SLA Boston 2015: Lessons and Observations from a First-Time Attendee

By Coral Salomón

Image courtesy SLA B&F

Image courtesy SLA B&F

I had the opportunity to attend my first professional conference this summer at the SLA 2015 Annual Conference in Boston. I am a Library and Information Science student interested in the digital humanities and how they fit within special libraries and archives. I am also interested in how digital applications can be used to maximize engagement and further the mission of libraries and cultural heritage institutions. I attended the conference because I wanted to learn more about the type of tools available to librarians, hear practical advice from professionals, and learn about exciting initiatives occurring in knowledge organization institutions across the country.

Below are several lessons and observations I was able to absorb throughout my time in Boston.

Mastering User-Experience and Information Visualization

When initiating digital projects, we may sometimes lack the know-how or the resources to develop a robust product. Luckily, sessions like “An Introduction to Developing a Better Web-Based User Experience” and “Revolutionize Your Data – Tools for Visualization” tackled these issues head on.

In “An Introduction to Developing a Better Web-Based User Experience,” Sarah Barret, Senior Architect, offered librarians embarking on solo website building projects helpful advice on how to succeed. She discussed the importance of clearly identifying your website’s goals, assessing users’ needs, and testing early and often. Before beginning to build a new website or updating an old website, it is important to conduct primary research to determine what users need. Always identify research objectives in anticipation of the primary research. While hosting primary research might seem time-consuming and intimidating, Sarah explained that obtaining useful user feedback is a lot like conducting a reference interview. In fact, it’s possible to gather great information by interviewing only four people; it’s about getting quality data rather than a large quantity of data. Listen to the user to identify problems and then focus on finding solutions that align with your goals. Sarah even shared her “heuristic analysis outline” with the audience. “Heuristic” is a fancy term for a measurement that can’t be quantified, but in user-experience it relates to an inspection method used to identify usability problems. Feel free to use the linked checklist for your own U/X testing!

In “Revolutionize Your Data – Tools for Visualization,” the speakers shared online tools that allow librarians to visualize their own data and to provide data reference/consultation. The tools discussed included:

  • Google Fusion Table – An experimental app by Google that allows users to visualize tabular data. The data can be plotted on charts, maps, network graphs or a custom layout. Users can merge their data with other people’s data or keep it private. Furthermore, any time the data table is updated it automatically updates the final product.
  • Gephi – An open, interactive visualization platform for people to explore and understand data. It is highly customizable. Some of its strengths include the ability to perform “link analysis” to discover associations between objects. It also allows the easy creation of social data to map community organizations and micro-networks.
  • Palladio – Another open Web-based platform for the visualization of complex data. It is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and has a very user-friendly interface allowing users to drag-and-drop spreadsheet data into the website.
  • The Science of Science (Sci2) – A visualization platform specifically designed for the study of science. It supports the temporal, geospatial, topical, and network analysis of data from the micro to the macro level.

A note of caution: the speakers discussed the importance of being judicious when selecting color schemes to avoid overwhelming users. From my personal experience, Adobe Color CC (formerly Adobe Kuler) is an easy way to create harmonious color schemes that can be applied to data visualization projects.

Librarians as Leaders

Power dynamics within an organization can change how effectively a librarian can do her or his job. Strong leadership skills enable librarians to foster innovative environments and are an important part of career progression.

In “Leading from the Middle: Strategies, Advice and Perspective from Senior Leaders,” Lisa DeAngelis, Victoria North, and Leslie Reynold offered practical advice and strategies for professionals in middle management. They offered helpful tips based on personal experience of how to be a leader across an organization’s hierarchy. At one interesting point during the seminar, the speakers even mused on what the term “middle management” truly meant, since no matter how elevated an individual is in an organization’s hierarchy, there are always other stakeholders to answer to.

All three speakers emphasized the importance of being able to prioritize, work as part of a team, and possess the ability to communicate effectively. Victoria North discussed balancing individual and department goals with the greater (“big picture”) company goals. Developing the ability to assess personalities and organize tasks are important traits that enable individuals to effectively accomplish goals and establish credibility with decision makers.

The power of communication is vital. Even though the importance of communication may seem obvious, it is sometimes forgotten in the daily grind. To make sure everyone is on the same page, patiently ask others to “help you understand” by having them thoroughly explain their mentality. Never take things at face value. When working with a large group of people, there is no such thing as an “obvious” course of action. Different people have different experiences, and only through communication can each team player effectively illustrate their approach and mindset. It is up to us as leaders to make sure our point is understood through clear and organized communication and to make sure that we understand others through patient listening and follow up. Ask questions, articulate their response back, and be sure to always keep proper written documentation of any decisions.

Being a leader also means knowing how to work as part of a team. During the session, Leslie Reynold explained her “Disagree and then commit” strategy. Even if you may personally disagree with a company initiative, there is a time and a place to voice one’s concerns. However, once the majority decides on a set course, it’s important to commit to it for the greater good of the organization. Never underestimate the power of being a good person. Always give credit where credit is due. Remember to make alliances across teams and don’t take your vendors for granted; they can also prove to be an important part of the team.

Connecting People and Ideas

At the end of the day, a librarian’s goal is to connect people and ideas, as succinctly stated by SLA’s motto—“Connecting People and Information.” Two of my favorite seminars discussed how different organizations are approaching this ideology.

