Friday, July 1, 2011

Surviving ALA Annual 2011

I am writing this in Singapore 24 hours after visiting the lovely city of New Orleans for ALA Annual 2011 . As expected, I was pretty overwhelmed given the size and scale of this event (despite attendance being 23% down from last year, there were still 26,201 people attending including 14,969 librarians!) .

I was totally at sea, this being my first international conference and being the only one from my institution (which has pros and cons), but fortunately I had many good contacts from Twitter/Facebook which helped. Michael Golrick in particular who lives in New Orleans noticed my Facebook post and blog posting and gave me many useful tips for touring the city.

Though I am trying to live my life without regrets, here are something I would do differently if I get to go to ALA again or some other international conference.

Be less introverted & network more

 Sue Polanka and Buffy Hamilton (two of my fellow Mover & Shakers 2011) Via Library Journal

I am by nature a very introverted person in real life. But it seemed quite a waste to travel over 10,000 miles to be a wall flower so I did my best to come out of my shell. Fortunately, everyone was very friendly, in particular I got a very warm welcome at Broussard for the LJ Movers & Shakers Lunch  , where Ellen Forsyth (the Australian Mover & Shaker) and myself got loud cheers for making it all the way from outside the US.

Really kicking myself for not mingling more there but I got to shake the hands of Micheal Porter, Bobbi L. Newman, Chad Booth, John Blyberg, Sue Polanka, Lori Reed, Chad Booth and many more. I didn't realize that movers & shakers from earlier batches would be there as well. The warm feeling you get when you see the appreciation of your peers, and people you look up to is something that is hard to describe.

Some high points, meeting Buffy Hamilton (who really really lives life to the fullest and is my inspiration) for the first time, sharing a cab back and chatting for a short while about life.

Take more photos!

I don't like to take pictures of myself much, but I really should have made an exception in this case. I do have this nice photo of the Librarian in Black herself when I coincidentally ran into her at lunch and decided to boldly ask for a photo :) . It's a nice photo of us both I think. There's another one of me and @shifted floating around on Flickr but I haven't located it yet.

Use Social Media to connect more

Thanks to social media, I had some lunches and dinners lined up with people from Twitter & Facebook. I met Tiffini A. Travis, people behind Elsiver LibraryConnect and had a particular good chat with the SpringShare people.

I'm not much of a party animal but I enjoyed in particular the Tweetup organised by Bohyun Kim (ALA emerging leader and who invited me to a really useful interest group discussion on mobile she was chairing). After a few hours, we all moved over to another even bigger party ALA Facebook After Hours Social , which was even more wild.

On Saturday, I met among others UK Librarians Jo Alcock, Dave Pattern (really admire his work on Summon and his study on how usage of library resources is correlated with university honours class), he deserves every award he has ever won and more  ), Joan Starr (from CDL who explained to me about how University of California Libraries are organized which believe it or not was quite interesting to me),  Ranti Junus (we compare notes on Twitter quite a bit because we use the same systems), Aaron Dobbs (the "other Aaron" who is even wackier than I expected), Steve Teeri (we spoke a bit about conditions in DC, we librarians in Singapore are fortunate), Steven Harris (I remember a fairly geeky discussion among 6 of us at lunch discussing Twitter clients on android!), Andy Burkhardt (who I always envied his cool emerging tech librarian title on top of having an award winning blog), Jenny Reiswig,  Lauren Dodd & Annie Pho (Some of the people behind the great Hack Library School).

I also met Andromeda Yelton (a quarter of the team behind Buy India a Library) and found out she was now with Gluejar, which is sort of like a KickStarter for books.

I apologise if I left out some people I met, it was really loud and chaotic night.

At BattleDecks and the  The Ultimate Debate: “Library Web Scale Discovery Services: Paradigm Shift or More of the Same?, I met even more people for the first time (most of whom I follow on Twitter or read their blogs).

It was particularly nice to meet briefly Mary Axford from Georgia Institute of Technology who nudged me (on facebook) to the right places to learn about Discovery tools when I first started getting interested a while back. Back then she mentioned this session almost a year ago and I never dreamed that I would actually be there in person to watch it! 

On the last day of the conference, I actually ended up using Twitter to organise lunch meetup. It started with me and @ranti arranging to have lunch on Monday some time ago, but as I ran into @vonburkhardt at a session, we decided to have lunch together. On a whim I tweeted

Before I knew it, it snowballed and 6 of us met up for lunch including @vonburkhardt, @ranti , @srharris19, @bohyunkim and @agrundmann . If I knew it was that easy I would have done it at some of the other lunches when I was alone. 

This was also where we met Matthew Hamilton (@brewinlibrarian) and Sarah Houghton-Jan (@Thelib) who was having lunch at the same place. 

I was intending to use some new social media apps like Sonar, but that didn't work out too well cos most people were not doing checkins to specific conference rooms, though, at Joe Murphy's session, (who I also shook hands with and he mentioned being aware of my blog post on augmented reality!) ,he mentioned Color app, and 3 of us in the audience began playing with it.

It was pretty cool also to see librarians I knew doing checkins (mostly to bars :) ) near me.

Spend more time at the vendor exhibits

I didn't really budget that much time for the vendor exhibits, which was probably a mistake. It was *huge* and there were many many vendors. For those of you from Singapore, it's roughly the size of those annual book fairs that are held at World Trade Center!

