The opening general session of this year’s American Library Association (ALA) conference in San Francisco was a feel-good fest, thanks largely to the good luck and good planning that ALA demonstrated in booking Roberta Kaplan, lawyer for the Supreme Court case that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, as the opening keynote. On the two-year anniversary of that case, the Court found in favor of marriage equality, turning Kaplan’s speech into an emotional victory celebration punctuated with standing ovations. While Sunday’s Pride Parade (along with Friday’s smaller march) necessarily added some logistical complications to travel to, from, and around the conference, the mood was gala, with many of the 15,883 attendees and 6,813 exhibitors popping over a block to see the parade and returning with rainbow accessories that dotted the exhibit floor, or sporting rainbow “I win” badge ribbons. Total attendance was up by almost 3,000 compared with ALA’s 2014 annual conference in Las Vegas.
Further contributing to the tide of social justice good news was the presentation of TechLogic’s inaugural People First Award to the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Pennsylvania Avenue Branch in Baltimore, for its courage in remaining open as a safe haven during the turmoil following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Branch Manager Melanie Townsend-Diggs and director Dr. Carla Hayden delivered moving words on the experience, and Hayden emphasized that it had renewed her faith that library as place mattered. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, scheduled to present the award, was delayed in transit, but arrived in time to deliver some kind words about the importance of libraries. And ALA’s Council on Sunday morning overwhelmingly passed the Resolution on the Importance of Sustainable Libraries.
A strong foundation
Other big award news from the conference included the announcement of the Knight Foundation’s second News Challenge for Libraries, the Foundation is seeking input on the form the challenge should take on Twitter until August 1, using the hashtag #newschallenge. The foundation, which also had a substantial booth presence, will announce the specific question and open the call for ideas in March and present the winners at the 2016 ALA annual conference in Orlando. The Knight and Sloan Foundations also announced that together they’re making a $3.4 million investment in the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which will help it expand to cover all 50 states by 2017. In a session titled What’s Next for the Digital Public Library of America, DPLA executive director Dan Cohen and Assistant Director for Content Amy Rudersdorf outlined some upcoming areas of focus, notably in terms of strengthening DPLA’s function as an educational resource and developments to its infrastructure, including using a two million dollar grant from the Institution of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to work with Stanford University and DuraSpace Hydra to build out a modern hosting platform on Hydra. “Everything is a little duct taped together right now,” said Cohen, but the cloud-ready turnkey solution will ultimately bring together tens of millions of items.
Representatives from two 2014 Knight News Challenge award recipients—Luke Swarthout, director of adult education services for New York Public Library (NYPL) and Michelle Frisque, chief of technology content and innovation for Chicago Public Library (CPL)—spoke to a packed house on Saturday morning with updates regarding NYPL’s “Check Out the Internet” and CPL’s “Internet to Go” services. These separate projects both seek to bridge the digital divide by loaning out Wi-Fi hotspots to low-income households. Seven out of ten teachers assign homework that requires Internet access, and many government services and employment opportunities are contingent on getting online. Yet 27 percent of New York City residents do not have Internet access at home, and in Chicago, there are several neighborhoods where broadband adoption rates are lower than 50 percent. Swarthout noted that schools and libraries “are closed too many hours” to provide adequate access to these communities, but mobile hotspots potentially offer a simple, cost-effective way for libraries to provide access in a patron’s home. Although both projects are pilots and many issues—including sources of long-term, ongoing funding for such projects—are being reviewed, Swarthout and Frisque both said that the programs had been well received by patrons.
From a long-established foundation with a 20+ year history of supporting libraries we turn to the newest entrant in the game. The Free Ebook Foundation launched just in time for the conference, combining two pre-existing projects with similar missions: Unglue.it and GITenberg. While Unglue.it focuses on sustainable funding models for freely-licensed ebooks, GITenberg improves ebooks available from Project Gutenberg by loading them onto GitHub, a version control and collaborative software development platform. “Unglue.it has always been mission oriented, and that mission is best served by being part of a non-profit” said Unglue.it founder Eric Hellman, who will lead and support the Foundation. Supporting the Free Ebook Foundation as founding trustees will be, in addition to Hellman and Seth Woodworth, founder of GITenberg, a group of publishing, library, and technology veterans: Rupert Gatti, co-founder of England’s Open Book Publishers; Vicky Reich, executive director of Stanford’s LOCKSS program; Todd Carpenter, Executive Director of the National Information Standards Organization; Karen Liu, Vice President for Marketing at Kaiam Corp.; and Michael Wolfe, Executive Director of the Authors Alliance.
