Maker spaces, open source platforms, and other library rebuilds were the touchstones of this year’s Computers in Libraries Conference. The attendee statistics for the 2014 Computers in Libraries Conference, held April 7-9, are identical to those of a decade ago: 2000 attendees from 46 states and 13 countries. However, the number of speakers had doubled, to two hundred. And, with approximately a third of the presenters making their CIL debut, there was a palpable sense of excitement vibrating through the halls and conference rooms of the Washington Hilton.
Often, a library conference is only as interesting as the foundation of technology and innovation upon which it is based. Some years, the underpinning is underwhelming, and the subject matter flat. Then there are years like this one, where attendees brought fresh ideas to the rising tech trends of gamification, makerspaces, open data, and hackathons. Those who followed the conference’s Twitter hash tag, #CILDC, were treated to a fast moving stream of new perspectives.
In 1985, when this conference launched under the name “Small Computers in Libraries,” only the most savvy of futurists could have foretold that, in less than three decades, not only would there be a proliferation of the reverse—small libraries in computers—but also Minecraft in libraries, 3D printers in libraries, and augmented realities in libraries. Nor would they have guessed that there would be, as this year’s theme of “Hack the Library” implied, libraries that have fundamentally become computers: not just repositories of knowledge, but generators of content and gateways to social change.
On Sunday, pre-conference attendees packed into an evening showcase of “Games, Gadgets, & Makerspaces.” The MaKey MaKey invention kit, which can turn any object into a computer touchpad, was an instant favorite, as folks lined up to play a game of Tetris that employed several bananas in place of a keyboard. Meanwhile, across the room, it was becoming clear that 3D crafting and electronic gadgetry in libraries are still in their infancy—which is to say that many of the tools on display were essentially crayons and blocks. Of course, these blocks were enhanced with circuitry and snapping them together meant building a robot. And a crayon that proved irresistible was the 3Doodler, an electric pen which writes with colored plastic that hardens into three dimensional shapes. As the participants took turns with the gadgets, and helped each other in figuring out the subtleties of Lego-based mechanics, the evening transformed into an excellent demonstration of a concept that would be repeatedly pointed out in the days to come: The reasons for adding a makerspace to a library, or for hosting a two-day hackathon, is not to create a menagerie of plastic miniatures or a suite of hastily design software, but rather to foster peer-to-peer learning and community organization.
The Monday through Wednesday range of keynote speakers held true to the hacker sensibility, though the presenters were vastly different in terms of their approaches and resumes. There was a director of an Ivy League library innovation lab, the Chief Library Officer (CLO) of a major metropolitan public library, and an urban planner with no library background. Each came ready with his or her own ideas of how to be a change agent and create positive disruption in the library space.
Dr. David Weinberger of Harvard, compared modern libraries to a Swiss army knife: useful, but ultimately limited (and hard to scale) because they were designed to respond to an anticipated set of needs. But now, given an environment where, he proclaimed, nearly everything is networked, open access is becoming the norm, and everyone is publicly engaged, a “future without anticipation” can be built, utilizing a platform for open data that allows users to do for themselves with minimal mediation: Not a road to knowledge with a predefined path, but an open field of exploration.
New York Public Library (NYPL) Chief Library Office, Mary Lee Kennedy, is also an advocate for taking the library outside of its established confines. During Tuesday’s keynote, she provided a variety of concrete examples of how the NYPL is accomplishing the task. She impressed the audience with a demo of the NYPL Map Warper, a crowdsourcing tool that layers contemporary digital maps over digitized versions of historical maps. She also highlighted her library’s efforts in lending out MiFi hotspot devices, bringing portable Internet access to the homes of students whom otherwise would go without.
Mike Lydon, an expert on “Tactical Urbanism,” gave the closing day address. His talk focused on the white hat hacking of city streets, where citizens create their own needed crosswalks, bike paths, and curb extensions, starting small and ultimately gaining local government approval for permanent change. The wisdom of an ask-forgiveness-not-permission methodology was not lost on the members of this assemblage, who are no strangers to the concept of working from the outside in, while encouraging patron involvement.
The sheer breadth of librarianship was reflected in the more than 70 sessions that were offered this year. As Sarah Ludwig of Simsbury, CT’s Ethel Walker School explored the integration of Minecraft into math and science classes, Adriana Edwards-Johnson from central Oklahoma was discussing disaster preparedness for public library online services, in the wake of her area’s May 2013 tornadoes. As Julian Aiken of the Yale Law School Library outlined Yale’s “scan this” service for journal article delivery, geared toward a student body that has grown accustomed to the immediate satisfaction of Netflix and Amazon Prime, Stacy Bruss showed off the Innovation Center, complete with a Makerbot Replicator for 3D modeling, that was constructed in the research library of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
But despite its massive scope, the essence of Computers in Libraries can usually be distilled by taking note of whatever buzzword is most often repeated across its many sessions, or frequently overheard while taking in the numerous vendor exhibits, or which keeps coming up over dinner or a beer. In the recent past, those terms tended to be relatively newfangled—think Google, Twitter, or ebook. But this year, the word on everyone’s lips was one that is over 600 years old: building, as both noun and verb. While librarians dwell on redesigning their physical spaces, perhaps removing bookshelves in favor of workbenches, the building of new tools in the digital realm, new communities through programming efforts, and even new businesses through hackathons that reward entrepreneurial spirit, escalates. The conference made it clear that, more than ever, librarianship is a profession building on change.
Stan Friedman (@StanfordF) is the Senior Research Librarian for Condé Nast in New York City, a freelance writer, and webmaster for the New York chapter of SLA.