ALA Midwinter Conference (Postscript): She Has Toys

February 3, 2014

We now have a new, unexpected corollary to American Library Association (ALA)  Strategy Guide Jenny Levine’s belief that ALA conference hallways provide an extensive network of informal learning venues: those hallways extend much farther into our blended onsite-online world than any of us could have imagined—and create amazing intersections.

ALA_Midwinter_2014--LogoWhile most ALA 2014 Midwinter meeting attendees were leaving Philadelphia Monday and Tuesday to return home last week, I remained in town an extra couple of days to relax, to explore the city and its wonderful museums, and to continue conversations and other informal learning opportunities with colleagues who were still there.

Georgia Public Library Service Director of Continuing Education and Training Jay Turner and I, for example, had an unplanned dinner, followed by an additional meal together the following day when it became apparent that the severe storm disrupting all forms of travel in Atlanta was going to force him to remain onsite in Philadelphia far longer than he anticipated. We took advantage of that opportunity to continue learning from each other about some of the tech trends in libraries and library learning endeavors we have both been exploring and, in that way, extended the conference hallways far beyond the walls of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

In between those shared meals, I carved out time to visit libraries on the Temple University and University of Pennsylvania campuses—and had no idea that the ALA hallways were about to intersect with the hallways created and nurtured by colleagues in the New Media Consortium (NMC) one year earlier.

The visit to the University of Pennsylvania begins with a return to one of the most lovely libraries and library reading rooms I’ve ever seen: the Anne & Jerome Fisher Fine Arts Library. The reading room is the sort of space where you ache to find something to read just so you can read it in that space—and if you love art, it’s not at all difficult to find something to meet that need. Leaving the Fisher, I decide to cross the quad for a brief visit to the Van Pelt Library. And that’s when the ALA Midwinter meeting hallways and the NMC hallways expand and collide in the most unexpected and wonderful way—transcending time and space.

Weigle--Entrance--2014-01-29Attending the NMC 2013 Summit on “The Future of Education” in Austin, Texas exactly one year ago—immediately before flying from Austin to Seattle to attend part of the 2013 ALA Midwinter meeting—I had met an NMC colleague (Anu Vedantham) who serves as director of the David B. Weigle Information Commons. Dinner with Anu and a few other NMC colleagues in January 2013 was a spectacular experience for me for many reasons: I had loved the Weigle Information Commons from a distance ever since I had come across a playfully clever introductory video prepared by Weigle students using Weigle resources; sitting with Anu and other colleagues in Austin a year ago gave me a chance to hear first-hand about how the Commons had developed since the video was produced; and the conversation unexpectedly continued a few days later in Seattle when one of our dinner partners unexpectedly showed up on the ALA Midwinter exhibits floor at the same time I was browsing the exhibits—and, furthermore, turned out to be sharing a room with a colleague with whom I was serving on an ALA committee.

And now, I’m experiencing that NMC-to-ALA process in reverse, for as I enter the Van Pelt Library, I turn to my left on the first floor of the building and see a large sign marking the entrance to Weigle—which I had completely forgotten was on the University of Pennsylvania campus. I approach a person sitting at the Commons reception desk and ask if she can “help me find a colleague who works here” (because, of course, I had also forgotten that Anu is director of the Commons). Less than a minute later, Anu is giving me a fabulous whirlwind tour of the Commons in the 15 minutes she has available before her next meeting.

Anyone interested in training-teaching-learning and the intersection of technology, learning, and libraries needs to see the Weigle Information Commons. It doesn’t matter how you see it. In person. Online. Through blog pieces like this one. Or through videos. What is important is that you become aware of what it means to contemporary training-teaching-learning endeavors.

Weigle--Talk_Away_Sign--2014-01-29The spaces are lovely, flexible (furniture can easily be rearranged to accommodate various learners’ needs), well lit, and inviting. Data diner booths, for example, include prominently-displayed cards encouraging learners to “Talk away” and reminding them that “Weigle Information Commons is for discussion and group collaboration”—key elements in many successful learning experiences.

