Reflecting On ACRL’s Virtual Conference

Overall I would say the ACRL/CNI/EDUCAUSE Virtual Conference was a successful online event. Like every conference, the keynotes and presentations were somewhat uneven. However, the technology worked quite well and made for a fairly seamless learning experience. Here are some thoughts and suggestions:

This was a joint conference between three organizations. I would question what CNI and EDUCAUSE did to market this conference to their memberships. Did their members get the request for proposals? Were they invited to register? I ask this because most of the sessions were populated by librarians. I believe we had very few information technology, instructional technology, or other academic support professionals in attendance. Don’t get me wrong. I certainly love conferencing with my fellow academic librarians, but I think having colleagues from outside the library would improve the conference experience. We can certainly benefit from professional diversity.

If you’re going to attend a virtual conference, please invest in a microphone. At F2F conferences the norm is to sit quietly in the audience while the speakers do their thing. A virtual conference is intended to be more interactive. When the speakers do get to the Q&A part of the program it works much better when attendees can grab the mic and ask their questions or make a point. Sure, the direct messenging area allows for an ongoing conversation between the participants and the speakers, but there are times when using the VoIP capability of the conferencing software is far more powerful.

And speaking of speakers, this conference experience reinforces that first-time virtual presenters need advanced training and practice, especially in the development of slides and the use of the virtual presenting tools. In one of my sessions the presenter kept asking the moderator for technical support in using the software tools. When the presenter doesn’t have a good grasp of the presenting tools, the presentation suffers and there is less interactivity. Another presenter’s slides had multiple screenshots, and they could barely be seen. If you want to show a web site try to take the attendees on a web tour. Give them the real thing. I manage a number of webcast presentations for the Blended Librarians Community throughout the year, and we take every presenter through a minimum of one hour of training before the session, and we coach them on slide preparation and the use of the software tools. When there isn’t sufficient training the presentation suffers. If the presentations suffer, ACRL members and others will leave with a bad impression of virtual conferencing – and they won’t come back again. That would make me unhappy.

And if you’re participating in a virtual conference session and there’s a problem – you can’t make out what is on the slides, the audio is fading in and out, the polling buttons aren’t working for you, or whatever – please avoid using the direct messaging area (chat box) to send messages complaining about the problem. Believe me, if there’s a technical problem the speaker and the moderator know about it already – and if it’s something happening on just your end – there’s little the presenter or moderator can do to help. Flooding the chat with messages about technical or other problems doesn’t resolve them. It just makes the chat function useless to everyone else, and it’s incredibly distracting for the presenter. At the beginning of most sessions or webcasts the moderator will provide an email address or phone number to use for reporting technical problems. And if it’s a problem with the presenter’s slides, that’s unfortunate, but usually there’s nothing that can be done once the session starts.

If this seems like some sort of semi-rant against virtual conferences, that’s not the case. I applaud ACRL for sponsoring the virtual conference, and I can’t say enough about the poster sessions and roundtable discussions – both are great learning experiences and ways to connect with colleagues. I also got the impression that newer members of the profession outnumbered the veterans. In sessions I attended many folks referred to themselves as “next-gens”. Perhaps the virtual conference is more appealing, both in its application of technology and ease on the travel budget, to our newer colleagues. This made for great conference exchanges, but I would encourage more of the veterans to give virtual conferencing a try. And the great thing about the virtual conference is that I can go back and view the archives for sessions I couldn’t attend. This is only ACRL’s second big virtual conference, and I have no doubt that the next one will be even better.

Virtual Conferencing In Full Swing

It looks like there is a great turnout for the ACRL/CNI/EDUCAUSE joint virtual conference. Yesterday afternoon I led a session on Blended Librarianship with my colleague John Shank of Penn State University. I thought we’d have about 25 attendees. At one point we had 120 individuals in our virtual presentation area which is close to the record for any virtual program in which I’ve participated. Looking over the attendee profiles on the discussion board it looks like this is the first virtual conference for many of the participants. John and I have been big supporters of virtual conferencing since we began delivering workshops in the virtual environment.

