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Join 50 Librarians as They Tackle SXSW Interactive
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Posted On April 7, 2015
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“This is the biggest group we’ve had yet,” someone remarked as they gathered to pose for a picture. The “group” is lib*interactive, formerly sxswLAM (libraries, archives, and museums), and they were at the MugShots bar in Austin, Texas, at the first LAM meetup of the SXSW (South by Southwest) Interactive Festival (March 13–17, 2015). LAM representatives are a growing presence at the technology-focused conference for two main reasons: Interactive exposes the LAM fields to new and emerging tech trends, and it’s a great place to advocate on behalf of LAM institutions. lib*interactive gives attendees a way to connect with other LAM representatives and engage in concerted efforts to spread the word about all of the new ways LAM spaces are engaging with technology. 

“I spend a lot of time talking with folks [at Interactive] and enlightening them about what libraries do or talking about what some of our issues are, and inevitably, I’m always surprised at how people say, ‘I didn’t know libraries do that, that’s fantastic.’ And then when I talk about some of our issues, you get a lot of creative folks [talking] to you about how they would go about solving problems. And it’s generally a different perspective than I’m exposed to on a day-to-day basis,” says Oli Sanidas, director of digital and library material services at Arapahoe Library District in Colorado. The conference “takes us out of our normal neighborhood, and we explore new neighborhoods. … Libraries are about ideas, and this is a convention of ideas. It’s sort of this perfect marriage.”

Festivities Outside the Conference

The lib*interactive group members are just as welcoming as you’d expect them to be. They go to the LAM-related sessions to support each other, attend meetups, and even have their own home base—a rented two-story residence (with guesthouse) called the ER&L + ProQuest + DLF #IdeaDrop House, which celebrated its third anniversary in 2015. At the #IdeaDrop House breakfast the day after the EveryLibrary-sponsored MugShots meetup of about 50 group members, Carson Block (president at Carson Block Consulting, Inc.) emceed as the 20-some participants introduced themselves and spoke about the goals they hoped to accomplish at Interactive. For the rest of the conference, the group hosted speakers in the living room; the conversations were livestreamed on Ustream and archived on Vimeo.

The creators of the #IdeaDrop House, sisters Sandy and Bonnie Tijerina, have worked in the LAM space for years coordinating the Electronic Resources and Libraries (ER&L) conference together, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Bonnie first attended Interactive in 2012. “I went because I’m interested in technology and what’s new … and as I went to sessions, I kept thinking to myself either ‘librarians need to hear this,’ or ‘librarians should be in the room,’ or ‘they should be in on this panel.’ These are topics we think about and we care about,” she says. “It’s such an interesting, eclectic group of people all coming together around how we use technology and what’s the future of technology.” After she left, she knew she needed to figure out a way to bring the conference’s conversations to people who either hadn’t heard much about the conference before or who couldn’t afford the trip (and the registration fee).

She decided that the best solution was to rent a house for the 2013 Interactive conference and see how much interest she could drum up. “I was thinking people who are attending Interactive will kind of come back to the house, and bring their ideas, drop them there for us to talk about, and just kind of pull together all these ideas that we learn while we’re there, and be able to share them more broadly with the library community,” she says. ProQuest, ER&L, and the DLF (Digital Library Federation) signed on to subsidize the cost, and the DLF offered to livestream the conversations occurring at the house by setting up a miniature studio in the living room. Bonnie started emailing presenters she found on the schedule for the next year’s Interactive to invite them to the house—“anyone from big-name featured speakers to individual activists who were doing things that I thought whether directly or tangentially would be of interest to the library community, or at the very least, of interest to me.” To her surprise, almost all of the speakers she emailed said they’d love to talk to librarians.

One of the first speakers was Henry Jenkins, who presented at the conference to an audience of more than a thousand people and then came to the #IdeaDrop House to hang out with a group of about 15 LAM attendees, says Bonnie. The house has hosted individuals and groups who talked about topics such as privacy, how libraries help the LGBT community, and Big Data. “We hit such a variety of topics the first couple of years. … It kind of comes together last minute. … It’s so loose—it’s such a loose conference, people kind of come and go and do a variety of things while they’re there; either attending sessions or going to parties, just being stopped on the road and talking to random people,” Bonnie notes. She attributes the speakers’ interest in coming to the house to the fact that, in general, people like libraries. “I was surprised the first year [at the nonlibrarians’ interest], but over time, I realized that people want libraries to help some of the emerging problems that are happening on the web,” she says, such as data collection and privacy.

“I know that people have used the [Vimeo] videos to kind of help create a justification for their institution funding them to come. I think it’s a hard thing to get your institution to fund something like Interactive because it’s not a library conference, not directly related, so it can be a little challenging. … What the house is doing is showing how the topics are related to libraries in some way. So hopefully that has helped people,” she says.

Sandy notes that the videos have accumulated more than 9,000 views in the past 2 years thanks to support from the American Library Association (ALA) and the DLF. “It’s nice to know that people have been able to partake from wherever they are,” Sandy says.

About six LAM attendees shared the house this year, and this location (which they’ve now used for 2 years) is about a mile from the convention center—a relatively easy walk and an even easier bike ride. Block says the conference doesn’t offer people time to sit and reflect on what they’re learning or to check in with others in the same field, so having a space like the #IdeaDrop House gives the LAM “tribe” a place to catch its breath.

What LAM Representatives Can Learn

Sanidas says going to Interactive contributed to his idea to start a “beta tech” program for his library. Throughout many years of attending the conference, he had seen demos of technologies that weren’t publicly available. So he purchased Google Glass, Oculus Rift (which is available during guided events), 3D printers, and other devices for the library that patrons wouldn’t be able to get exposure to on their own. “I don’t always get to see the face-to-face interactions of this tech. On occasion, I get to see it, and when I do, the patrons are just blown away by what we offer. … That’s pretty rewarding,” he says. His library will soon open its first dedicated makerspace. 


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Brandi Scardilli is the editor of NewsBreaks and Information Today.

Email Brandi Scardilli

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