Walking past a variety of group study rooms designed to facilitate conversations onsite as well as online (through Skype), we arrive at the original Vitale Digital Media Lab—another sign that those ALA Midwinter conference hallways are reaching beyond the spaces within the Pennsylvania Convention Center, for I see a physical manifestation of the sort of tech learning and lending library that former ALA President Barbara Ford described to me a few days ago (at the Midwinter conference) when she was discussing the roles libraries can play in helping learners explore new technology. Staff and student interns are there in the Digital Media Lab to work with their peers. And for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors in a variety of settings, there is yet another opportunity to be pursued: students who in the course of learning to help other learners explore new technology could easily be part of the talent pool from which we will draw new trainer-teacher-learners as they enter our workplaces in the next few years if we welcome them into learning organizations such as ALA and ASTD (the American Society for Training & Development) to provide them with a gateway to our profession.

Dot Porter, in the "Vitale II" media lab

Dot Porter, in the “Vitale II” media lab

The tour doesn’t end there. With my usual luck, I have arrived just in time to attend a launch party marking the opening of an extension of the Digital Media Lab: “Vitale II,” a wonderful space that operates as a smart classroom/collaborative meeting room, on the sixth floor of the Van Pelt Library, to support digital research in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts. Vitale II has a moveable conference table and chairs in the center of the room; a high-resolution camera in the ceiling so that what is being demonstrated on the table can be projected onto a large screen in the room and also transmitted to offsite colleagues who want to participate in whatever is happening in the lab; and a white board listing upcoming formal and informal learning opportunities, Curator of Digital Research Services Dot Porter shows me as Anu leaves for her next appointment.

To say that I’m inspired and overwhelmed by all I’m trying to absorb during this 30-minute visit doesn’t even begin to capture all that Weigle, its labs, and its staff and students suggest in terms of where we are going in training-teaching-learning. I want to be working and learning in one of those spaces. Now. But knowing that my time in Weigle and the two Vitales is limited, I play one of my favorite games with a staff member: I ask her to blurt out whatever words come to mind as she thinks about what Weigle offers so I can see the Commons through the eyes of someone very familiar with it. She confirms what I expect: Collaboration. Learning. Technology. Playfulness. Whimsy. And then she captures what she loves about what Anu fosters throughout the extended Commons: “She has toys”—and she makes them available.

It’s clear that our opportunities to learn from each other in this sort of creative, playfully collaborative setting are steadily increasing. And it remains in our hands to reach across the onsite and online hallways we all traverse to see where these opportunities will take us—and those we serve—in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead of us.

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Rework: Collaboration, Creativity, and the Spirit of Wikinomics

July 25, 2010

The commitment to improvisation, collaboration, and sharing that runs through all successful workplace learning and performance efforts is at the heart of Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s recently released book, Rework, a wonderful collection of very short essays about how we need to rework much of what we currently do.

It’s a book very much of its moment as those preferring Web 2.0-style collaborations and those who feel territorial about everything they produce attempt to find common ground. The writers suggest that we avoid the complexities and turf wars which so often hold many of us back from achievements we might otherwise produce if we weren’t trying to do too much, trying to recreate what others are doing rather than pursuing our own vision on behalf of those we serve, and allowing ourselves to “obsess over tools instead of what [we]’re going to do with those tools” (p. 87).

Readers familiar with Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams’ Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, will find themselves on familiar ground here as they encounter Fried and Hansson’s suggestion to “sell your by-products” (pp. 90-91)—a suggestion rooted in the idea that if we find applications for everything we work on rather than focusing only on what we set out to do and leaving untapped resources as waste material, we become more effective at what we do. Trainers, for example, might take parts of something already finished and find a new use for it, as Gwinnett County Public Library Training Manager Jay Turner did by using video clips from a live staff recognition event to create a new half-hour virtual staff day video which more than 90 percent of staff voluntarily watched after he posted it online for them; Turner found another way to rework the material by writing, for other trainers, about the tools he used to produce the piece.

