The American Library Association held its annual conference at McCormick Place this past week. Each year thousands of librarians (public, academic, media, legal, commercial, archival, international, etc.) come together to take in what, ideally, functions as both a symposium on the state of the library circa 2009 and a sales pitch. And if all goes well you're to come away with a head full of new ideas and some decent swag.
So last Saturday morning I headed out via the Red Line from Bryn Mawr to Cermak-Chinatown and hoofed it about a quarter mile to McCormick West. The first program I attended was Technology and the Developing World sponsored by ALA's Library and Information Technology (LITA) division. Matt Keller, the Director of One Laptop per Child's Europe, Middle East & Africa outreach was there and described how they've managed, largely through the evangelizing efforts of its founder, Nicholas Negroponte, to deploy over 1 million laptops, with over half distributed throughout Latin America. A good reminder as any that the digital divide is an international one.
From there I headed over to the 10:30 program, The Future of Libraries, but was disappointed to find it being held in one of McCormick's smaller conference rooms. It was already at standing room only capacity. I staked some ground directly near the entrance but didn't stay too long. The first presenter had a decent PowerPoint presentation exploring some of the demographic information I've already been tracking closely myself concerning youth and their digital media habits. It felt like a good time to explore the stacks.
There's a lot of product in the stacks. Libraries, in all their many faceted, budget-strapped glory, support a vast wing of our media industrial complex. Not surprisingly, the high-tech (and often cost-prohibitive) vendors had some of the plushest displays on the floor--comfortable chairs for chatting with a representative, big digital displays of their latest software and prizes. Ah, prizes!
I stayed pretty clear of them. I was happiest walking the publishing wings--small academic distributors with fascinating books on film (where I bought what looks to be a potential candidate for the definitive biographical work on David Lynch), international relations and assorted media related treatise by think-tank gurus. Academic books, especially those fortuitously embedded in collegiate curriculum's, are notoriously overpriced. But dagburnit it if they don't publish some of the most alluring looking coffee table books on art movements, film retrospectives and the like. The mainstream publishers, on the other hand, offered the most swag--tote bags and the occasional free advanced copies. Some sold books as cheaply as they felt they could without losing their dignity.
At 1:30 I made my way to the recesses of far, far away McCormick South where the program Political Engagement: Facilitating Greater Participation in Civil Society was being held. It was remarked that it was not without a certain irony to have the program on civic engagement held in the furthest possible conference room. About 50 or so attendees were engaged enough to attend.
The focus of the speakers was firmly on what the role of libraries is in encouraging civic engagement. I was particularly keen to learn more about what each speaker had to say about the role public libraries play in helping to guide and support active citizens. The ideals of citizenry, of a well-informed, civically-engaged public actively engaged in our democratic experiment, was at the center of the conversation. The idea of civic-literacy was discussed. Nancy Kranich, a former ALA President and current Lecturer at the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies out of Rutgers University, spoke the most directly to the role libraries should play in creating and sustaining active citizens. She made a good case for the need of libraries to be more active in the role they play in nourishing civic literacy.
My last Saturday program was Libraries and Obama's Information Policy. I was most excited to hear what Gabriela Schneider, the Communications Director for the Sunlight Foundation, had to say. The Sunlight Foundation, she explained, is all about getting government information online as quickly as possible. It's about providing tools that help all of us "be our own best government watchdogs, by improving access to existing information and digitizing new information, and by creating new tools and Web sites to enable all of us to collaborate in fostering greater transparency." She offered a number of interesting links to web based applications that track various areas of potential government malfeasance.
Jim Jacobs, Data Services Librarian Emeritus at the University of California San Diego, discussed how the kind of focused collections libraries offer is a quality service in an era of "access to everything." There's a growing movement of thought surrounding the library as filter discussion, one that's increasingly focused on how librarians can act as guides by effectively leading information seekers through the information thicket to what's most valuable.
On Sunday I was back for the 10:30 program, Inspiring Young Citizens: The Library as a Forum for Engagement. The panel of speakers here focused largely on how literature can act as a catalyst for civic activities. I realized just how strongly the Civil Rights Movement resonates throughout so much Children's Lit. It's easily one of the best and most inspiring examples of the kinds of change active citizenship can lead to. I'm definitely more interested in how new media can play this same role, though this program's bibliocentric focus offered some decent models for flushing out that role.
