Learning from relatives: academic, school, and public libraries

Librarians and information professionals who work in special libraries often stick together. This makes sense, of course, as they tend to serve like-minded users, provide similar information services, and face challenges unique to special libraries. Librarians in corporate, non-profit, law and “non-traditional” information centres must rarely (if ever) consider some of the fundamental and everyday decisions of their distant relatives, the public and academic librarians. While public librarians debate the impediments of children’s literacy, or academic librarians struggle to teach undergrads how to find a peer-reviewed journal article, the special library community faces entirely different user-needs and information management concerns. Despite these inherent professional differences, I believe there is much that can be learned from one another.

The Ontario Library Association’s annual Super Conference takes place each Winter at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. This past January I attended the Super Conference with the hopes of reconnecting and networking with colleagues, liaising with vendors, and most importantly, learning from the experiences of other librarians.

Traditionally and informally, the OLA Super Conference is more or less a platform for library technicians, academic, school, and public librarians. There seem to be few special librarians in attendance at OLA. This year I pondered if librarians from special libraries could benefit from what the Super Conference has to offer. Coincidentally, the theme of this year’s conference was “The Power of C – Collaboration!” OLA President Mary Ann Mavrinac writes, “Collaboration makes us smarter. The power of collaboration is a catalyst for community engagement, communication, cooperation, connectivity, conversations, crowdsourcing, collectivism and collegiality” and further, “helps us make better choices for communal and collateral benefit” (source). I felt energized by this message of teamwork and camaraderie, and think that despite differences in the users we serve, that both groups can take away valuable and transferable lessons from each other’s major conferences.

When the Super Conference session schedule was released, I read some abstracts out of curiosity for what might be available. To my surprise, more than a handful stood out as innovative, interesting, and helpful in the context of my library’s current projects and workflow. Fully aware that I’m not the ideal audience for this conference, I registered reluctantly but excitedly.

Below are some sessions from the 2011 Super Conference that I enjoyed:

“Library Mashups: Exploring new ways to deliver library data” presented by Nicole Engard (Bywater Solutions): Highlighted various examples of how your library can incorporate the API (Application Programming Interface) from your current subscriptions (e.g. The New York Times) and embed that code within your library’s OPAC or website. Hypothetically then, you can present your users with seamless and immediate access to the latest content related to your organization’s focus. Additionally, introduce things like Google maps and other applications to your Library’s web page.

“Using Open Source Software in a shared integrated library system” presented by A. Rivers-Moore (Hanover PL), S. Leighton, (Grand Valley PL), W. Allen (Grey Highlands PL), and R. Dotten (Shelburne PL): Explored the challenges and successes of implementing the open source ILS, Koha. My library uses a number of open source platforms, Koha in particular. As the only librarian (and one with amateur open source abilities) it was a terrific opportunity to speak to others in the same situation about some of the obstacles and rewards involved in introducing free and open source software.

Overall, I was thoroughly impressed by the diversity and depth of most sessions, though disappointed by the elementary coverage of some others. I heartedly recommend browsing the list of sessions for the 2012 Super Conference. You may be surprised at what you find! As the leaders of access and information management within our organizations, we should actively keep abreast developments, technologies and projects throughout the wider profession of librarianship in order to anticipate and meet the needs of our users. There is much to be learned from our librarian relatives in the academic, school and public environments, and there is much that we can teach them as well.

The “Human Library” project

Earlier today I was listening to “Q” on CBC radio, hosted by Jian Ghomeshi. At the end of the programme, he announced that the London Public Library is going to embark on a new project called the “Human Library”, where library users will be able to “check-out” a human being… Naturally, I was very intrigued, so I went online to learn more. Here is the scoop: members from participating communities can apply to be a living “book” (as, each of us has a unique story to tell). Each book will fit a particular category of person, such as “Male Nurse”, “Jewish Woman”, or “Handicapped Mother” for example. These “books” can then be checked-out by library users to engage in a conversation about their life/situation/experiences…

I found the homepage for the Human Library, and have been reading about its history, implementation, the process of recruiting “books”, etc. The goal of this project is to encourage a dialogue among strangers, for the purpose of dispelling prejudice or perceived “difference” within communities. It is quite a unique approach to breaking down cultural barriers to better understand the choices and life situations of others.

I think it sounds like a promising and innovative service, and I look forward to learning more about its implementation (and usage statistics!!). However, I can imagine there being problems with the recruitment process (because people are being chosen as books based on their perceived “difference” to others). Recruiters are effectively placing people into boxes characterized by any one of their character traits, whether it be sexuality, physical ability, ethnic background, or profession. While I certainly believe in breaking down prejudice, I wonder if this programme will be able to succeed..

To read more about this project at the London Public Library and to apply to be a “book”, visit their site here.