In the afternoon I joined another heavily-attended session on an information literacy collaboration at Waterloo University by Laura Briggs and James Skidmore. Briggs is the librarian and Skidmore is a German professor. Although Waterloo does not have a curriculum wide information literacy initiative at this time, Briggs and Skidmore’s collaboration was a great example of how student research skills can be improved when faculty and librarians work together. The two showed good examples of how information literacy education was integrated into the course – primarily in the course’s ANGEL site – and their attempts to assess student learning about research skills. In some ways, the were disappointed that the students didn’t learn quite as much as they had hoped. Several attendees made good comments on the chat board about how difficult it is to teach these skills in a way that students are able to retain them (in this example the students had no direct instruction from the librarian but learned mostly from canned search examples). One consideration is that in this class of juniors, the librarian and faculty member may have had high expectations, but in the absence of a tiered, curriculum-wide information literacy initiative, can you really expect the students to internalize database specifics, the searching mechanics, and strategy techniques in a single course. It really needs to be developed over time. Information literacy, from my perspective, happens over the full four years of a student’s academic career. Still, this was a great example of librarian-faculty collaboration. I was impressed that Skidmore actually got involved with Briggs because he was concerned about the poor quality of his students’ research. We need more of this type of thinking and action from our faculty.

Today looks like a great schedule of events as well. I will hope to report on a few more programs – and I hope as well, that ACRL, CNI, and EDUCAUSE will make this a regular event. One improvement that we could use – there needs to be more faculty, information technologists, and other academic support professionals in attendance. Did CNI and EDUCAUSE promote this conference to their members? If not, ACRL needs to get them involved in promoting this event.

More On Ethnographic Methods Webcast

Earlier this week I posted a summary of a webcast sponsored by the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community about “Ethnographic Methods and Participatory Design in an Academic Library”. As a followup, for those interested, Darlene Fichter attended the webcast and provided some fairly detailed notes on her blog. So if you couldn’t be there, you may wish to review Darlene’s report.

Back from the Taiga

I’ve just returned from the first (annual?) Taiga Forum – a 2-day conference sponsored by Innovative Interfaces that brought together Assistant Directors (and others) from across the country to discuss the future of academic libraries and, specifically, the way in which a variety of traditional boundaries are dissolving across our emergent organizational structures.

The Forum Web site identifies IT changes as a primary driver, but, in fact, the discussion was more wide-ranging, including:

  • the boundaries between professional librarians and non-librarian professionals in the academic library (e.g., the anthropologist at the University of Rochester that Steven noted yesterday);
  • the boundaries between professional staff of all stripes and para-professional staff;
  • the boundaries between libraries and IT, and likewise between librarians and other campus professionals (e.g., instructional designers, institutional researchers);
  • the boundaries between traditional functional areas in the library (public services, technical services, IT, etc.) and the programs, initiatives, and strategic goals around which a librarian must exercise competencies across those traditional areas.

Speakers included Jim Neal (Columbia), who, among other things, returned to his discussion of feral professionals, Paul Duguid (Berkeley), who, among other things, took apart Wikipedia, and Lorcan Depsey (OCLC), who gave a great talk on how libraries need to work to “create gravitational pull” on the Web, but also in the increasingly crowded and competitive personal information environment(s) of our faculty and students.

Good as these presentations were, the real energy in the room came from participants engaging the basic idea that many of our most important initiatives (e.g., institutional repositories) require library leaders (at all levels) to master a wide array of skills and knowledge in order to build programs that bridge traditional boundaries in the profession and on campus.

I may blog additional Taiga-related throughts once the conference materials become available online, but, in short, this was an interesting new entry into leadership development and one that I think has a tremendous upside should it continue to be supported and if we can retain focus on the idea of developing library leaders who are accomplished boundary-spanners and who have thoughtfully engaged the question of how to initiate and sustain programs and professional development on their local campuses that brings this holistic approach to our work to librarians and staff throughout the organization.