The second and last program I checked out on Sunday was the Division President's Program for LITA, Make Stories, Tell Stories, Keep Stories. Erik Boekesteijn, Jaap van de Geer and Geert van den Boogard from Delft Public Library (sometimes called DOK or the Library Concept Center) in the Netherlands. I like these guys and their Library a whole lot. DOK is, and I say this without hyperbole, the future of libraries. Or at least my library. I'm fascinated by what DOK is doing in the area of public library content creation and their commitment to helping their patrons tell their stories and share them with their community. To help do that, DOK offers a pretty stunning collection of technologically advanced storytelling tools. DOK, in its mission, content and design, is hyper-modern in all sorts of the best kind of ways. They recognize, more then any other public library out there, that their patrons are hungry to tell their stories and of the vital role librarians can play in helping them to do just that. They realize, too, that the norms of literacy are being challenged, are evolving-- that our communities/patrons, especially its youth, are engaging with new media in ways that actively construct (or create) "their social and cultural worlds." We need to be a part of that, and soon.
Libraries, public libraries especially, are already in the business of storytelling. And our future patrons aren't just passively consuming content, they're creating and distributing it, sometimes to thousands, even millions of people. There's a civic function inherent in , I think, the role libraries can play in assisting their patrons with content creation and I think DOK has helped to more fully explore it. It opens up all sorts of doors for helping to facilitate community building and the possibilities for collaboration. In our missions to supply the information needs most relevant to our communities needs, we have the opportunity to help it share the most important story--its own.
On Monday I attended the 10:30 program Privacy in an Era of Change: Privacy and Surveillance Under the New Administration. One of the speakers on the panel, Craig Wacker, the program officer for the Digital Media & Learning initiative at the MacArthur Foundation discussed how research like the Digital Youth Project has demonstrated just how pervasively digital media like social networking and video sharing sites have become fixtures in the lives of young people. He talked about how young people aren't perhaps as compelled as they should be by privacy concerns and asked us to think about how we define privacy for them.
At 1:30 I attended the program My, those novels are certainly...graphic!: Libraries, comic books, and censorship where Neil Gaiman, one of genres most popular writers, joined a panel of 3 others to discuss graphic novels and censorship in libraries. Great audience (librarians like Neil Gaiman and graphic novels) and a great discussion. I especially liked hearing about the various cases the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund has been involved in.
On Tuesday I headed to my last program, Many Stories, Many Options: Pushing Out Your Digital Content in New Ways where Jesse Seay, a radio producer and sound producer for NPR and Vocalo.org spoke. As a sound design geek I really enjoyed hearing what she had to say about getting quality audio recordings from interview subjects as well as the role audio editing plays in shaping narratives. She revealed that much of the laughter we hear from the brothers Magliozzi on NPR's popular Car Talk show, for example, is edited in after the fact. Vocalo.org, a controversial radio experiment supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (and, not surprisingly, supported by a grant from MacArthur Foundation among other granting institutions) is targeted at attracting a more diverse, younger audience. It recognizes, as I've already mentioned, that young people are telling their own stories, using the web as platform to create, edit and distribute their content. According to Vocalo.org's About page:
Vocalo.org is media YOU make and there are a lot of ways to make media. You can use your telephone to call in and leave us messages with your favorite stories. You can attend our "Make Your Own Audio" trainings or use our online tips to learn audio production. You can upload videos, music, interviews, and commentary, all of which could end up on the airwaves during our live broadcast at 89.5 FM.
Again, I'm more interested in how video (as opposed to radio) can help our communities tell stories though there are many parallels here. This program offered further evidence of how much the media ecology is changing, with user-generated content production becoming more and more central to the experimentation with and evolution of new media literacies that many (though not all) of today's youth are actively engaged in.
I'll end by quoting at length from the recent report, Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures:
What is unique about the current media ecology is that photos, videos, and music are closer at hand and more amenable to modification, remix, and circulation through online networks. In the past few years, it has become common for personal computers to ship with a basic kit of digital production tools that enable youth to manipulate music, photos, and video. This means that media content is more amenable for creation and manipulation. In addition to the new genres of creative production that are being afforded by digital media-creation tools, we see networked publics as affording a fundamental shift in the context of how new media are created and shared; media works are now embedded in a public social ecology of ongoing communication (Russell et al. 2008). As is common when new media capabilities are introduced, it takes some time for literacy capacity to build and for people to come together around new genres of media and media participation that make use of these capabilities. Given that it is only in the past decade that multimedia production tools have become mainstream as consumer technologies, we are now at a transitional moment of interpretive flexibility with regard to literacy and genres associated with the creation of digital music, photos, and video.