ALA Midwinter Conference: Informal Learning (in Conference Hallways)

January 28, 2014

Most of the learning at conferences takes place in the hallways, I learned from American Library Association (ALA)  Strategy Guide Jenny Levine during a conversation we were having in an enormous hallway here at the ALA 2014 Midwinter meeting in Philadelphia before she delivered the obvious punch line: “And ALA conferences have a very large number of hallways.”

ALA_Midwinter_2014--LogoAnyone involved in training-teaching-learning knows that Levine’s observation about hallways (and, by extension, other spaces such as the conference Networking Uncommons and exhibits areas) parallels conclusions firmly grounded in research done on informal learning in our workplaces. And anyone who habitually participates in conferences arranged by the organizations serving specific professions (ALA for libraries, ASTD for trainer-teacher-learners, and many others) know that those hallways are increasingly blended to combine onsite and online interactions via Twitter and a variety of other tools to respond to those who might otherwise feel left behind.

Informal learning in the ALA 2014 Midwinter meeting Networking Uncommons

Informal learning in the ALA 2014 Midwinter meeting Networking Uncommons

My own informal learning at the ALA 2014 Midwinter meeting began on Friday—the first full day of the conference—when I decided to visit the Networking Uncommons before the exhibits area opened. The fact that I never made it to the exhibits area—one of my favorite informal learning spaces—that evening is a testament to what ALA Strategy Guide Jenny Levine has created: Finding a group of colleagues engaged in an impromptu conversation about technology in libraries, I realized I didn’t have to cruise the aisles of the exhibits hall to meet those colleagues—the group of people I needed and wanted to be seeing were gathered right there in the Uncommons.

The same thing happened the following morning when I walked over to the cavernous area housing the ALA onsite bookstore, the conference registration desk, and an area being used for demonstrations of Google Glass. On assignment for the American Libraries blog, I was hoping to photograph a few people trying that wearable technology, interview them, and learn more about how Google Glass might be a useful tool in the work my colleagues and I do. With my usual good luck, I arrived just a few minutes before former ALA President Barbara Ford did, so I was able to photograph her trying the device and then conducted a follow-up interview that was included in that blog article providing readers with projections of how the voice-activated device might work its way into libraries and other learning environments dedicated to facilitating training-teaching-learning.

My informal learning continued over lunch that day with Peggy Barber, a cherished colleague who always manages to bring me up to date on something I wasn’t smart enough to be exploring on my own. She had recently published an article on “contagious marketing” in American Libraries, so I asked her about one of the sources she had quoted (Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On) and told her about a similar book I had read a few years before (Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die). What we learned informally from each other over lunch will deepen as each of us reads the book recommended by the other.

Libraries_Transforming_Communities--LogoThe sort of expanded onsite-online hallways I’ve noticed at earlier conferences reappeared while I was attending an onsite session Sunday morning on ALA’s “Libraries Transforming Communities” initiative. Presenters Maureen Sullivan and Cheryl Gorman. As they were discussing the positive impact the initiative has had in fostering collaborations and partnerships between libraries, library staff, and members of the communities they serve, I tweeted out summaries of some of the highlights. Some of those tweets were immediately retweeted by other conference attendees so that the information reached a larger audience than might otherwise have been possible, and at one point a tweet attracted a response from a novelist who objected to a comment made by one of the presenters. Seizing the opportunity to further expand the conversation, I read the comment to Sullivan and Gorman during a question-and-answer period, took notes on their response, and condensed it into a tweet to briefly extend the conversation with the novelist. The informal learning that morning traveled down some very long and intriguing ALA hallways that eventually drew responses from colleagues who aren’t even formally affiliated with ALA.

Similar exchanges continued throughout the days I’ve been here in Philadelphia, and the expanding hallways continue to take some intriguingly unexpected turns. Conversations in a wonderful session this morning on libraries as catalysts of change began within the formal setting of the session itself, expanded a bit through tweets and retweets, then unexpectedly continued briefly when the presenter—Lisa Bunker—and I ran into each other in the Networking Uncommons, and really deepened when the two of us decided to continue our informal conversation over lunch, which provided the most wonderful learning nugget I acquired during this Midwinter conference: “We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to show up.”

As long as those hallways that Levine and many others help create are available, I will be exploring them. And reporting informally on what I learn.


ALA Midwinter 2014: Life at the Speed of Light

January 24, 2014

Attending the American Library Association (ALA) 2014 Midwinter Meeting here in Philadelphia is helping me viscerally understand the concept of dog years—that belief that a year in a dog’s life is much more compressed than a year of a human’s life.

