April 22, 2014

Library Evangelists: At South by Southwest Conference, Librarians Cross Disciplines

If you want to change the world, you need to be in the right place at the right time. You need a good idea, vision, motivated peers, and the determination to make a difference.

This year, a small and mighty group of librarians put this formula to the test as they organized an international movement to participate, educate, and advocate at South by Southwest Interactive, the leading conference for innovative, technology-driven ideas, applications, and entrepreneurship. South by Southwest (SXSW) is a multipart phenomenon, including film, music, and interactive conferences; SXSWedu, an educational innovation conference; the SXSW Trade Show; and more, along with multiple unconferences, fringe festivals, networking events, and ­receptions.

This year’s South by Southwest Interactive get-together (SXSWi) attracted 24,569 attendees, up 27 percent from the 19,364 in 2011. By numbers alone, the 2011 figure is roughly equal to last year’s American Library Association annual conference in New Orleans, with 20,186 attendees. However, SXSWi represents only one part of the massive crowd that takes over Austin, TX, every year in March, as registered participants may sign up for any or all of the festival’s components, and countless more individuals arrive and “go badgeless” simply to engage and participate in the adventurous surge of fresh energy and enthusiasm characteristic of SXSW.

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Talkin" in Texas: SXSW has become increasingly important to librarians interested in emerging technologies. Bottom photo: conference activists include (top row, l.-r.) Oliver Sanidas, Jonathan Smith, Carson Block, and Heather Block; (middle row, l.-r.) Eric Frierson, Lisa Carlucci Thomas, and Paul Vinelli; (bottom row, l.-r.) Andrea Davis, Karin Dalziel, Anne Slaughter, and Cindy Fisher. Top two photos by Lisa Carlucci Thomas, group photo ©2012 Mona T. Brooks

Why SXSW?

New and emerging technologies are put to the test here, in real time. Many of the cutting-edge tools and services adopted by libraries in recent years have catapulted to success after making waves at SXSW. Twitter sparked an SMS-enabled, micro-communications revolution in 140 characters or less at SXSW 2007. Mosio, developer of Text a Librarian, won the 2008 SXSW Interactive Award for Mobile. In 2009, Foursquare and Gowalla opened the doors to location-based services and incentive-oriented “check-ins”—setting the stage for the explosion of cross-industry, mobile, social, and gamified inter­actions. Wolfram Alpha won Best of Show at the 2010 SXSW Interactive Awards, and Group messaging app GroupMe won Breakout Digital Trend in 2011. This year’s breakout winner? Pinterest.

SXSW 411

South by Southwest began as a music festival in 1987. In 1994, the conference expanded to include film and interactive sessions. Through word of mouth, critical successes, and outstanding increases in participation, “South by” gained significant interest and momentum by providing an annual opportunity for creative convergence, trend­spotting, and trendsetting.

Today, SXSWi attracts professionals from around the world responsible for developing and implementing new technologies in their respective industries and fosters essential opportunities for colleagues to meet and learn from cross-disciplinary experts. For anyone designing, developing, and delivering services at the intersection of information and technology, SXSWi is the place to be. For librarians, SXSWi offers learning and outreach potential beyond the standard fare of library ­conferences.

To present at SXSW, you first write and submit a proposal using the SXSW PanelPicker (panelpicker.sxsw.com). Proposals are then made available for public voting and comments; community feedback is weighed as part of the decision whether to include or deny the program. Final programming is determined by 30 percent staff feedback, 30 percent public votes, and 40 percent advisory board recommendations. The 2013 SXSW PanelPicker opens June 25, 2012.

SXSW: libraries, archives, & museums

While SXSWi gained widespread popularity in the technology and start-up communities, attendance among librarians, archivists, and museum professionals has grown slowly. Jessamyn West, an early library SXSW attendee who blogs at librarian.net, wrote in 2007, “South by Southwest is a big conference thing…. It’s made of music, movies, and something they call ‘interactive,’ which is basically Internet. It’s an interesting conference that I went to once in 2000, and it changed my life pretty much forever.”

The not-so-secret truth about SXSW is that nearly everyone you ask about the conference responds with that sentiment: the experience stays with you long after you’ve gone home. By 2009, West blogged about library-relevant proposals in the SXSW PanelPicker process and asked the library community to “please help me get more library content into SXSW.” That year, over a dozen library proposals were submitted to the SXSW PanelPicker, yet only a few were selected. Nonetheless, SXSW awareness and interest began to grow in the library, archives, and museum communities. In 2011, The Atlantic noted that there was “a panel or a meet-up showcasing librarians every day” during the conference and declared “SXSW 2011: The Year of the Librarian” (ow.ly/asgwG).

Following SXSW 2011, librarian Andrea Davis of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, launched a concerted effort to push libraries, archives, and museums headfirst into the SXSW scene. Inspired by library-related panels, participants, and presentations, Davis recognized the need to amplify awareness of SXSW and engage librarians, archivists, and museum professionals as active players in the conference. She established the #sxswLAM hashtag and a Facebook group to organize all discussions and planning activities for the 2012 PanelPicker process. She also created Facebook events for the PanelPicker deadlines and worked with Myrna Morales of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester and Cindy Fisher of the University of Texas at Austin to rally colleagues and unite like-minded projects via Facebook. The #sxswLAM = Librar* + Archiv* + Museum* Facebook group now boasts 241 members, and the #sxswLAM brand has expanded to include a Facebook page, Twitter @sxswLAM, and website.

