After thinking about what to write in this space about the two sessions I attended this morning at ALA I’ve come to the conclusion that my approach may be a bit different from people who usually blog from conferences. I think the practice is to summarize the sessions you attend, to inform those who cannot be there. I went to a session on “Information in the World of Digital Natives” and one on “Participatory Networks: Library as Conversation.” The content of both these sessions was quite good, I thought, although neither contained any particular revelations for me–and probably would not have for most of this blog’s readers.
The first session gave an overview of the differences between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” For a discussion of these terms, see Marc Prensky’s 2001 article here. The presenter gave some interesting statistics supporting what I think we all intuitively know, that “digital natives” (those who grew up immersed in technology) approach research and locating information very differently from “digital immigrants” (who did not). He then presented examples of the kinds of sites that appeal to digital natives (Face Book, MySpace, My Yahoo, Flickr, Wikipedia, etc.) and contrasted them with the kinds of web 1.0 sites that digital immigrants are often more comfortable with. The relevant question for archivists, I think, is: is the way we are presenting information about our collections compatible with the information-seeking behavior of these digital natives? They are our next generation of users (and a large percentage of our potential current users). Are we making ourselves approachable and relevant to them?
The second session featured speakers on Second Life in general and on Info Island specifically, use of gaming in public libraries, and use of My Space in public libraries. The speakers gave many impressive statistics about the prelevance of use of these sites and tools in the total population, and among younger people in particular. But the median age of both gamers and residents of Second Life is about 35, so it’s not all digital natives. In this session, as in the first, the presenters stressed how libraries could take advantage of these social networks to reach out and engage users who might not otherwise connect to library resources. More and more, these kinds of social networking tools are the means around which users have the conversations that give their lives meaning. Libraries can either became part of the fabric of the conversations, or be left out of them and so become, in some ways, increasingly irrelevant to those users.
These kinds of observations are not new to most regular readers of the blogs out there–which is not meant to be a criticism of the presentations, which both were excellent overviews of their issues. I did learn some new things about the tools, and the questions and conversations following the presentations in both cases showed how well-versed many librarians already are in these areas.
In considering how almost reflexive this kind of approach has become for me, I wondered how many sessions at the SAA meeting in Chicago would address similar subjects from an archival perspective. I found only one session description that addressed these issues explicitly:
Signifying Nothing? Sound, Fury, and Mediated Access
New technology promises to expand the scope of institutional outreach. The array of blogs, podcasts, IMs, wikis, emails, listservs, and webpages, that define new modes of digital communication also create daunting problems: affording technologies, clearing rights, rendering resources, creating contexts, updating feeds, writing effective assessments tools. As the web and its derivatives enter a second decade of popular use, digital technologies require closer appraisal. Does digital payoff equal digital risk?
I was not encouraged by this program description–it references both web 1.0 and web 2.0 technologies as if they are the same, and the overall tone seemed to me to be one of skepticism, rather than embracing new ways to interact with our users (or, to put it another way, embracing the reality that these are the ways in which our users increasingly expect us to interact with them). Perhaps I will be wrong and this session will end up concluding that these new ways of communicating do not “signify nothing.” Or perhaps I am being too sensitive and this session was intended as more of a “lessons learned” about the challenges presented by different kinds of communication, rather than as a discussion of rejecting them. I should add that there are other session descriptions about interacting with users that give me hope (reading between the lines of descriptions) that there will be some positive discussions about application of new technologies to reaching our users.
But the content of these two conferences (at least as they present themselves in their programs) reveals a contrast between a profession that is actively engaged in learning about how their users’ communication patterns are evolving, and one that approaches these changes with skepticism, if it acknowledges them at all.