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 2014: Prelude (Dream Baby Dream)

January 23, 2014

With the release of Bruce Springsteen’s High Hopes album earlier this month, many of us are hearing his version of “Dream Baby Dream” (originally recorded and released by Suicide in 1980) for the first time, and hearing how he transformed that simple song is as intriguing as comparing the Holly Cole trio’s version of “Tennessee Waltz” to the original Cowboy Copas version (1948) or comparing Neil Young’s version of “Four Strong Winds” to Ian Tyson’s original.    

ALA_Midwinter_2014--LogoThere are at least two lessons here for all the trainer-teacher-learners arriving in Philadelphia for the American Library Association (ALA) 2014 Midwinter meeting from Friday, January 24 – Tuesday, January 28: like well-composed songs, the work we do can be approached in myriad ways, and like the advice in that song on High Hopes suggests, we need to dream—and dream big.

Dreaming (and then acting upon those dreams) is, of course, at the heart of any conference of the caliber of the ALA Midwinter Meeting. This, unlike its larger, more presentation-oriented counterpart held each summer by ALA, is where Association staff and members gather to do the actual business of ALA within the context of the numerous division, round table, and other committee meetings that draw participants from across the country together for several few days, and I couldn’t be happier than to be among them.

This, for me, is a chance to participate (as a volunteer serving on the ALA Publishing Committee) in that committee’s work through a daylong planning and review session; we will, among other things, be dreaming and acting upon ideas to assure that ALA publications continue meeting Association members’ needs. I also hope to catch up with colleagues in the ALA Learning Round Table, where volunteers dream about and actively promote continuing education and staff development among their colleagues in libraries across the United States. With any luck, I’ll also be able to attend at least part of the American Libraries Advisory Committee meeting so I can learn more about what colleagues have been doing to make American Libraries online and in print a dynamic source of information and a means for promoting discussions and actions on issues affecting those fabulous learning organizations that we serve on a daily basis.

Each of those groups is composed of ALA staff along with ALA members who are interested enough in Association business to travel, at their own expense, to help shape and further the business of an organization they/we support through our collaborative efforts. And the fact that these business/committee meetings draw us together each January is just the beginning: the formally scheduled meetings are just part of the learning opportunities we create for each other. Some of us arrive early so we can attend informal dinners to keep each other up to date on the trends and challenges we are seeing in the industry we serve. At least a couple of us will be serving as guest bloggers on the American Libraries blog. Some of us fill otherwise unscheduled time by attending panel discussions on topics including tech developments in libraries, digital learning initiatives, how massive open online courses (MOOCs) might benefit libraries and library users, and how partnerships and collaborations benefit libraries and members of the communities they serve. And some of us look forward to those unplanned encounters that bring us together with some of the best, most dynamic colleagues we have so we can exchange ideas; become inspired, once again, by what those colleagues are accomplishing; and return home to even more effectively tackle the challenges we willingly face. Because we care. And because we dream, baby, dream.


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