Notes from a great conference: Library Technology 2011

A couple weeks ago, I had the immense honor of keynoting for the Library Technology Conference at Macalester College in St. Paul. I attended the entire conference (it was most excellent!), and learned so much (more on that later). In my keynote, I talked about the power of a good tech story, which inevitably turned into a storytelling yarn, where I shared some of the highlights of what we're hearing from libraries. Here's a few good stories...

The perception of libraries

On my flight to Minneapolis, my seatmate and I had an enjoyable conversation about what brought us to the Twin Cities. I told him about the Library Technology conference, and he said, "hmmmm… libraries and technology…" (this is where he shared his romantic notions of librarianship) "I guess I always thought that librarians spent their days reading."

A lovely idea, but as the conference audience chuckled and nodded knowingly, we all agreed right then and there that this friendly traveler had it wrong. Librarians do far more than read and libraries offer far more resources than books.

At TechSoup for Libraries, I think of our work as story telling. We tell stories to share how libraries are supporting and using technology so that librarians don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We write content, we produce webinars, we partner with software and hardware companies to offer donated products to libraries. We invite librarians and staff to share their stories so that librarians can learn from the experiences of each other.

Phones, mailing lists, surveys, and (sometimes) bookmobiles

How do we do this? We listen. Hard. We spend a lot of time listening to what is going on in the library field. Sometimes our methods are pretty old school. Like using the phone—remember that technology? We’ve talked to hundreds of librarians—hour-long conversations—to get to the bottom of how librarians—you—use and support technology. What have we learned during these discussions? We’ve learned that librarians are modest folk. And geniuses. And often don’t realize that what they’re doing is outstanding and worth sharing. Almost every conversation leads to a librarian admitting, “oh, I don’t know why you’re talking to me. We don’t have anything to share.” And then we start talking about everyday stuff—the daily grind—and inevitably, a story leaks that is totally exciting.

We also ask librarians questions using surveys. I know that librarians—especially public librarians—are surveyed a lot, and we don’t want to add to the noise, so we send a tiny 2-question survey each month, linked from our newsletter, where we learn a just a bit about a topic, and invite folks to share more only if they want to. Like this survey, where we wanted to know what tool libraries use to lock down their computers, especially in light of the free service, Windows SteadyState, no longer being available. We published what we learned about the tools libraries use, and in this case, we learned that Faronics—the company behind Deep Freeze—was by far the market leader in our survey’s sample, so we contacted them in an effort to establish a partnership. While there is no news to report on that front, this just shows how we work to offer tools that librarians ask for and use.

TechSoup for Libraries Projects

MaintainIT Project: we interviewed over 300 librarians and staff over the period of two years to find out how libraries were supporting their public technology. The product of our calls were stories: how folks did things, what they were challenged by, and what could be learned from it.

Broadband: Stories from the Field: we study libraries and nonprofits that received BTOP funding so we could gather and publish resources that help organizations implement their projects. In this particular project, since we included both nonprofits and libraries, we were able to share experiences and ideas between these groups, which we hope will put a spotlight on best practices from different sectors.

So why do we do this? Because reinventing the wheel isn’t fun. I’m sure you all have encountered an issue, and at some point thought, “gosh, I’m sure someone else has done this before. I wonder how they solved it.” We listen to you to try and find those moments where the wheel can keep turning and doing its business.

A few good stories

I love telling stories, so I shared a few at the conference. Rather than provide all the details, follow the links to the original stories.

  • Madeline Mundt and her money-saving, freeware self checker system
  • Steve Stone and his regional workshop and his aim to create a techie network
  • Faye Hover and her ability to get an audience of librarians chanting, “if Faye can do it, so can I!”
  • Bess Haile and her idea to ignite community support of her public computers.
  • Random Hacks of Kindness and how libraries should be more involved: this is a project I heard about through a conference TechSoup recently convened. It’s less of a story, and more of an opportunity for libraries. RhOk was created through a partnership of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, NASA, and the World Bank with a mission to bring techies, NGOs, and coders together to create solutions that address global challenges—like disaster preparation and response. Hearing a representative talk about this effort made me wonder how libraries fit in. Their next challenge is set to include universities—as a locale and also as subject matter experts. Those SMEs could certainly be from university libraries, but what if…it were rock the library? Libraries these days are at the center of disaster response in communities, and can also play a part in preparation. How could your library be involved in a project like this? There are different ways to participate that are outlined on their site; I invite you to jump in.

