February 20, 2024

Computers in Libraries 2012 Conference Report


By Jennifer Koerber

This year, Computers in Libraries seemed to have a shift – from the innovative, theoretical and futuristic to the practical and present. Not just “what can we do?” but “what can we do right now?” and “what can we do with what we already have?”

As institutions and professionals, we need to learn to adapt to a present that is already stranger than we’d ever expected, and in doing so, ready ourselves to keep adapting and keep changing. “The future is going to get weirder and weirder, and we’ve got to get good at it,” said Friday’s keynote speaker Michael Edson, and he’s spot on.

It All Started Pre-Conference…

With titles like Drupal: Start to Finish in a Day, Handheld Librarians’ Mobile Tech Tutorial, Technology Strategy Planning, and Digital Repositories: Strategies & Techniques, the pre-conference workshops felt like a boot camp for library staff who want to make the most out of what they’ve got. Of special note: Personal Electronics & the Library, a half-day workshop from Jason Griffey on helping staff deal with patrons and all their varied electronic gadgets, especially while using library services like ebooks and online catalogs. Take a look at his slides for ideas.

Experimenting With Unconferencing

I spent the first full day of the conference co-moderating (with Michael Sauers of the Nebraska State Library Commission) an experimental track called Library Issues and Challenges. The topics were very familiar – staff development, current events, the ‘next big thing’ and a technical Q&A – but the format was not. Rather than listen to a panel of talking heads, our participants spent the day discussing the subject of each session. Using the model of an unconference, each session leader took a few minutes to introduce the topic, gave their brief thoughts on it, and then opened the conversation to include the whole room. Participants sat at round tables instead of rows to encourage small group discussions, and towards the end of each time slot Michael and I ran around with microphones to let the groups share what they’d talked about.

Over the day, we overheard some fantastic conversations and watched as attendees made great connections that they never would have had the chance to do in a ‘normal’ conference session. For the rest of the conference, many of our track participants came up to us and let us know how much fun they had, and how those early interactions set the tone for the rest of their conference. Experiment = SUCCESS!


Elsewhere on Day 1, the conference was a buzz of strategic thinking. A highlight of the mobile track was Mobile-First Design & Augmented Reality – a look at making the mobile presence of a library a priority, rather than an additional service, and using augmented reality layers to add information from the library’s collections onto the physical world.

If you missed the pre-conference workshops, the Web Presence track offered a crash course on improving your library’s website, including incorporating new CSS3 and HTML5 features for a smoother experience. (See Jason Clark’s website for handouts.) This was one of the two sessions I most wanted to be in (other than my own track); the other was Web Publishing From the Library – a look at the challenges and potential of adding the role of digital publisher to the library’s portfolio.

Back to Being an Attendee

Continuing the underlying theme of doing more with what you have, I was thrilled to see Moe Hosseini-Ara speak about creating Customer Centered Classification at the Markham Libraries near Ontario (Canada). Using the best of Dewey, bookstore subjects and reasonable spine labels, the Markham libraries have made their nonfiction both browsable and findable – a holy grail for libraries looking to make life easier for patrons.

Equally exciting was the history lesson about Maker culture from Fiacre O’Duinn of the Hamiliton (ONT) Public Library. I’m already familiar with Maker culture, but for most folks in the audience it was an eye-opener. Next year, I’d like to see us keep exploring how libraries can provide support and services to the DIYers/makers/hackers, and how they can help us expand what we can offer. Think of Nate Hill’s Library Lab project, and how these portable, changeable spaces can be a place for creators to create and perhaps even provide programming for other library patrons.

Lastly, a shout out for a group of Ohio libraries who have used artificially intelligent virtual agents to extend services. David Newyear of Mentor (OH) Public Library and Michele McNeal of the Akron-Summit City Library explained how they used open source “chatbot” software to develop an AI that answers basic questions about the library (hours, directions). No, it’s not a replacement for a library staffer, but it will help provide some hand-holding to website visitors who just can’t find what they’re looking for at 11 p.m.

Ah, Ebooks

It’s worth noting that the Ebook track was a center-ring affair, planted in the big ballroom for two full days of sessions. It’s equally worth noting that the room was never more 1/3 full. For all that ebooks seem to be big news at most libraries (our Overdrive stats are through the roof), they’re waning as a conference topic at the geekier conferences.

Why? Because they’re mostly a closed box – most libraries can’t do anything with them other than lend them, and even that is a bit of a mixed bag. In fact, possibly the most interesting ebook presentation wasn’t in the ebook track; over in Friday’s Recreating Services track,  Hutch Tibbets wowed us with a vision of how a single library system could serve its users better by working with publishers to directly buy – not license – econtent from them. (Summary by Kate Newton, Information Artisan).

That said, a group of Maryland librarians gave us an hour’s worth of great ebook marketing and lending ideas to start Friday off.

“Go Boldly Into the Present…”

Up until the Friday morning keynote, I hadn’t really gotten a sense of the excitement and oomph that attending CIL usually brings. Michael Edson, Director of Web Strategy & New Media for the CIO of the Smithsonian, changed that in moments by asking us all to start Creating Inspiring Services: Going Boldly Into the Present.

In stark contrast to the opening keynote, Edson called on us all to stop innovating. Instead, he suggested that we are living in the future that we imagined as kids, and that we need to start taking better advantage of everything we have accessible to us now before we continue imagining and envisioning what’s next to come. “We’re still behaving as if we know what the world is going to look like years from now,” he said, and he’s right. We have no idea, and if the mysterious flying silver penguins of a science fiction book written in 2010 were actually real when the book was written, then all bets about the future seem to be off.

All the tools we need to be excellent, forward-thinking, user-focused, relevant libraries already exist. We’ve been learning about them at conferences like Computers in Libraries for a few years, but now…now we need to actually implement them and make them work. Thinking up great ideas is useless unless we accomplish concrete goals in serving the people we’re here for.

“Place the bet – it’s all about execution.” quotes Edson, and ask yourself what you’re going to do today, not a year or five down the road in a future we just can’t predict anymore.

Data + Anecdote = Stories

Of all my Friday sessions, only one stood out as meeting and exceeding Edson’s challenge to Go Boldly Into the Present. In 45 furious minutes, Jim DelRosso of Cornell’s Catherwood Library of Labor Relations demonstrated how his organization used existing tools to collect data on usage and efficacy, and then coupled those boring spreadsheets with the stories that showcased the success and vibrancy of his school’s digital repository. He stressed the need to not just collect this information, but use it to answer the question: How does this [service, tool, collection] make our users’ lives better?

I can’t do his presentation justice, so feel free to look for yourself. But his final words to us, closing the day as Edson opened it, were: “You tell the stories so that particular audience can see what it will do to make their lives better…. Sometimes you act on a story simply by telling it.”

Read More about CIL2012

For more perspectives and great information, check out the ITI Conference Blog, read through some of the folks who blogged at the conference and search Twitter for #cildc (the official hashtag of the conference). The previously cited Kate Newton did a particularly bang-up job of blogging the sessions she attended, especially a fabulous summary of the Friday keynote.

Jennifer Koerber is the Web Services Librarian at the Boston Public Library, and an independent trainer and speaker in emerging technologies and the social web.