Monday, March 31, 2008

PLA: A Long Summary

Joey Rodger, the former Executive Director of the Public Library Association and President of the Urban Libraries Council, used to refer to library conferences as being like Brigadoon. All of a sudden, a whole community appears out of nowhere, flourishes for a few golden days, and then disappears back into the mists. This year's PLA National Conference was a perfect example of her wonderful simile.

The conference attracted nearly 10,000 people to a cold but sunny Minneapolis, and for the most part, I think nearly all of them went away pleased by their experience. There was a well-crafted selection of breakout sessions, a large and varied exhibit hall, and simply the best wrap-up speaker I've ever heard in my career. Just a few examples:

Thursday morning, I attended "The Game Studio: 21st Century Technologies for 21st Century Teens." The Minneapolis Public Library created a Teen Tech Squad, a cadre of young people, age 14 or so, who were carefully trained in helping people (adults as well as peers) learn about technology. According to Christy Mulligan, the Teen Central Librarian, the program was about "broadening the spectrum of build skills and assets that are going to make (participants) contributors to our community." The Tech Squad Members then worked in the Game Studio, helping their peers create and share their own online games. The best part of the program was the contribution made by the three Teen Squad Members who spoke; these are funny, well-spoken, and knowledgeable people who would do credit to any library. (Full disclosure: I serve on an advisory panel for the Minneapolis Public Library in an IMLS grant proposal to take the Game Studio program nationwide as a means of improving 21st century skills.)

On Friday afternoon, there was a good presentation on the new approaches to reference service that the Columbus Metropolitan Library is taking. The title alone tells you what they have in mind: "Off Your Seat and On Your Feet!" The idea is to get staff people circulating in their branch facilities, to help where the people are, instead of sitting back and waiting for the customers (their word) to come to a service desk. Jodi Lee is a delightful and engaging presenter, and she and her co-presenter, a somewhat more laid back Christopher Korenowsky, handled the many questions with aplomb. Most of the questions, unfortunately, seemed to fall into the category of "here's why we couldn't do this at our place," but Jodi and Christopher never missed a beat, nor did they back down. Well done!

Saturday, I got to hear WebJunction's own Michael Porter talk on a panel with two other speakers about coping with new technologies. Since Michael seems to be adept at every technology from Model T Fords to the next generation of robotics, he was a good choice. His bright, self-deprecating manner and his excellent graphics choices show why he's an in-demand speaker on the library circuit. Kudos to the other speakers, Janie Hermann and Stephanie Gerding, for matching Michael stride for stride.

I promised not to do any more shameless huckstering for the program I did with Joan Frye Williams, but why not? There were 300+ people in the room (at 8:30 on Saturday morning), there were a ton of questions in the Q-and-A, and I'll be posting the revised slides to the PLA web site shortly.

There were hundreds of exhibitors. I was especially impressed by two exhibitors that I probably can't mention by name here. One showed an amazing new microfilm to computer file converter. It can move 25 images a minute from roll film to jpg, pdf, or other image formats. The other exhibitor is a not-for-profit group that is creating online training programs to help elders (their term) learn how to use computers.

The WebJunction reception has been written about over at Blog Junction, so I won't go into that here, except to say that it's always great to see so many of my WJ friends and colleagues in one big room.

Paula Poundstone was the closing speaker for the conference. I don't know why she got to substitute for the announced speaker, but the gods of conference planning were certainly smiling upon us when this substitution was made. (Think of Lou Gehrig coming in to replace Wally Pipp in the Yankees line up in 1925, and you get the idea.) Paula came out and asked what seemed to be an innocuous question about the PLA conference, and just like that she was on her way. From the eliteness of having a "public" library conference ("I'm sorry, but you can't come in here. This is for the public."), to why we have to meet so often ("Librarians meet? Why? And you have to have minutes? Oh, my God..."), to the deeply puzzling reasons behind our ambivalence about the Dewey Decimal System ("You love the books, but you hate the way they're organized. Life must be hell for you!"), she skewered sacred cows with the abandon of a four year old. For years, the late, lamented Molly Ivins was my ultimate conference speaker; now, I gleefully award the crown to Paula Poundstone!

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