So why does TechSoup replay these stories? To learn from someone who did it before you, to promote your work in a larger way, to advocate for your library, and to inform TechSoup’s work. Use our content to advocate for programs at your library.

How can you benefit from stories

So that’s all well and good for TechSoup. They have a staff and can do these sorts of things, but what about the average librarian? Here’s how you can do it.

Go to a conference. Organize a session where folks in the room share their issues. Invite people to speak up informally. (this is where I invited a room of 500 librarians at the LibTech2011 conference to learn from each other: had to be there!)

Organize a book club where the text is something techie, like an article in Wired, or in Library Journal, or from a tech blog. Discuss it like you would at a regular book club. We did this with our MaintainIT Cookbooks. We scheduled small, informal webinars where we only allowed about 10 or fewer into the space, and we talked about one chapter from the Cookbook. As an example, one book club focused on PC Reservation/Time Management Software. Participants read the chapter, and discussed not only what they read, they shared their experiences with participants, adding on what they learned in the text. They also asked questions, and in our case, we had an expert on hand to answer specific questions, but that expert was rarely needed, because the librarians in the room had on-the-ground, valuable information that helped others solve their issues.  A book club is also a great way to start a conversation around a new technology you’d like to jumpstart at your library. If you can get stakeholders interested early by learning about it from a text, it won’t seem like, “that Sarah, she’s always coming up with new projects.” Instead, you can garner support by starting with a text.

Organize a Meetup. Along the same lines as a book club, get people together from outside your library to talk about technology in libraries. Make it fun—go to a restaurant or a bar or a park—and get outside of your normal workaday life. Take a field trip to another library and use their community room to meet. Find out how things work at another library, and then talk about it. Check out TechSoup’s NetSquared project to learn how nonprofits and NGOs from around the world convene to talk about technology. Start one up at a library!

Participate in, or create a library podcast. What podcasts exist in your interest area? Or what could you do to convene folks virtually? Learn from Maurice Coleman about the T is for Training podcast.

What makes a good tech story?

So now you know how to organize it, where to hold it, and how to find resources on TechSoup, but what makes a good <tech> story?

Be humble. Think about something that wasn’t going right. Tell why, and don’t be afraid to show yourself in an imperfect light. People relate to problems, and can learn from your mistakes. Steve Stone’s entire reason for finding other people to learn from was based on a mistake: the software they bought simply didn’t work, and he figured that someone else—even a neighbor—had a better idea. Be inspired to talk about what you don’t know.

Think daily grind. Think of what you do each day that makes something easier. Think hard. Do you say to yourself, “that’s nothing!” Well, I’m here to tell you that what might be “that’s nothing!” to you might be an “aha!” to someone else.

One librarian in rural Florida was driving long distances to fix computer issues of all kinds. They didn’t have resources to hire a techie, so they deputized staff who had a predilection for computers, or who showed interest in learning more. They equipped those staff with training and resources to solve a certain level of problem, so that there was a first line of help, rather than one person spending time behind the wheel. Much of the success of this story was giving staff confidence that they could solve an issue, rather than putting an “out of order” sign on the computer. More confidence bred more motivation to learn, and suddenly tech support issues weren’t getting raised because they were solved.

I have to tell you that this story was not an easy one to eek out of the librarian. She felt that they were struggling, and weren’t doing anything worth sharing, especially on a national level. When I encouraged her to tell me how she spends her day—her story about how she USED to spend her day surfaced. It just goes to show that sometimes the little things can mean a lot.

Good stories aren’t always bleeding edge. That’s not to say that bleeding edge isn’t valuable, it’s just that many times, it’s the tip that can be implemented today, without a committee or series of meetings or research paper that makes a positive change. And often, it’s the daily things that you never considered might be interesting to anyone else. 

For example, a library in Kansas had throngs of wi-fi users coming in, and they didn’t have tables or space to support them. So they bought a bunch of foldable TV trays that patrons could unfold and use when needed. Genius.

Talk about a change. An outcome that made things better.

After the keynote, a librarian approached me, thanking me for inspiring her to share what she doesn’t know. She shared how hard it is keeping up and understanding all of the technology around her, and she felt better knowing that perhaps by sharing what she doesn’t know, she might gain confidence from others, and learn something new. I hope she does!


The entire presentation is on slideshare, photos from the event are on Flickr, and the Twitter hastag is #ltc2011.