Librarians & SXSW 2012

As word spread about the #sxswLAM efforts, more and more individuals joined the cause. Librarians collaborated to develop a list of relevant and timely topics, make introductions among peers doing similar work to create diverse panels that would offer depth and perspective to key issues, and provide support and feedback throughout the proposal writing and PanelPicker process. Over two dozen proposals were submitted, and an estimated one-third of these made it into the final SXSW program. Sessions included:

• The Great Library Swindle: Your Rights Are at Risk (Carson Block)

• Read/Write Library: Mapping a City Through Media (Nell Taylor)

• Making Stories: Libraries & Community Publishing (Amy Buckland, Char Booth, Michael Porter, Nate Hill)

• Guerrilla Marketing @ Your Library (Cathleen Ash)

• Digital Immortals: Preserving Life Beyond Death (Adam Ostrow, Airdrie Miller, Bill LeFurgy, Evan Carroll, Richard Banks)

• Creating an Internet of Entities (Drew Vogel, George Oates, Pete Warden, Tyler Bell)

• Radically Open Cultural Heritage Data on the Web (Adrian Stevenson, Jon Voss, Julie Allinson, Rachel Frick)

• Libros digitales para todos/eBooks for Everybody (Alvin Hutchinson, Martin Kalfatovic)

Visit the #sxswLAM website (www.sxswlam.info) for details and to listen to the audio recordings from these ­programs.

In addition to colleagues preparing to make the trip to Austin in March, numerous supporters in the professional community contributed encouragement, time, constructive criticism, and even cash to the SXSW movement. John Chrastka, president of AssociaDirect, a Chicago-based marketing and communications firm, kicked off a fundraising effort through Facebook and raised $500 through peer pledges, which supported marketing materials and a ­#sxswLAM-branded swag. These efforts extended the reach of librarians interested in being involved in SXSW and awareness of the collective benefit of conference representation. In several cases, these colleagues had eager thoughts of personally attending but cited limited or nonexistent support from their local institutions, or felt unable to make a viable request to attend owing to lack of local understanding of the relevance of SXSW. The dynamic and inclusive nature of the #sxswLAM group offered the opportunity to be connected to the cause and promote innovative thinking.

The next breakout stars

At SXSW 2012, I led a discussion group with #sxswLAM members to talk about the how, what, and why of the #sxswLAM movement. Davis and Fisher outlined the mission and vision and distributed #sxswLAM swag, while Oliver Sanidas, of the Arapahoe Library District, CO, and Carson Block, a library IT consultant who runs Carson Block LLC, discussed the challenges of keeping up with emerging technologies in the library community, the disconnect between the perception and reality of IT in libraries, and value of cross-industry conversations. Block described the response he received at SXSW 2011 when he’d tell new contacts that he was a librarian. “ ‘What technology is there in a library?’ they would ask. This is what we have to bridge. The people creating our digital present and future are here now, today, right outside.”

In fact, his remark was no exaggeration, as our meeting took place right in the middle of the SXSW Startup Village, which “brings together the [meeting’s] start-ups, entrepreneurs, investors, and cutting-edge digital tastemakers” (sxsw.com/­interactive/startupvillage)

Harry McCracken, Time.com’s Technologizer columnist, wrote about Block’s session:

“Block said that sheer apathy is one of the greatest threats that libraries face—a point that was underlined by the sparse attendance at his presentation,” McCracken wrote. “I’m part of the problem: I moved to San Francisco in 2002 and didn’t get around to visiting its excellent main library until nine years later. Nevertheless, I left [Block’s] presentation both inspired and worried. We’ve always needed libraries; now, more than ever, libraries need us.”

Jonathan Smith, of California State University in San Bernadino, described the dual role of SXSW librarian participants: “There’s so much creative energy here”—it helps librarians “think outside of the library box”—and “on the flip side, it’s important to be a library evangelist” and talk with SXSW participants about how libraries serve an essential purpose transforming and supporting technology development.

Davis tells entrepreneurs, “libraries are the biggest usability playground you have,” with a diverse and engaged user community willing and interested to learn about emerging technology tools. Anne Slaughter, of the Oak Park Public Library, IL, and Karin Dalziel, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, weighed in on the “innovator’s dilemma”—libraries help to curate information and are incorporating new tools and techniques to do so, yet, Slaughter sums up the catch: “There are ways that our community expects us to be, and they equate libraries with books.” The solution? “It’s up to us to come to these conferences, bring back new ideas, demonstrate value, and adapt to the changing en­vironment,” says Eric Frierson, St. Edwards University, Austin.

Making new contacts at SXSW is critical to this mission. Libraries may choose to outsource expertise to implement new technologies and programs, or bring in technologists and entrepreneurs to enhance library teams. “We’re looking to hire,” says Frierson. As more libraries include digital media centers, hacklabs, and maker spaces, so expands the need for inspired, diverse, creative, and technical professionals to be employed in our libraries and partners in our technology initiatives.

Get Involved: SXSW 2013

If you want to change the world, there’s no day like today. SXSW 2013 planning is in full swing, and #sxswLAM members are gearing up for another round of creative collaboration in support of library technology, advancement, and advocacy at SXSW. Proposals for next year’s conference may be submitted starting June 25. Join #sxswLAM on Facebook to get involved, learn how to develop your idea into a proposal, ask questions about SXSW, and be a part of SXSW 2013. Why SXSW? In the words of Brad King, assistant professor of journalism at Ball State University, Muncie, IN, and a member of the SXSW Advisory Board, “We bring people with big ideas together with other people with big ideas and then encourage them to go off and create their own, new big ideas, together.”

Resources and more info on Storify.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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