My #ALA12 Conference Report

My #ALA12 Conference Report

(Or how I discovered LITA, said goodbye to ACRL, and rediscovered a joy and engagement with library professional involvement)

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(tl;dr version: LITA has some kick-ass interest groups.)

This year at the American Library Association's annual meeting in Anaheim #ala12, I decided to change-up my standard method for dealing with the conference and was greatly pleased with the results. I found engaging new content and interesting projects that are worth the effort of engagement. Read on:

Library BoingBoing Interest Group

The first new group I came across at #ala12 was LITA's Library BoingBoing interest group. You can check out their ALA Connect page for a full description, but the tl;dr version is that they are a group that is interested in library makerspaces and hackery. They have a pipeline to feed library-related content into Boing Boing's directory of wonderful things. (If we can get it written before Corey Doctorow scoops us.) At the meeting we talked about a lot of really interesting and creative things people are doing in their libraries. Even more interesting than the programs and services brought up was the group realization that we usually don't think that the services we provide to our users are worthy of outside interest. False humility != good marketing. We have libraries buying 3D printers and building maker / hacker spaces in their libraries, but we also have libraries doing other cool stuff, like bike-based bookmobiles, tool lending, a Story Sailboat, LibraryBoxen, and much more. The Library Boing Boing interest group is set up to both find stories of cool hacking and making projects in libraries and publicize them on widely read blog and to encourage and develop further makery and hackery in a library near you.

Moving forward with this group, I'm planning on writing up a tube-style map of the app design process I made for DHSI this summer and helping some others in the group prepare for the upcoming midwinter meeting in Seattle.

Code Year Interest Group

Next up was the Code Year Interest Group . This is a group that came together around a project from Codecademy, a startup providing online training in coding for people who want to expand their skills. I find Code Year interesting from pedagogical and design perspectives as well as from a user's point of view. Pedagogically, Code Year scaffolds its lesson and provides many opportunities for positive feedback. Students are given small steps to do and frequent little rewards such as badges and points to give users frequent little hits of positive reinforcement. Structurally, Code Year crowd-sources its lessons, allowing experienced coders from all over the world to create and test their lessons. Like other crowd-sourced content providers, there are fluctuations in quality, but by and large Code Year provides quality content that is updated much more frequently than a single teacher or team of teachers could manage.

This group aims to support librarians as we expand our code literacy and to find new ways to encourage members of our profession to grow their repetoire of technical skills. Going forward, I plan on keeping in touch w/ my fellow Code Year librarians and supporting/being-supported-by them as I level up my Javsascript, HTML, and CSS skills. I also volunteered to work on training materials for librarians who want to use the OCLC Worldcat Search API. This is the best kind of volunteering, since what it really means is that I've found help working on a project I know I need to do but don't yet know enough to do it by myself. Keep your eye on the ALA connect space for code year or the catcode IRC channel for more info and help.

SEO Interest Group

On the third day of the conference, I got up early enough to get a good breakfast and take the Gale shuttle to the conference center in order not to miss the Search Engine Optimization interest group. (cough, nerd, cough) That may not sound remarkable, especially given how I attended the 8am program on every day of the conference, but it struck me as I was sneaking quietly out of my hotel room that I was getting up early after a night of drinking to attend an interest group of SEO geeks, that this was a serious commitment for something that most people would rank just after visiting the dentist and just before filing their taxes. It was really great and packed with good content. (As a side note, about 45 minutes of this meeting was taken up by a remote presentation. Between the conferencing software, the wifi, and the poor audio quality I was ready to leave the room. At most conferences I would have. However, between wincing at the audio and rolling my eyes at the connection issues, there was some great content at the core. Being introduced to Joeran Beel's work was worth the annoyance, but the annoyance was really bad. The other presenters were also top-notch. Julian Prentice, a librarian who work for the Googles spoke about teaching SEO to our patrons as part of information literacy. (An idea I like very much.) She also introduced to us to a couple of new services from Google's webmaster program that look to be very useful. First is the Webmaster Academy, a series of online training in webmastery and SEO basics. Since I very much want more librarians to know more about SEO and search engine architecture, I'm happy to see this tool released. It reminds me a bit of Codecademy's Code Year, which you've probably figured out from reading this far, is a very good thing. Julian also mentioned Goog's webmaster help center This is a more detailed source of SEO, SEM, and search architecture information, but it can be much harder to access for beginners. Along w/ the various forums and messageboards on SEO, it is recommended to start w/ the Webmaster's Academy or Google's SEO Starter Guide before digging in here.