I can say I learnt a lot talking to people from Serial Solutions, Innovative Interfaces etc almost as much if not more than at the sessions!

In particular, I got a lead that I'm going to try to chase down with regards to III, once I have time to settle down.

It's about the people  

Just before Battle Decks 2011

They always say it's about the people you meet and the conversations you have after the session that have the most value and they are right!

You might have noticed that so far I have not mentioned anything about the sessions themselves. To be honest, while some sessions were good, others were rather dull or maybe I was not so good at meeting sessions to go to. I tried to go for a mix of sessions, interest group discussions,  usual sessions and even one unconference to get a feel of it.

At a particular interesting discussion group on mobile

I now understand the wisdom of sometimes going for sessions that are not in your normal area of interest (another piece of advise often mentioned), this is because areas in your interest you are likely to be well versed and many of such sessions are fairly basic due to the mix of the audience. Also the importance of a good speaker was something I didn't take into account (the size of the audience seems a good indicator, should have gone for the ebook one, but by the time i came to it it was full), so towards the end I went for ones where the speakers were known to be good (e.g @sabram) & it was a good move.

Kentucky State University Library Mobile Booklet (I snagged a copy!)

I ended up doing a lot of sessions on discovery tools (perhaps a future roundup post?), but again in many sessions perhaps the most interesting parts were when the audience started asking questions. In some sessions, I had a distinct feeling some of the audience asking the questions, making comments were really knowledgeable maybe as much if not more so than some of the speakers (I'm pretty sure I have seen some of them on the listservers).

Because I had contacts via Twitter/Facebook it was relatively easy to strike up conversations with people you "know" online (kinda), but I did run into people I have had no prior contact and coincidentally, I ended up talking about Summon to most of them.

I guess not altogether surprising given that the Summon camp and advisory board was held at the same time but still a bit odd, since I ran into them not at the Discovery sessions (I was running around trying to squeeze everything in instead of sticking around to talk to people at sessions probably another rookie mistake ) but at the most unlikely places. 

Dave Pattern I knew was a Summon Guru of course, but I also ran into Win Shih from University of Southern California at the international librarian corner. His institution is a fellow institutional member of PRDLA (Pacific Rim Digital Library Alliance), and we had a good talk about the problems  with east asian languages in Summon.

Even more unlikely was a chance meeting on my last day when I was touring the city. I was waiting for the streetcar to arrive and a lady I spoke to , turned out to be from the Summon Advisory Board as well! 

Street cars in New Orleans

Some of the name cards I collected at #ALA11.  To be frank, I already contact many of them on Facebook/Twitter anyway, but notice the number with QRcodes on it. Someone should really start a flickr collection on librarian cards like the one on views from librarian work desks or library signages.

Touring the city

I was a bit apprehensive at first (poor sense of direction!) but the city is really tourist friendly. There were signs everywhere, people were generally friendly, I had a nice couple who tried to help me as I seemed lost even though they were tourists themselves (Librarians?). The city is really steeped with history, I took a mule ride around the city and was given a really interesting summary of the sights on the last day, took the Natchez etc

Was really looking forward to the night tour that was supposed to bring you to the most haunted parts of the city but it was pouring so heavily (I didn't fancy crawling around the graveyard in the mud!), I had to turn back.

Didn't quite like the weather though, it was almost like being at home, hot, humid and wet. There was at least one night where I gave a social gathering a miss cos it was raining so heavily that I stopped and headed back.


My Tarot card reading at Jackson Square

While I was at ALA, in the UK, Phil Bradley and Ned Potter (who is a fellow Mover & Shaker 2011 but unfortunately couldn't make it to ALA11) made two very interesting posts , the former compared Google and Librarians, while Ned Potter posted "Libraries are about people – so where’s the personality?".

While Ned thinks comparing Google and Librarians is counter productive, the common thread in both is that it hammers in the point it is people (librarian in particular) that matter in libraries. Ned writes..

"When there are grants or external funding, they seldom get spent on people. When there are marketing campaigns, they rarely feature the people. (Library marketing books often talk about The Four Ps of marketing. Guess what – none of them are People.) When there are cuts, it’s often the people who go first. It’s still the resources which are king in libraryland, and I’m not sure this will work as well in future"

There is a long standing debate on whether the value of libraries lies in resources or librarian expertise, it need not be a either/or debate, but I think it's high time we shift the balance towards people.

"Which is to say, we’re the people who can make it work for our patrons and customers. We need to remind people more explicitly that the value lies with us – each particular ‘us’ that works at each specific library. Stephen later pointed out to me that automated process are increasingly common, so eventually we could keep libraries open but get rid of almost all staff – but they will find it a lot harder to do that to us if we can successfully emphasise more clearly the role of the individuals. We know that our value lies in our expertise, but does our approach to marketing, funding, finances etc really reflect that? We’re still promoting books and databases most of the time."

So yes, people matter. Librarians matter. The same goes for library conferences, the sessions you attend don't matter as much as the conversations you have with people at the venue.

If there is one lesson I learnt it is that conferences are not a matter of squeezing in as many conference sessions into the trip.

All in all, it was a really interesting and fun experience that makes me hungry for more international conferences. Perhaps I can try my hand at presenting the next time?

To all of you whom I met even briefly, thank you for the warm welcome you gave me. I understand, Singapore is bidding for IFLA in 2013.  If any of you do make it down to Singapore, give me a tweet, email or message, I hope to see you there!

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