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The PLA Blog | Official Blog of the Public Library Association

The Unconference at ALA

What was “un” about the Unconference? It was certainly not unfriendly, for 75 librarians spent the day together laughing and telling stories about their work. Uncontrolled is not applicable, as Michelle Boule, Meredith Farkas, and their volunteers kept speakers to their assigned times all day, something many program organizers fail to do. It wasn’t unappreciated; participants left with new contacts and ideas.

How about unfettered, unleashed, unconventional, unburdened by all the trappings of conference protocol? The Unconference unlocked the talents of everyone in the room, making all participants and presenters.

What was the Unconference about? Now that is a little harder to define. I suspect everyone in the room left with something different. I left with some ideas about technology, staff development, and public relations. I was also exposed to some tech talk that I am still going to have to study to understand.

The day started at 9:00 a.m. in the bowels of the Chicago Hilton on Michigan Avenue. Once the air conditioning and the stream of speakers kicked in, it become a pleasant and cool place to be. After the bare-bones house-rules introduction, Jason Griffey of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga set the pace with a seven-minute presentation about “The future of libraries in a ubiquitous computing world.” Jason’s forecast sees most digital content becoming free and accessible via the Internet in the next ten years. If that happens, what purpose remains for the library? He suggests that we have to become really good at value-added services. We have to enhance the client experience to keep the clients. Many hands went up during his five minutes of questions.

Jessica Moyer of the College of St. Catherine followed with “Audiobooks, e-books, and online reading: impact on library services and collections.” Jessica has been studying adolescent leisure reading habits and sees that to retain these readers as library users, we have to improve the selection and the way that we deliver digital media. She said that research reports that media users also still read print. Jessica had all the devices with her.

“Patrons as a top priority” by Theresa Liedtka of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga illustrated how a university library can involve its users in the design of a new building. Librarians used both online forums, user surveys, and visits with campus organizations in planning, even letting the “external committee” make some of the design decisions. The building opens in the spring of 2012.

In “Librarians using mobile devices,” Rachel Vacek of the University of Houston described how fifty librarians tested iTouch devices and Netbooks (the little laptops) to see how they could apply them to their work. She also talked about how the school is offering classes in Apps (applications) development. In the questions period, ways of nationally sharing library developed apps for the iTouch or other devices was discussed.

Robin Hastings of the Missouri River Regional Library spoke about Web 3.0. Being mostly a technology user instead of a digital architect, I was introduced by her presentation to the hCard and hCalendars and something called SPARQL (pronounced sparkle), which Robin said is “SQL for web pages.” She said that once web pages are tagged with html, the web itself is transformed into a database, making the hidden portions of the web visible. I have a lot to learn about this topic.

To complete the first set of seven-minute presentations, Matthew Hamilton of the Boulder Public Library spoke about “Libraries and innovation: creating environments for encouraging and supporting creativity and innovation among staff.” Matthew said that most libraries have innovators who want change now, who get frustrated by cautious policies and coworkers. He spoke about the need to incubate change, letting innovation move forward. Sandboxes, pilots, or tests allow programs to be started without being fully-realized. He also spoke about the need to develop a culture of fun and curiosity. Matthews slide show had the best photos of the day.

During the first discussion period, I joined the group examining “Evaluating and implementing new technologies without an IT department.” There were no silver bullets offered here. The interesting point that rose from the discussion was that what really concerned several of the librarians fell outside the work of most IT professions anyway, if IT is defined as the staff that sets up and keeps the computers running. Librarians themselves have to choose content for web sites, instruct clients, and manage digital services.

The Unconference was not unsponsored. During our lunch break, Jim Rettig, whose presidential funds at ALA paid for the event and the lunch, thanked us for coming. We were not undernourished, as the box lunches from the Hilton were quite good. I enjoyed my chicken caesar salad.

Debbie Faires of San Jose State University started the afternoon session of presentations with “Web conferencing tools and uses.” She told how her institution uses conferencing equipment for distance learning, tech troubleshooting for distance learners, bringing remote speakers to campus, and supporting group meetings. She urged recording and posting programs to the web to extend the life of events. She commented that web conferencing was growing as a professional development tool.

Brian Gray of Case Western Reserve University spoke about “Making the library a partner in research, rather than just a support service, by leveraging the campus strategic plan.” Brian has a second office in the engineering school, while other librarians are embedded in other schools at the college. He offers Librarian in the Laboratory to be on the spot when students need him. He also told how after blogging about possible uses for Kindles, a demonstration project was arranged the next day.

“Online tutorials in academic libraries- free/low cost options” was Laura Koltutsky‘s topic. The librarian from the University of Calgary told how the free program Jing was as good a fit as the pricey Camtasia for creating quick tutorials that were timely and useful. In the question period one librarian told about using Jing to quickly answer technical reference questions remotely. Several librarians spoke up in favor of guerrilla instruction which values timeliness over production qualities.

Beth Gallaway of Information Goddess Consulting spoke about “Board, tabletop and video gaming at the library – basics and best practices.” She highlighted The Librarian’s Guide to Gaming: An Online Toolkit. I noticed that the toolkit included a link to the Westmont Public Library in Illinois, one of my nearby libraries, which has an extensive game collection. Yeah, Westmont!

The afternoon concluded with two more discussion sessions. Again librarians shared their successes and failures, a fitting end to a productive day. Participants will be completing surveys soon. Perhaps there will be another Unconference next year.

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