Contrasting attitudes toward 2.0 technologies – observations from ALA

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.

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2 thoughts on “Contrasting attitudes toward 2.0 technologies – observations from ALA”

  1. How right you are! I feel like most archivists and a fair share of librarians perceive technological innovation as a problem, not an opportunity. The description of that SAA session underscores this perception.

    I’ve never attended an ALA session. I probably would have chosen to go to ALA instead of SAA this year since ALA is on the east coast and therefore easily accessible by train. Also, I think they had a Rare Books and Manuscripts pre-conference in Baltimore. However, I have to take my CA exam at SAA.

    From friends who are librarians, however, I have heard that ALA’s sessions tend to be less intellectually substantive than those at SAA. Your “gee whiz!” characterization of the sessions you attended support this argument. Alot of them like to go for the keynote speaker and all the free OCLC swag (how many Worldcat totebags does one need?).
    That said, I also think that because ALA isn’t generally concerned with debating the finer points of technological innovation, they seem to be more comfortable just throwing out a session on a hot topic to let the attendees take from it what they will. SAA sessions seem much more concerted efforts, and therefore more conservative.

    ALA midwinter is in Philadelphia in 2008, so I think I’ll attend a few sessions to see if I learn anything. I am the de facto technology librarian here, so I can probably justify it.

  2. You bring up some interesting issues. I think one of the problems in the archival field in general is that we don’t yet have a lot of digital natives. We have a fair share of digital Xers, those of us who aren’t quite native but came as immigrants early enough to feel comfortable with much of the technology. And we have an abundance of true immigrants, many of whom aren’t comfortable with Web 1.0, let alone 2.0. It’ll be interesting to see in the next 10 years if our profession reverts to being primarily analog or if we finally embrace technology.

    I think one of the problems with the SAA session description is that it’s been through 3 levels of editing, with the goal of each round to be to pare the description down. The presenters probably represent a range of skill levels. I would look at them more carefully to see if you can determine their level of expertise. Although I agree that the title does give one a moment of pause.

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