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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 11

I can hear that!

I'm writing this from Internet Librarian 2009 in Monterey, where I had the pleasure of seeing Google vice president and chief Internet evangelist (and often called father of the Internet) Vint Cerf interviewed by New York Public Library's Paul Holdengraber during the opening keynote. (If you weren't able to attend, you can watch the keynote at

Cerf told an amazing story about his wife Sigrid. Deaf from the age of three due to spinal meningitis, she received a successful cochlea implant 50 years later. She called up the library to ask for recorded books, which at the time were mainly available for the blind. At the end of the conversation, they confirmed: “So you're blind, yes?” She replied: “No, I'm deaf!”.

All humour aside, Cerf talked movingly about his wife's appreciation for every little sound, and her new constant exclamation – “I can hear that!”.

I can hear that

This story, and the other stories I heard both formally and informally across the rest of the conference, made me think about the ways in which an always-on Internet and Web 2.0 tools have really served as a similar kind of revolutionary shift in the way we "hear" others; in the way we communicate. We now can hear each other and hear our patrons in different ways, and we can talk about this in terms of meeting our patrons where they are, or the Read/Write Web, or Library 2.0 – but what it really boils down to is our very human need for communication.

Let me tell you what I heard

So let me tell you a bit more about what I heard from others this year. While the sessions I attended varied in focus, they shared this common underlying thread of the importance of communication – or, even more succinctly, conversation. Sometimes we get too caught up in the technology itself, in the new, in the shiny, but what we really need to consider is what that technology enables.

In a session on e-learning trends and tools, for instance, Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenberg County technology trainer Lori Reed stressed the need to take the "e" out and just focus on learning. We tend to get bogged down on format and tools, but what's really important is outcomes, i.e. what are we communicating to learners and what are they taking away?

So then I moved over to a session on "Micro-interactions, conversations, and customers". What's a micro-interaction? These are best epitomized by those 140-character tweets over on twitter, or by our short status updates over on Facebook. Libraries and librarians that use these formats, though, find that it's not as simple as just condensing their messages into 140 characters.

David Lee King summed it up best with "you have to give to get" in talking about a colleague who said he didn't "get" twitter. Said colleague had signed up, tweeted once, followed ten friends, and decided it was boring. David's point: you have to live it, and get active every day to really understand the tool – don't just dip in and get your feet wet. This is just like with making a new friend in real life; you'll call, write, go to lunch, and otherwise spend time with them in order to get to know them. Why should it be any different online? We're still human, no matter the medium.

Marydee Ojala talked about this further in a session on evaluating, recommending, and justifying 2.0 tools. She noted that the philosophical underpinning of any of these tools is the same – it's all about empowerment, sharing info, and communication. Similarly, in social networking, software, and media, the unifying idea is collaboration and teams – again, boiling down to conversation and communication.

Rockin' battle decks

Here's a session most of you are probably glad you weren't tapped to participate in: "Rockin' battle decks" (also streamed at While the Tuesday evening sessions at Internet Librarian are always fun and a lot looser than the regular programme, there's a serious undercurrent here as well.

In battle decks, five presenters compete before a panel of judges. Each is given a random deck, or set, of slides – some humorous, some serious, and some just plain strange – and has to make up a talk on the spot to fit the slides they're given. Here, the broad theme was "dealing with digital". While some slides elicited humour (or simply stunned silence!) others allowed presenters to expand on their core beliefs about the issues affecting all of us in a Web 2.0 world.

Battle decks competitor Michael Porter summed it up best when in a rare moment of seriousness he said that we:

"don't care about brand, we don't care about twitter, we don't care about Facebook. We care about functionality and what makes people use them and figuring out how we can do that through the library. And if we start thinking like that, we're going to make it… We can do this stuff, we can band together and we can go to this conference and find people with similar interests and research areas, we can play to each other's strengths, and we can totally kick ass at this stuff… If we stay true to our core values and our mission and our vision of our libraries, we're going to be fine 1,000 years from now, because that's at the heart of humanity, that stuff”.

Connection is as connection does

Internet Librarian is always my favourite conference – not even necessarily for the sessions themselves, but for the vibe created by this core group of librarians committed to figuring out what it means to create and foster the human connections we all need to find in the Web 2.0 age.

Another of David Lee King's points was “ask and ye shall receive”. On twitter and on Facebook, he can ask questions and get responses to help him think through issues, and notes that he has a lot of contacts and followers because "you guys are smarter than me". So David can ask a question and get 20 very different responses, which helps him think things through and make them better.

Conferences like Internet Librarian similarly foster this kind of interaction in the real world – whether in sessions or in the hallway or in the pub. This works in part because of the between-conference connections attendees maintain offline – they know each other from their online interactions.

Give me more, more, more!

Don't just take my word for it – read up on everyone else's experiences with Internet Librarian 2009 by searching the hashtag #IL2009 on Technorati, in twitter, on friendfeed, or on flickr.

Hope to see you there next year!

Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster,, author of What's the Alternative? Career Options for Librarians and Info Pros, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (