the learning opportunities that libraries will continue to develop and refine as they work to further claim their place in the world of social learning centers.

It’s in the later sections of Confronting the Future that the people using libraries receive far more attention and the technology becomes the means of serving those people rather than being the sole focus of the writer’s efforts.

But what still is largely missing for those of us involved in teaching-training-learning is something that only receives a passing glance in the final pages of the report: the immense learning needs that library staff and others involved in helping others understand the tech tools that surround them are going to continue struggling to overcome.

For workplace learning and performance professionals, highlighting technology that is rapidly-evolving without highlighting and exploring the need for continual, rapidly-evolving educational opportunities for staff is similar to the situation created by Buster Keaton in his short film One Week, where a house being towed across a set of railroad tracks narrowly misses destruction as a train passes on a parallel track—only to be demolished seconds later by a train which unexpectedly blasts into the picture frame from the opposite direction.

If we are not addressing the training-learning needs of our colleagues on the staff of libraries and other customer-service professionals, we are virtually guaranteeing that they will be on that second set of tracks.

“Future librarians will become digital media mentors, fluent in the languages and structures of digital documents and data and the availability of information resources on the Internet and elsewhere” (a situation that some of us are already seeing among our colleagues), Levien writes (p. 28). He returns to the subject, with one additional line in that 30-page report, to note that something will have to be done to help staff “acquire these competencies or assets through hiring, training, or cooperation with another organization.”

Or all three, I would strongly suggest.

Next: What the Report Suggests About Community and Collaboration

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