The week before Thanksgiving I joined thousands of anthropologists and others who descended on Chicago for the American Anthropological Association conference. My research partner Mariana Regalado and I participated in a roundtable session with colleagues from four other institutions who are also doing ethnographic work in libraries and higher education: Andrew Asher, Lesley Gourlay, Lori Jahnke, and Donna Lanclos. Our session discussed the myriad ways that college and university students engage with technology, and how students’ lived experiences can add detail that may be missing from data collected to inform strategic plans and administrative initiatives. Also threaded throughout was an interrogation of the idea of the undergraduate as digital native, which of course academic librarians readily identify as problematic. Donna both blogged about and Storified the session well, if you’re interested in the details.
The roundtable format at the AAAs was new to me, and I have to admit that I was a bit nervous before the session in part because I was not quite sure what to expect. From what I could glean beforehand it seemed like roundtables are intended to be a bit like what many library conferences call panel sessions, though somewhat less formal. We didn’t have papers to present or a linear slide deck, but rather began with each of us describing our projects, using a Prezi to offer a few visuals, then jumped in with the six of us discussing broad themes and talking points we’d identified beforehand. We had just under two hours for the session and there was lots of discussion and conversation with our audience.
And our audience was delightful! As a group they were highly engaged, with multiple folks asking questions and offering discussion points from their own experiences. Though smallish in number, we were lucky enough to have attendees who inhabited different roles in the higher education: full-time faculty members, adjunct faculty, graduate students, and even a thoughtful, well-spoken undergraduate who asked terrific questions and readily shared her frustrations and challenges with academic technology with us. It was fascinating to hear from an adjunct who shared her story of being assigned a new classroom chock full of the latest tech tools, and her struggles to use the technology in the absence of thorough training. And the undergraduate noted that sometimes her professors assign tech-heavy projects seemingly without a full understanding of the time and effort involved in pulling them off, assuming that all students her age have loads of experience with any new tech tool.
In some ways the session was like a mini-focus group, with the end result that the six of us on the roundtable left energized and enthusiastic for future research and collaboration. Since then I’ve been thinking not only about our research but also about the audience. At academic library conferences we tend to talk to and amongst ourselves — fellow academic librarians. Sometimes graduate students attend, but conferences are expensive, and since academic librarianship doesn’t have the strong tradition of the conference job interview the way many scholarly associations do, there’s perhaps not as much of a reason for MLIS students to attend conferences while still in graduate school.
But wouldn’t it be fabulous to have conversations — both formal presentations and informal — with faculty, students, and others who use and have a stake in academic libraries at our conferences? Of course we can hold focus groups at our own institutions, but there’s a different dynamic at conferences, in addition to the opportunity to speak with folks from other colleges and universities. I’m not sure that there’s enough relevant content for faculty and students from outside the library to come to a conference geared towards academic librarians, though. Have you been to any library conferences that drew attendees from outside of the world of academic libraries? Other than inviting non-library folks to present with us, are there other ways we could encourage them to attend?