PLA 2014: What We Learned and Who Inspired Us

It's incredible that the Public Library Association (PLA) conference was only three days because I learned so much. Between working the TechSoup for Libraries booth (great to meet you!) and attending sessions, I came home from Indianapolis with a fresh perspective on public libraries and technology. 

I heard directly from librarians running makerspaces, learned how to trick an Internet filter, and listened to a presentation on using Pinterest for readers' advisory. We'll be covering these topics more in-depth over the next few weeks, but I wanted to pull together some of the major themes I gleaned from the conference sessions and attendees.

Technology Belongs in Libraries

When I heard Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project state, "Technology belongs in libraries because it's what users want," at a session on the institution's latest report on library engagement, I did a tiny fist pump. This is something we at TechSoup for Libraries already know, but it's nice to hear the affirmation from another organization.

At the TechSoup for Libraries booth, we heard some fascinating stories about the ways public libraries are using technology to support programs and services. One library is using Mobile Beacon hotspots to do on-the-go library card sign-ups. Another is hosting Minecraft (a game) events for teens.  We also heard about a class where patrons build and take apart computers. So many attendees were eager to share what their library was doing with technology. It was definitely inspiring to hear.

Community Partnerships

If I had to pick one word that I heard repeatedly throughout PLA, it is "partnerships." Almost every panelist – regardless of the panel topic – brought up the importance of community partnerships. Whether it was with local government, nonprofits, or influential individuals, the message was clear: partnerships make things happen.

In "Library Resources for Businesses and Job Seekers," the presenters talked about how they partnered with local business development organizations to provide free training to patrons.  For example, the Arlington Heights Memorial Library partners with its local SCORE affiliate, a business counseling and mentorship program.

Partnerships came up a lot in the session I attended on makerspaces as well. The Chattanooga Public Library partnered with the Mozilla Foundation to build a network of educators, designers, and technologists to take advantage of the city's next-generation gigabit Internet network. Trent Miller, library program coordinator at the Madison Public Library, advised libraries to find a person on staff that already has connections with the maker or artist community.

In a session called "Libraries Supporting Citizenship in the Digital Age," attendees heard from government organizations that are working directly with the IMLS to help make civic literacy information and training available at libraries. One of the speakers was from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), who discussed the department's strategy to help libraries become the go-to source for financial education information. The CFPB's library pilot program provides libraries with resources and tools and helps them identify local financial literacy partners in their community.

Offsite Outreach

Somewhat connected to community partnerships is the concept of offsite outreach. In library school, we read a lot about embedded librarianships: where the librarian steps out of the confines of the library to learn more about the community or audience they serve. It seemed like an interesting idea, but I've never truly seen it in action until PLA. In the Business and Job Seekers session, the librarians talked about how they attended chamber of commerce and rotary club meetings in order to seek out local business leaders and career development experts.

In the session on makerspaces, librarians talked about using the event tool Meet Up to infiltrate local maker groups. You can attend these offsite maker meetings to see what people are already doing and invite them into the library.

Offsite outreach can also be online. One of the most entertaining sessions I attended was on using social media for readers' advisory. I loved hearing about how librarians are using tools like Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest to recommend books to readers.

Cutting Edge Libraries

The final session I attended at PLA was hosted by our friends at the Edge Initiative. Fantastically, the session encompassed all three of these themes. If you're familiar with the Edge Benchmarks (which we've covered extensively at TechSoup for Libraries), you already know that it emphasizes technology assessments, offsite outreach, and community partnerships. It was a great session to wrap up PLA 2014.

Did you go to PLA 2014? What did you learn? Share your experience with us in the comments. 

Images: Ariel Gilbert-Knight