ALA 2013 Unconference

I am writing up my notes from ALA 2013 and thought it might be nice to post some of them here where people can see them.  I’m doing this one session at a time, and I’ll start with the Unconference; stay tuned for more posts!

The ALA Unconference this year was different from unconferences I’ve attended in the past.  The room was perhaps half the size it should have been; it was very crowded, too many people were forced to squeeze in at each table, and several folks tried to get in but ended up standing at the door or sitting along the wall, which didn’t exactly facilitate discussion.

Since there was no room for people to move from one table to the next, the format was also a little different from what I’m used to seeing.  Traditionally, unconference participants propose topic, vote on them, and then self-assign themselves to tables at which the topic most interesting to them is being discussed. Often, there is a second session for which the participants switch tables.  However, in this case, we voted on several topics which we then discussed as a group, one by one.  I was a few minutes late, so I’m not sure exactly how the decision to change formats was made, but I think that the tiny space had something to do with it.  It was interesting getting to hear from more people and cover more topics, but the discussion had far less depth.

The first topic was “Changing Roles,” but it veered almost immediately into a discussion of the change in user expectations and meeting users’ needs online.  Some participants felt that users now value convenience over privacy, are less willing to wait, and want customized recommendations.  Patrons want information about their prior activity, which libraries do not retain for privacy reasons, although some catalogs allow opting in to this data.  The problem is allowing patrons access to their own data while keeping it private from everyone else. One participant suggested that it may be technically possible to design a system that does something like this, but because librarians and ALA value privacy so highly, it is unlikely that such a system will be made available.  One librarian suggested that patrons’ desire for such a system may open up some good opportunities for talking about privacy and what they are giving up, which many in our society are not considering deeply.  Another librarian pointed out that there are many patrons who do appreciate the privacy of their data.

A few other topics related to changing roles were also discussed, including many comments on reference.  One librarian noted that there are no more middle of the road questions, only directional questions and serious, complex research questions.  Some library users aren’t aware that we answer these questions or seem to feel guilty about asking them, which shows that more outreach is needed. One participant suggested that we need to do more promote all the services that are available in libraries, but also pointed out that there is no budget for this.

The second topic was about new metrics.  Two of the participants were using interesting new assessment tools: Gimlet which compiles more complete reference statistics, and SUMA ,which assesses the use of space. Another participant had recently participated in LibQual and had found that the qualitative comments were the most useful part, although they had to be carefully coded.  There was an interesting discussion about comments generally and how seriously to take them. One participant said that he takes the comments most seriously when they reference something that happened one time, because they are more trustworthy than comments that say things like “usually” or “sometimes.” Others said they trust negative feedback more than positive feedback, and noted that there’s usually more of it, because when people are angry, they write things down.  It’s also important to know who is commenting; comments made online are often taken less seriously because they may not be from a patron.  What is difficult is getting feedback from non-users or feedback about things we don’t have.

There was a brief discussion about why and how we use metrics. Are they for accreditation, assessment, or for learning outcomes? Are we using them to learn more about our services or to get something out of our respective administrations?  The answers to these questions should tell us something about the kind of data we need.

Finally, a few other ways of assessing were mentioned. Taking pictures can be very powerful; one library used pictures showing trip hazards to apply for a grant to put in more power outlets. Others were interested in gathering feedback via social media.  The most old-fashioned of metrics, money, was also mentioned; it’s important to assess the budget to see whether it aligns with library goals.  Of course, assessment itself also costs money.

The third topic was “Enhancing Customer Experience.”  Personally, I have a particular aversion to referring to library users as “customers” and also to the sort of business jargon used here.  However, that was what was used. What’s interesting is that throughout the discussion, the moderator and others tended to shy away from it.

This is also the part of the unconference during which the weaknesses of this discussion format were most apparent; many issues with little relationship to each other were brought up and acknowledged, but then the discussion moved on.  There was very brief discussion of very disparate topics.  For instance, the question of homeless patrons was considered, as were food and noise in the library. One participant suggested candy and puzzles as a way of being more inviting and hospitable, while another talked about her experience in a one-room library where there is not enough space to have both quiet and noisy areas.  There was also some discussion of design aesthetics for both digital and physical spaces, including talk of coffee shops and why people choose them, and the use of patron participation. One library was renovating and had made some flyers on the temporary wall available for kids to decorate.

The final topic was collaboration and resource sharing.  Many librarians shared stories of outreach and collaborative projects.  There is no way of consolidating these examples, so I’ll just mention a few of my favorites.

One participant, a public librarian, spoke about collaborating with the local university and public schools through the One Book, One Community program.  This allows the community to engage with students. They use a parallel program wherein they use a children’s book that has a theme or element similar to a book for adults. Teachers incorporate it into their curricula.  This unites academic, public and school libraries.

There is a collaboration effort among the University of Illinois, Fab Lab and the public library called the Teen OpenLab.  Creating a community FabLab for teens.  They have all kinds of tech stuff so they can all come together for youth-oriented education program.

A librarian from a Minneapolis/St. Paul nontraditional college works with the community branch of the public library in a campus building.  The collaboration goes both ways; it encourages students to go back to school and there is a shared book club.

There was also some discussion of the challenges with collaboration; these include license agreements but have more to do with finding good partners.  A school librarian pointed  out that school librarians are very busy because they essentially have two jobs, so a better way of framing a proposed collaboration is to show that you are offering something useful rather than bringing them a new project.

Ultimately, I’d have to say that the strange format and the small space of the unconference hurt its usefulness.  Unconferences are often better at identifying problems than solving them, but this tendency was even more extreme under the circumstances, because there was little opportunity for real discussion.  I understand that there have been some complaints and expect a more typical unconference next time.  However, I hope that my summary has show that it was at least of some use.

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