Another familiar aspect of the book is the light and playful approach the writers take—which also carries over to the promotional videos posted on their website for Rework. The simple graphics which are interspersed with the text throughout the book seem to take a page—or many pages—from Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin and Unfolding the Napkin, which help trainers and other presenters see that we don’t have to display the artistic skills of Michelangelo or Rafael to be able to reach others. The use of the graphics and the stylistic device of providing short sections on dozens of interrelated themes—most pieces are no longer than a tightly written blog posting and have the same sense of informality—make the book a pleasure to peruse and easy to absorb. Which means it again offers a great model for trainers who are tackling complex topics and trying to find ways to break the complexity into small, digestible chunks.

It is not the content that is revolutionary here. Reminders to improvise (pp. 18-20), produce something tangible rather than engaging in endless discussions about producing something tangible (pp. 33-45), undertake a few achievable projects rather than trying to pursue every possibility and ending up completing none (p. 83), ask what problems we are solving through our undertakings (p. 100), and learn by doing rather than always trying to duplicate what others have accomplished (pp. 134-136) simply take us back to basics we should already know but all too often set aside in a frenzy of trying to respond to all constituents without serving any of them effectively. And if we can relearn and rework some of these lessons, just imagine what the learners we assist will gain.


Training to Blog Effectively

January 5, 2010

Because we can often learn by reaching outside of our usual professional and social circles for ideas, those of us interested in more effectively using blogging in our work have a lot to gain by skimming David Risley’s 49-page “Six Figure Blogger Blueprint” (available as a free download on the upper right-hand corner of his blog site).

While Risley writes much of his publication for those interested in making money from blogging, he offers a first-rate blogger’s primer that hits its stride with a “deciding what to blog about (market selection)” section starting on page 13 of the document. His initial question takes us back to basic principles: “Can you help your reader solve real problems that exist in the real world?” We’ve seen this principle at work recently on ALA Learning through postings by Peter Bromberg, Stephanie Zimmerman, Jay Turner, Marianne Lenox, and others; faithful readers of others blogs written by and for staff of libraries and nonprofit organizations can confirm that they are drawn to those that help them solve problems they are facing or are about to face.

“Focus on how your information is going to benefit the lives of your readers,” Risley continues, and his admonition serves as a great reminder to all writers that the difference between a well read, helpful blog and one that collects virtual dust for lack of readers is that critically important attention given to readers rather than to the writer’s ego. If we remember that it’s not all about us—although, in the best of worlds, our own writer’s voice becomes part of the value we provide—we take our blogging to a level which attracts and serves readers well and builds connections between them and the organizations we serve.

Risley does a great job of addressing the mechanics of effective blogging, and he includes suggestions to help inexperienced writers overcome writer’s block. Reminding his audience members that they attract and serve readers by posting on a consistent and predictable basis, he suggests writing in batches—preparing several postings in one sitting so that we are writing ahead of deadline rather than on deadline; maintaining an idea file which keeps the flow of articles going; and avoiding the trap of overthinking—“this is a blog post we’re talking about here, not a novel!”

His “step-by-step blog launch plan and roadmap” (beginning on p. 41) reminds all of us to stay focused on our blog’s target audience; set a cohesive blog theme; create a few very valuable articles at the beginning to lay the foundations for a successful blog; and use social networking tools to effectively extend the reach of all you do. And above all, keep writing.

For those attracted to his voice and helpful hints, he has also posted “50 Rapid Fire Tips for PowerBlogging,” a fine supplement to “Six Figure Blogger Blueprint.”

“The idea is that you use a blog to build up an audience and build relationships with your readers,” he reminds us (p. 33), and that’s a theme that resonates loudly and clearly with all workplace learning and performance professionals as we strive to create effective communities of learning and provide measurable results for the organizations with which we work.


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