01 January 2007

Becoming Librarian 2.0: Internet Librarian 2006

by Beth Hoffman

Just about every librarian I talk says professional development is important, so I took advantage of the fact that all my classes were online last semester to get away from Tucson for a few days and attend my first professional conference. I went to Internet Librarian in Monterey, California from October 23 – 25. Here are the highlights.

First, a bit of background: the official theme of the conference was "Integrated Experiences: Compelling Content Combinations" but it could just as easily have been "Building Library 2.0." The idea of Library 2.0 has been kicking around amongst the more techno-savvy in the library world for about a year now, and it's gaining some staying power as a buzzword in the broader library community (Library Journal has info on the topic, like http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6365200.html). The general thrust of the Library 2.0 movement is remaking the library and library services to be user-centered, and to make use of new technology for outreach and to help build communities. Most of the best presentations I saw at Internet Librarian had something to do with Library 2.0 and they showed some of the amazing ways that libraries are reaching out to folks and building communities online.

However, librarians can't start using all the new online tools for outreach and community building until they know about those tools themselves. So, one of the challenges in building Library 2.0 is in training your staff in all the new technology, and one of the sessions at Internet Librarian showcased one of the most interesting programs for staff technology training I've encountered. Helene Blowers, the Public Services Technology Director of the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County (PLCMC) gave an overview of a program she put together, called Learning 2.0. The program was voluntary, self-directed, self-paced, and focused on having fun and learning by doing. There were some nifty rewards to entice people to join: everyone who finished in the allotted time got an mp3 player and was entered in a drawing to win a laptop. Helene likened this approach to creating a summer reading program for the staff: you dangle out a nice reward to get folks interested and then trust that after a little while, the learning itself will be its own reward and will keep people motivated.

Learning 2.0 covered a lot of new technology: blogs and podcasting, wikis, folksonomies, online applications, and more. Participants were given 23 tasks to accomplish, from setting up and posting to a blog to using some online tools to create a custom search engine. As an added bonus, the entire Learning 2.0 program is available online at: http://plcmclearning.blogspot.com/ and is available for the rest of library world to use for their own training and to modify as needed.

This is just an amazing concept, and it was pretty successful for PLCMC. They had over 300 staff members sign up and more than 200 of those folks finished the program before the deadline to get the mp3 player had passed. This seems like a wonderful way to encourage staff to learn about new technologies, and to have fun while they're doing it.

And speaking of new technologies, the next highlight of the conference for me was hearing about one of the most innovative library initiatives I've encountered. Lori Bell, Director of Innovation at Alliance Library Systems; Tom Peters, CEO of TAP Information Services; and Michael Sauers, Internet Trainer at the Bibliographical Center for Research gave a presentation called "The Second Life Library 2.0: Going to Where the Users Are" about building a virtual library in the online game Second Life. One of the ideas behind Library 2.0 is that libraries should make their services available to users wherever those users might be, for instance, online.

Online games are very popular, particularly with the younger generations who have grown up with video games (like me), and they're no longer seen as just for kids. Second Life is one of many popular online games, although it takes a slightly different approach than some others. Second Life is more of a virtual world or a sandbox to play in than a game: there are no objectives and no ways to "win" it's meant to be a virtual version of life. Whether or not this is the sort of thing that sounds appealing to the average person, it's proven to be a very popular (over a million people have signed up, and about half a million appear to be reasonably active).

Some librarians took a look at the game and saw it as a chance to experiment with virtual services and create an entirely different kind of community outreach. They created a virtual library within Second Life that offers reference services, research databases (several vendors have donated free database trials to the project), and programs (several authors have given talks). They're building up a virtual collection, based mostly on public domain content and on content that Second Life players themselves have created, and have put on a number of virtual exhibits. If you're interested in following their progress, take a look at their blog: http://infoisland.org/

They also talked about the challenges they've faced in creating this virtual library. Perhaps the biggest challenge is dealing with burnout among the volunteers who are building the library (and this is, by-and-large, an entirely volunteer effort). A project this big is a definite time-sink, and there have been a lot of volunteers who have had to drop out of the game (temporarily or permanently) because they needed to spend more time on their Real Lives. There are technical challenges as well: Second Life is a 3D game and it requires a pretty powerful computer and high-speed Internet (and the faster the better) to play, so it's not a game that's accessible to everyone. The game also doesn't have the best of records when it comes to reliability: the software still has bugs and there are the occasional server crashes that take the whole game down. It is also (and I speak here from personal experience) difficult to get the hang of controlling your avatar, the character you create to represent you in the virtual world – there is a definite (and steep) learning curve involved to play in this world. However, despite these and other challenges, I think the Second Life Library 2.0 project is an impressive experiment, and I'm glad to see there are folks in the library world who are willing to push the boundaries of what libraries can be. Even if the Second Life Library 2.0 project fails, what they're learning about which library services work and which don't in virtual spaces should prove valuable to everyone involved in building virtual libraries.

The last major conference highlight in terms of programs that I want to mention is the PictureAustralia project (http://www.pictureaustralia.org/index.html). As part of a larger presentation about how libraries and librarians are using the popular online photo-sharing site Flickr (http://www.flickr.com), Fiona Hootan and Tony Boston of the National Library of Australia gave a virtual presentation (PowerPoint slides with pre-recorded voiceovers) about their virtual library of images of Australia. The PictureAustralia site brings together virtual photographic collections from a large number of museums, libraries, archives, and other cultural agencies within Australia.

This archival material itself is enough to make the collection impressive, however, they're also letting people add their own photographs to the collection, by uploading their photos to Flickr and then designating them to be part of one of the photo collections that the PictureAustralia folks set up on Flickr. The PictureAustralia folks then grab the photos, photographer info, tags, and other metadata from Flickr and turn it into Dublin Core metadata that can be searched along with all of the other collections on the PictureAustralia site. (You can read more about their call for contributions here: http://www.pictureaustralia.org/Flickr.html)

This is such a wonderful way to both build a collection and engage in community outreach. I've heard of some similar projects like this before, but never anything on this scale (or anything that brings new community contributions together with other collections like this). They've been wildly successful in getting people to contribute their pictures – nearly 12,000 photos have been contributed since they started the Flickr project in March 2005.

These are just a few of the session highlights from this amazing conference, but perhaps the biggest highlight was that I got a chance to meet some great people. Most everyone I've ever talked to has told me that the networking opportunities are one of the best reasons to go to professional conferences, and I certainly found that to be true in this case. It was also a great way to get re-energized about the profession and to remind myself why I wanted to get into librarianship in the first place (a perspective that sometimes gets lost in the day-to-day grind of getting through school). Internet Librarian may not be a conference that appeals to everyone (it's very much a "by geeks, for geeks" kind of conference), but I think it's well worth attending for anyone who wants to learn about the latest things librarians are doing to make use of the Internet and Internet technology.


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