Setting the agenda
To coincide with the conference, ALA released its own National Policy Agenda for Libraries, developed by an advisory committee of major library organizations. The two major thrusts of the document, which provides a framework for advocacy, are around capacity building and advancing the public interest. Under the rubric of the first come the core areas of library impact (and outcome measurement): education and learning, employment and entrepreneurship, health and wellness, government information services (which includes providing access to the social safety net), heritage and history. Under the second heading fall the causes libraries espouse in order to effectively meet the needs in the first: funding; copyright and licensing; digital content systems; privacy; broadband access; adoption; and use; “library-related functions in the federal government”; and “[training for] information professionals.”
Social media scholar and advocate danah boyd gave a smart and eloquent presentation for the RUSA President’s Program. Titled “It’s Complicated: Navigating the dynamic landscapes of digital literacy, collapsing contexts, and big data,” boyd’s talk covered a wide range of data and privacy issues. In addition to a plethora of information on youth culture, targeted advertising, and data coercion as seen from the intersection of sociology and geek culture, her speech was primarily a rallying cry to librarians to take a hard look at big data in the context of social justice, and to get involved in the issues it raises. “We are moving into a world of increased mass surveillance,” she told the crowd. “It’s going to happen systematically, first to people of color and marginalized people.” She added, “there’s a reason that propaganda works,” and called on her audience to question the status quo and engage publicly in the fight for open access, open data, and freedom of information. “People don’t know what to do with the data they’ve got,” said boyd. “Interrogate it, think about it holistically. There’s no easy answer. But we need you to be opening people’s eyes.”
Forget about standing room only: the Look into the Crystal Ball: Future Directions for Higher Education and Academic Libraries panel was sitting room only, with every inch of floor space occupied by an audience eager to find out what panelists Chris Bourg, Massachusetts Institute of Technology director of libraries; Deanna Marcum, managing director at Ithaka S+R; Janice Jaguszewski, director and associate university librarian of health sciences at University of Minnesota libraries; and Mitchell Stevens, associate professor of education and sociology at Stanford University saw in their crystal balls. The takeaway, of course, is that the future of academe is uncertain and the present is undergoing a sharp transformation. Education is becoming an ongoing, lifelong commodity as its cost continues to rise; digital resources are increasingly accessible and at the same progressively in need of curation and channeling; the culture of research and metrics is shifting. Most important, the academic library is positioned to address all these issues, as well as fulfilling its original, ongoing, and ever more crucial mission: educating the citizens of a rapidly changing world.
Long-term trends were a recurring theme at the Library and Information Technology Association’s (LITA) Top Tech Trends panel, moderated by Emily Clasper, system operations and training manager for New York’s Suffolk Cooperative Library System. Library technology consultant Carson Block noted that the proliferation of tablets, smartphones, laptops, and wearable technology is beginning to pressure Wi-Fi capacity in many institutions, and said investing in scalable access points is one way to meet increasing demands. Andrea Davis, knowledge manager at TFT, discussed the resurgence of podcasting, noting that its renewed popularity presents an opportunity for libraries to provide information to users. Grace Dunbar, VP of Equinox, discussed the need for Integrated Library Systems (ILS) to connect with third-party services via open APIs. And Bonnie Tijerina, founder of Electronic Resources & Libraries (ER&L) and fellow at the Data and Society Institute in New York, pointed to the emergence of “smart cities,” in which free Wi-Fi throughout a municipality also enables the deployment of sensors that collect user information for purposes such as location- and time-based advertising. What role will libraries play in these new environments, she asked? In addition to other topics, panelists also called for a more nuanced conversation within the library field regarding patron privacy.
Check back later this week for a more detailed writeup of LITA’s Top Tech Trends panel, as well as further news from ALA 2015.