ALA_Midwinter_2014--LogoArriving a couple of days early so I would have a chance to acclimate to time and climate changes (and make no mistake about it: leaving San Francisco’s unseasonably warm weather for nine-degree Fahrenheit temperatures and snow-covered sidewalks and plazas here is a major change), I spent a little time during that first evening learning to walk on snow and ice without looking as if I were a runner-up contestant on a show combining America’s least-coordinated people with a perverse parody of the Ice Capades (sans ice skates).

Having remastered the art of walking by mid-day Thursday, I immersed myself in one of the relatively new local gems: the Barnes Foundation, with its exquisite collection of Impressionist works, African masks and more contemporary paintings and watercolors. Entering the gallery spaces with little more than a passing awareness of the controversies surrounding the move of the collections from their original site to this newly-created space near the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Rodin Museum, I found curiosity about the controversies being quickly replaced by a sense of awe and wonder by the scope of the collections (more Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Prendergast, Glackens, Demuth, and Pascin paintings than I’ve ever seen in any other permanent collection). And more importantly, I felt a deep sense of appreciation for the learning opportunities that ALA inspires me to pursue each time I travel to a major city to attend and participate in an ALA Midwinter Meeting or Annual Conference.

ALA_2013--Top_TweetsMidwinter-mania really began to set in late Thursday afternoon and evening when I continued a long-standing practice of having dinner with colleagues engaged in training-teaching-learning in libraries and started also monitoring the #alamw14 Twitter hashtag to see how others were faring. Dinner and the conversation with the colleagues reminded me again of why I so deeply value the connections made through ALA and other professional organizations and through the use of Twitter backchannels. The shared meals combined with the use of those backchannels makes it possible to no longer be limited to being in any one place at any given moment—they provide us with countless sets of virtual eyes to gain a far more complete view of what conference interactions produce. And they also set us up for the very fruitful encounters none of us could possibly arrange but which seem to come our way if we’re attentive, flexible in how we approach our conference schedules, and sometimes just plain lucky.

Those unexpected encounters sometimes begin very early in an Annual Conference or Midwinter Meeting cycle: I’ve run into colleagues while waiting to pick up luggage in airports, while checking into hotels, and even once unexpectedly met a conference-bound colleague when the conference-scheduling muses arranged to have both of us ride the same shuttle to reach the San Francisco Airport for our departing flight to a conference. And today was no different: two hours before the first official conference event—the opening of the Exhibits Hall—I was looking for a way to relax after a very stimulating and inspiring daylong committee meeting which involved strategic planning for the group of which I am a member. Knowing that the Networking Uncommons offers a place to decompress, I was beginning to settle into a table when a cherished colleague—ALA Learning Round Table board member Maurice Coleman—spotted me from across the room, walked over to the table, and invited me to join him and some of his LITA (Library and Information Technology Association) colleagues for what turned into an unexpected exploration of how Google Glass works because one of the LITA members had obtained a Google Glass two days earlier, followed by yet another dinner with colleagues deeply immersed in and passionate about the libraries, library users, and library association they serve.

So yes, I feel as if I have lived weeks instead of days between Wednesday and Friday of this week. And yes, I’m already completely exhausted yet equally exhilarated by what attendance at ALA Midwinter 2014 has provided even though most of the formal programming and meeting opportunities are yet to come. Can’t wait to see how many dog years Saturday brings when I rejoin the world Saturday morning.


ALA Midwinter 2013: Learning to Transform Communities One Panel Discussion at a Time

January 30, 2013

“The conversation starts out in Seattle” turns out to have been far more than an ephemeral marketing slogan for those of us lucky enough to attend even part of the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting that ran from Friday, January 25 – Tuesday, January 29; it was an inspiring call to action that extends far beyond the conference site and the libraries represented there.

ALA_Midwinter_2013We had plenty of opportunities to catch up with colleagues, reflect upon how easy it is to explore and act upon the big ideas that we so rarely take the time to ponder, and be present at numerous activities focused on an effort to promote positive change through collaboration in our extended onsite-online world: ALA President Maureen Sullivan’s presidential initiative, “Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities.”

The interactive presentations began Saturday morning with a panel discussion that Sullivan moderated. Panelists included Richard Harwood, founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation; Tim Henkel, president and CEO of Spokane County United Way; and Carlton Sears, past director at Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County and certified coach with the Harwood Institute—and it only took a few minutes for Harwood to get us going by reminding us that to move our country forward, we need to find ways in communities to get things done.