The other speakers were Gravity Search Marketing's Jennifer Grappone and Gradiva Couzin. They reinforced Julian's message and provided good user-focused justifications for pursuing SEO. My big take aways (paraphrased) from their brief talk was that ranking is not a legitimate search goal and that SEO is really usability for machines. The user and what you want the user to do on your site are more important than abstract metrics like ranking for particular keywords. Good SEO is about your users, not about the search engine.

Responsive Web Design

Matthew Reidsma (@mreidsma) gave a really strong presentation about responsive web design (RWD). Anyone who has put up with lame slideware would appreciate the care and design that went into Matthew's visual presentation. Having a speaker talking about design show up with well-thought out visuals adds significantly to her/his authority on the topic. Did I mention the visuals were compelling and clear?

In a nutshell, RWS uses affordances of HTML 5 and CSS 3 to enable us to use a single site to reach desktop, tablet, and mobile users. It does away with the need for separate "normal" and mobile versions of a site. By writing stylesheets that adjust to the pixel-width of the screen your page is being displayed on. Check it out by accessing his sample site on your desktop or notebook and Making the screen more narrow. You'll see the number of columns shift, images move, text become more prominent, and navigation adjust. Each of these changes are optimized for the affordances of the screen size on the device viewing the page. If you'd like to play with his designs, he's made the css and js libraries available on github.

I foresee a lot of playing around with this on my part before I get it right, but I'm looking forward to it.

There was more!

This has gone on too long already, but there were more good things at this conference. The Mobile Technology Interest Group was great and I didn't get the chance to attend ACRL's Digital Humanities Interest Group, but wanted to. David Weinberger's keynote presentation was also very good, but you'll be reading more about it and him in my soon-to-be-posted review of his book Too Big to Know.

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(In which I delight in shaking my bad-attitude towards ALA and wonder at its cause.)
(tl;dr: change is good; being grumpy is as much fun as it used to be.)

This national meeting was a vast improvement over my past couple of years of conferencing w/ ALA. I've become burned out and cynical and thus surly and jaded in my committee work. This time was different. I attribute this to a) being on the other side of tenure and b) starting over with a new group. I've been working with ACRL for more than five years now. Most of that work has been in the Instruction Section and I am not really an instruction librarian any more. Sure, I work on Instruction Program Planning and Assessment like before, but most of my teaching comes in semester-long classes these days and I'm just not excited by the same old things. Since I'm no longer an Instruction Coordinator and am now a Systems and Instruction librarian, I've moved my professional involvement over to LITA. This has been a good thing.

To my colleagues who serve with me on committees, I imagine I'm exceedingly easy to read. As I approached the end of my tenuring process I became predictably stressed, cynical, burned-out, and surly. It was pretty easy to read this in my body language and attitude. In my last two-year term on an ACRL Instruction Section committee, I could have been replaced by a looped recording of "That's an excellent idea, but council will never let us do it." A refrain that was almost as untrue as it was unhelpful. This year's national meeting was, for me, much different. I made an effort to get involved in new groups and projects and my energy was much more positive and productive. I image this was just as easy to read as my former surliness. If this is what the other side of tenure feels like, I approve.

At previous conferences, most of my time and energy has been devoted to ACRL committees. In the past I'd been involved in the Distance Learning Section and this meeting marked the end of five years of involvement with the Instruction Section. In place of these committees, I've been shopping around for another professional organization to become involved with. In June, I spent a really rich and informative week at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, B.C. with my colleagues in our Creative Media and Digital Culture program at WSU Vancouver. This was such an eye-opening experience with such a creative and vibrant group of scholars that I began to think I might find a home for my professional service outside of library-centric organizations. This week I found a similar vibrancy and intellectual stimulation inside of LITA (the Library Information Technology Association). Specifically, I found three interest groups and a program that will keep me in projects through midwinter.

So thank you to my ACRL Instruction Section friends for tolerating my surliness and thank you to my LITA friends for pointing me in intriguing new directions.

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