Oh, and there were also some provocative statements (PDF) posted ahead of the conference meant to spur discussion. Here’s one that almost every small group chose to engage:

“Within the next five years, there will be no more librarians as we know them. Staff may have MBAs or be computer/data scientists. All library staff will need the technical skills equivalent to today’s systems and Web services personnel. The ever-increasing technology curve will precipitate a high turnover among traditional librarians; the average age of library staff will have dropped to 28.”

Being as I was one of the younger people in the room at (just-turned) 39, this turned into a wide-ranging and useful talk – even if we didn’t agree with all of the starting points!

There aren’t too many programs worth dealing with O’Hare International Airport (2 hour delay coming home, again, thank you!), but this was one of them. I hope it continues and I hope it spurs further discussion on individual campuses and in other consortia.

Trend Or Transformation

Did you wake up thinking about the scholarly publishing crisis this morning? Probably not, because most of us are paying attention to other issues and taking for granted that someone else is doing something about the crisis. Well, this past Friday I did have the scholarly publishing crisis on my mind because I was going to a presentation by Ray English, Director of Libraries at Oberlin College. You must know Ray – he’s the latest winner of the ACRL Academic/Research Librarian of the Year award. But he’s also well known for his advocacy work in the area of the scholarly publishing crisis. As a small university library director I think less about the scholarly publishing crisis and the open access alternatives than I should. English’s presentation was the excellent overview of the issues that I needed. He covered the latest developments, the changes needed, the positive trends, and most of all, what librarians can do to create change. Here are some of the highlights:

* “It’s about access, stupid” – All the scholarly publishing crisis issues are related to access – loss of it , barriers to it, access to scholarship by users, access to publishing monographics; the failures to provide access are systemic and interrelated.

* Consolidation in the journal publishing industry produces price increases. When Elsevier acquired Pergemon, the Pergamon titles increased by 27%. When Kluwer acquired Lippincott the titles increased by 30%. See www.informationaccess.org for more info on industry consolidation.

* What if you owned this business? Someone else produces your product for you at no cost – they polish it up for you at your request – they even give you exclusive rights to it – then all you do is distribute it – and you get to sell it back to the people who produced your product at a good profit. Sounds like a pretty good business, right.

* The value of open access is that it provides better access for more readers. That access fosters science and technology progress and the growth of knowledge.

* There are signs of hope. We’re becoming more active – that’s good. This is becoming a national issue that governments are taking up. Faculty engagement in the issues is growing. There is cause for optimism – this may be resolved in our lifetimes.

That brief review doesn’t really do justice to the awareness English creates when he lectures about the scholarly publishing crisis and open access. For example, he also talked about disciplinary and institutional archives as possible alternatives for the distribution of scholarly research. Things got more interesting in the afternoon session when a panel of faculty members and a scholarly journal editor debated some of the issues with English. William Walters, collection development librarian at Millersville University previewed a paper (will be published in Journal of the ASIST in 2007) on institutional journal costs in an open access environment. How much would colleges and universities pay for their journals if all journals adopted open access pricing? He indicated that large research universities would not achieve savings in an open access model owing to the large author fees that would have to be collected to sustain the open access publications. Steven Weintraub, a scholarly journal editor and math professor at Lehigh University, spoke out against author fees. Tracey DePellegin Connelly, Managing Editor of GENETICS, talked about the costs involved in producing a journal and some open access friendly moves they are implementing.

I was fascinated by the discussion of journal impact factors. English said that the scholarly publishing crisis is systemic and has deep roots that will be difficult to change. There were some discussions about how “publish or perish” and current tenure and promotion methods contribute to the scholarly publishing crisis. I will finish with this anecdote from the program that relates to these issues. I commented to Walters that his choice of ASIST for an article on open access struck me as odd. I suggested that D-Lib or First Monday would have seemed more appropriate venues for his research – and that these open access journals would allow his article to reach a wide audience and many more practitioners that need this information. I asked Walters what influenced his decision to publish this article in ASIST rather than the other two. His answer was simple. He said, “impact factor”.