In “SLA HOT TOPIC A Conversation with The New York Times R&D Lab: How Semantic Listening Can Build a Future from the Past,” we got a glimpse at some of the exciting initiatives from The New York Times.

One of the topics the seminar addressed was how to engage users and empower communities by converging crowd sourcing and data to bring archives “to life.” By definition, archives are durable records of expression. While the connotation of archives may seem stuffy, at The New York Times they are regarded as dynamic “knowledge stores.” One of the ways the Times shares its vast “knowledge store” freely with the community is through project Madison.

Madison is a crowd sourcing initiative for cataloging and transcribing advertising that appeared in The New York Times throughout most of the 20th century. While advertising on newspapers can be dismissed as a byproduct of capitalism, it can also be interpreted as a relic of our cultural history that allows us to peek into the daily lives of those who came before us.

Through Madison, users can help catalog and transcribe ads that appeared in the Times from the 1920s through the 1960s by answering easy questions in a simple and clean interface. The New York Times has developed a unique resource that manages to foster collaboration and bridges the deficits of computer-recognition systems by engaging the greater community. While it is able to generate free labor, the product of the labor is also freely available to the general community, researchers, and hobbyists. I thought Madison was a great example of an initiative that manages to provide access and value to an otherwise inaccessible collection by engaging an online community in an effort to open its data and use visual information to enrich the user experience.

The 21st century brings opportunities and challenges to information science professionals. Today, librarians have analog and digital tools at their disposal to offer better access to collections. “Taking the Library to the World: Innovative Outreach and Services Beyond Borders” discussed how librarians are thinking outside the box in terms of increasing access to information at a macro level.

Innocent Awasom, Wendy Davis and Valrie Minson discussed efforts being undertaken in the United States to provide better access to information in sectors that were previously underserved. Meanwhile, Sarah Young discussed a global initiative between the University of Ghana and Cornell University.

Innocent Awasom discussed Texas Tech University’s libraries’ role in integrating the west Texas community through outreach opportunities, such as resource fairs organized by non-profits, educational initiatives like the “Back to School Fiesta,” and other opportunities. He emphasized the importance of creating a collaborative experience beyond one-sided outreach—to create a meaningful exchange, libraries and participants must engage with each other. Libraries are part of a community, and their mission must include helping people help themselves and each other. A library’s mission involves integrating the all of the general public without bias. Through multiple engagement efforts, the Texas Tech University library actively helps integrate the children of migrant workers and of low Socio-Economic Status (SES) into the university and library system from an early age. Furthermore, through these engagement efforts the libraries also function as information hubs and “town commons,” spaces where the community can meet to share ideas and solve problems.

Wendy Davis discussed how the National Agriculture Library is using online tools to create accessible and user-friendly projects relating to food, nutrition, food safety, animal safety and special collections. She showcased the NAL’s collection of dietary guidelines across time and government agencies. Patrons can easily research the NAL’s collection online and stumble upon educational material and curiosities, such as Robert Frost’s articles on poultry. Furthermore, the library offers contemporary data through a Dietary Reference Calculator app. It is also developing “Ag Data Commons,” an open data platform for agricultural research. NAL displays flexibility in how it’s able to engage its users through Web and mobile applications regardless of a user’s geographical constraints.

Valrie Minson, University of Florida, also described the importance of developing services that meet users’ needs. Her work is focused on organizing decentralized agricultural knowledge. As part of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, she must focus her efforts on teaching the next generation of farmers to develop research and extend that research to the public. In an effort to add value to the community, the library has developed apps that facilitate mobile learning and create a community environment of peers and innovators. The library is also planning to develop a long-term preservation plant clinic and other initiatives that would heavily involve research-focused agricultural extension specialists.

Meanwhile, Sarah Young discussed an initiative between the University of Ghana and Cornell University named the West African Center for Crop Improvement (WACCI) aimed at empowering future West African agricultural experts. Libraries are well situated to address the social barriers experienced by some members of the global community and this effort is a great example of how a library can help enrich a community. At WACCI’s disposal are TEEAL, a digital library for agricultural research and education, and AGORA, an online research database that provides free access to full-text agricultural sciences journals for 69 low-income countries. As a partner of WACCI, Cornell University’s Mann Library provides remote support for graduate students. The variety of languages in West Africa, distance, connectivity and funding continue to be a challenge. Nevertheless, this is a great example of how libraries can help empower individuals and aid them in efforts to further their own communities.

Advancing Information Literacy Into The Future

The SLA 2015 Annual Conference in Boston helped me realize the many paths a librarian can pursue within her or his career. It was exciting to see the variety of initiatives being enacted by information professionals. The speakers were very forthcoming about the lessons they learned and the challenges they encountered while developing projects, which made the seminars very informative and eye opening. While digital tools are assets that we must embrace, I was glad that the conference reinforced the fact that advancing information literacy and access to information will always be at the core of a librarian’s mission. As librarians weather a sea of changes, we must continue advocating for accessible and open knowledge.

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2 thoughts on “SLA Boston 2015: Lessons and Observations from a First-Time Attendee

  1. ben salomon

    Excellent summary. I enjoyed your well balanced and informative approach. Technology is definitely a game changer in so many ways. These are certainly exciting times. Power to the imagination!

  2. Pingback: B2E Magazine Table of Contents | Bridge to Excellence

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