Furthermore, he suggested, we need to restore a sense of belief in ourselves and forge the sort of meaningful relationships that foster positive change at the local, regional, and national level. Libraries, he continued, are uniquely positioned to support community development—an idea we’ve seen repeatedly in reports ranging from the Urban Libraries Council study “Making Cities Stronger” (2007) and the “benefit study” published by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library that same year to the resources compiled online by Iowa Library Services, to cite just a few of the resources available to us. Libraries across the country are already doing great work, he acknowledged, and there’s room to do even more.

Sears was equally direct in praising libraries for what they are accomplishing, and stressed the need for “authentic” engagement within the communities they serve. Involvement, he said, begins with a simple question: “What kind of community do you want?” Because work done by community activists tends to spread, he said he thinks of is “as a virus—but a good one!”—and he seemed committed to nurturing the spread of that particular virus.

In the end, Harwood agreed, we’re all in this because we believe in communities, and it’s clear that attendees at that initial session were ready to return home after the conference concluded so they could use the tools and resources provided during the Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities sessions.

Harwood--Work_of_HopeSullivan, Harwood, and the other panelists left us with plenty of great resources; those interested in exploring his work can access a free online version of his book The Work of Hope: How Individuals Can Authentically Do Good from the Harwood website. There is also additional coverage of the panel discussion available in American Libraries online. Three other onsite programs continued the discussion: “Community Engagement Conversation: The Work of Hope”; “Community Engagement Conversation: Appreciative Inquiry—The Library in the Community”; and “Community Engagement Conversation: Change in the Community, Change in ALA.”

Abundant Community advocate Peter Block was also onsite for a program drawing upon Community: The Structure of Belonging, the book he co-wrote with John McKnight.

The groundwork has been laid, the challenge issued. Now it’s up to those of us inspired by Sullivan, Harwood, Block, and the others to spread the word, dive in as advocates, and help nurture the promise that libraries and other community-based organizations and initiatives offer.


The Well-Connected Community: Attending Conferences with Genetically-Enabled Foursquare

January 30, 2013

Foursquare—that lovely social media tool that helps make us aware, through geotagging capabilities, of how physically close we are to those we might not otherwise encounter—seems as if it would be a uniquely valuable tool for those of us attending conferences and trying to catch up to colleagues from across the country or around the world.

ALA_Midwinter_2013The idea that our mobile devices could take the initiative in providing us with information we hadn’t yet thought to actively solicit—e.g., finding out, through notifications, who among our friends and colleagues is nearby—is something that David Weinberger and Nova Spivack referred to as being a part of Web 3.0 in January 2009 during a presentation at an American Library Association presentation in Denver. In positing a Web 3.0 world in which our devices would alert us before we asked for the information, the two presenters clearly evoked a wide range of reactions during that session. Some people were clearly fascinated and excited by the prospect, while some of us appeared ready to crawl under the nearest rock and whimper about the loss of privacy and anonymity. Most fascinating to me, at the time, was the discovery a few days later that the sort of service Weinberger and Spivack were predicting as an innovation on its way was already in use; a quick online search today confirmed that Foursquare itself was created within months of Weinberger and Spivack’s presentation. Furthermore, one of its predecessors (Dodgeball) preceded the prediction by nearly nine years—once again proving how hard it is to be a futurist in a world where the future seems to have unfolded before we even have a chance to predict it.

nmc.logo.cmykFoursquare came back to mind during my recent participation in the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project Summit on “The Future of Education” in Austin, Texas and the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting in Seattle over a seven-day period. Although there was no need for anything like Foursquare at the NMC conference—all 100 participants were staying in the same wonderful resort outside of Austin and spending our days in one beautifully accommodating meeting room—one could argue that the ALA conference, with thousands of participants bouncing back and forth between meeting rooms in the convention center in Seattle and also staying in a wide range of hotels throughout downtown Seattle, was prime Foursquare turf.

And yet I never once thought about signing up for or using Foursquare to expedite connections. From the moment I stepped onsite into Seattle’s enormous Washington State Convention Center, I began running into exactly the colleagues I hoped to see. Within my first hour there on a Friday afternoon, I had settled into a conversation in a lounge area with a colleague from Nashville. We were joined, intermittently, by colleagues from California, Chicago, and many other places. Walking the large exhibits area early that evening, I had opportunities to talk with colleagues from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Dublin (Ohio), Chicago, Orlando, and many other places. In fact, a colleague I initially met earlier in the week at the NMC summit in Austin was there in Seattle, and it turned out she was sharing a room with a colleague with whom I serve on an ALA committee. (I’m left wondering whether Foursquare could have alerted me to that particular connection.) I capped off the evening with my one planned encounter: dinner with a colleague who recently left Georgia to accept a wonderful new position in Cleveland.

I suspect it’s not necessary to drag this out with an hour-by-hour description of all the similar encounters I had throughout the day on Saturday, but it’s worth noting that when I found myself unexpectedly with a completely unscheduled 90-minute block of time Sunday morning, I ran into a cherished colleague—Peggy Barber—who never manages to leave me less than completely energized by her descriptions of the projects she currently is completing. We decided to take advantage of that opportunity to go to a nearby independent coffee shop—the Caffe Ladro outlet at 801 Pine Street—that had been recommended by Seattle residents so we would have some uninterrupted time for conversation. And you surely know what came next: we ended up sitting next to a couple of other conference attendees who were close associates of a colleague from Florida.

That’s when I had another moment of revelation: neither Peggy nor I are drawn to Foursquare because we somehow have a genetically-enabled version of the product deeply embedded in our DNA.

I’m not saying I’ll never try Foursquare. But for now, it seems redundant in a world where the simple act of showing up puts me in contact with those I most cherish and who, in turn, make me glad that our incredibly connected onsite-online world somehow manages to place us in exactly the right location at exactly the right time to sustain our various communities of learning and communities of practice.


The Big Ideas Connecting People, Conferences, and Conversations

January 27, 2013

Developing and acting upon big ideas sometimes requires big leaps, so it’s no surprise to me that the leap from San Francisco to Austin to Seattle over the past several days has left my head spinning.

ALA_Midwinter_2013Three days of participation in the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project summit on “The Future of Education” in Austin, Texas followed by a few days with colleagues attending the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting here in Seattle created the sort of Intersection discussed by Frans Johansson in The Medici Effect, a book about “breakthrough insights at the Intersection of ideas, concepts, and cultures.”

That NMC summit fulfilled its implied promise of creating an Intersection:–in this case, a gathering of what NMC Founder/CEO Larry Johnson has called “100 thought leaders” to discuss wicked problems and plans of action to address those challenging problems that require entirely new ways of thinking and that help redefine the way we view our world. We were there to try to make a difference.

nmc.logo.cmykHaving already written about the first and second days of the NMC summit and reflected on subtle and not-so-subtle interweavings of themes between that summit and what I’ve been discussing and experiencing with friends and colleagues at the ALA conference, I continue finding the connections to tremendously strong. It’s as if both conferences have melded into one nearly week-long immersion in a profound, intensely deep well of ideas that challenge us to rethink much of what we take for granted in our work and personal lives.

At the NMC retreat, we were looking for ways to address the challenges of redefining roles and identities for students, faculty members, and administrators; fostering an ecosystem for experiential learning; and defining ethical boundaries and responsibilities in learning, among other things. Here in Seattle, some of us are looking for ways to address the challenges of redefining roles and identities for library staff and library users in a world requiring intensive lifelong learning efforts; fostering an ecosystem for information literacy, digital literacy, and open access to information resources; and defining ethical boundaries and responsibilities in strengthening the communities we serve.
.
But it all comes down to people. That’s what was at the heart of the future of education summit and the ALA Midwinter meeting. Sitting with my colleague Buffy Hamiltonthe Unquiet Librarian—at an ALA conference session on “the promise of libraries: transforming communities” this morning, I quickly realized that this was yet another opportunity to engage in metalearning—learning about learning—by observing how all of us in the room were learning from the presentation.

The obvious primary focus was the content of that panel discussion—something so deeply inspiring, challenging, and rewarding that I’m going to return to it in a separate article. Equally important was the way content was being offered, consumed, and disseminated. It wasn’t just about how the presenters engaged us. It was equally about how Buffy and I, along with several other audience members in the room, were recording and commenting on that content via the conference Twitter backchannel—and how that content was reaching and being further disseminated outside the room by others retweeting what we were documenting. There were even times that Buffy and I, even though we were sitting side by side, interacted by retweeting each other’s notes when one of us had missed something that the other had captured.

Because I work with and help others learn to use social media tools in ways that open up opportunities for them by providing access to people and resources that might otherwise not be available to them, I know we still have plenty of people who see Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and many other tools as frivolous distractions. But what continues to become clearer to me day by day is that those tools can equally serve as means to foster the dissemination of information that helps us tackle those wicked problems that are at the heart of so many challenges we might otherwise be inclined to ignore. And whether we use them to augment our daily face-to-face interactions, the Intersection moments that are created at events along the lines of the future of education summit and the ALA Midwinter meeting, or backchannel exchanges, we miss something essential if we don’t acknowledge the seeds we plant each time we gather, talk with, listen to, and build upon the conversations that turn big ideas and dreams into even bigger solutions that sustain healthy communities. It’s learning as a step toward action, and each of us helps build the world of our dreams when we embrace these offerings.


Connecting the Dots in an Onsite-Online World: Metatrends in Travel, Life, and Learning

January 26, 2013

Having the unusual experience of jumping from one professional conference to a second this week is providing learning experiences most of us rarely encounter—and one that shines an extremely bright spotlight on what it means to live, work, and learn in a completely blended onsite-onsite world.

nmc.logo.cmykAfter leaving San Francisco on Monday, I was completely immersed in the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project Summit on “The Future of Education” in Austin, Texas from mid-day Tuesday to mid-day Thursday. Trying to capture even most cursory set of highlights of the discussions held on Tuesday and Wednesday meant absorbing highly stimulating and challenging ideas from some very bright colleagues from schools, colleges, universities, museums, and libraries all over the world—then condensing them into blog–sized posts late at night before returning to the intellectual arena the following day for even more of the same.

Making the transition from Austin to Seattle Thursday evening to attend part of the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting at first suggested the need for a major shift in thinking. I assumed ALA_Midwinter_2013I was leaving behind the education summit themes of wicked problems including the need to rethink higher education, rethink online learning, and deal with how we effectively incorporate technology into learning. Diving into the ALA conference, I suspected, would instead focus on a different set of wicked problems, including the roles libraries play in a variety of arenas including lifelong learning, information literacy, intellectual freedom, and the overall development of communities—geographically defined communities as well as global online communities.

It didn’t take long to realize that there were dots to be connected between the two conferences and the two sets of wicked problems—and one of the major connections is the technology that makes it possible to jump between two such conferences so seamlessly.

Some of the subtle connections rapidly became apparent as I started running into colleagues in the Washington State Convention Center here in Seattle late this afternoon in hallways, reception lounges, and more formally organized activities; the conversations we had were amazingly similar to those in which I participated during the education summit—the need to rethink what we’re doing, abandon some of our core assumptions, and take advantage not only of our face-to-face opportunities to explore and act upon the challenges we are facing, but also to draw offsite colleagues into the conversation via tweets and twitter feeds, posts on Facebook, and other online extensions of the onsite conversations.

There were also the completely unsubtle reminders that geographic barriers are far less constraining then they were even ten years ago—barriers often reduced or completely knocked down by how quickly relationships are established in one arena (e.g., virtual communications), extended into a physical setting, and then extended even further in both settings.

My latest moment of revelation came this evening when I connected the dots between meeting, for the first time, an NMC Horizon Summit attendee Tuesday because we were both live-tweeting the summit from different parts of a meeting room housing approximately 100 attendees. By mid-day Wednesday, she and I had managed to engage in face-to-face conversation, then continued the conversation via the Twitter feed throughout the afternoon, and then ended up across a dinner table with eight other colleagues that evening. We said good-bye to each other early Thursday afternoon in Austin—and then unexpectedly were face to face again this evening while walking the exhibits floor at the ALA Midwinter meeting—an event drawing thousands of people from libraries across the United States. But even that isn’t the remarkable and marvelous part of the story. We ran into each other twice in that huge exhibition area this evening, and it was only during our second encounter that I realized the colleague with whom she was traveling is a member of an ALA committee that I chair—a colleague, I should add, that I’ve only met face to face one time, and with whom I will be having lunch tomorrow before our committee meeting begins. Turns out the two of them are rooming together here at the conference, and neither of them had known how the three of us were connected until we met on the exhibits floor.

While all of this may sound like some freakish “who would have thought it” sort of encounter worthy of little more than a “wow, how strange” sort of reaction, I believe it speaks to something far deeper and more important in our world of rapid travel, seamless onsite-online communication, and learning. It speaks to our natural inclination toward socializing and learning since a thirst for learning drew us to these events; our need for affiliation anywhere we can find it; our drive to create, nurture, and sustain community wherever and however we can develop it; and our willingness to continually push the envelope on what it means to “meet” somebody, engage with somebody, and build upon relationships that, without attention, could begin to grow and then quickly wither away if left unattended. It also speaks to the almost magical, mystical nature of how we forge connections in a world of countless interweavings through a variety of means— not the least of which is the creative and effective use of social media tools—with an eye toward solving some of those wicked problems we continued exploring at the NMC education summit.


%d bloggers like this: