For the second time since Hurricane Katrina and the flood that followed, the American Library Association is holding its annual conference in New Orleans, with an estimated 17,000 librarians and vendors descending on the city late last week, providing a much appreciated economic shot in the arm. At the conference's opening session on Friday, June 24, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu personally thanked ALA for being the first major convention to come to New Orleans after the floods that ravaged the city in 2005, and returning again this year. “You gave us great hope and faith by coming here and being part of the rebuilding," he said. “Libraries will let New Orleans be smart again, be competitive and make everyone want to come to New Orleans.” The conference closes Tuesday.
Also at Friday's opening session, among the presentations, the Gates Foundation, via a video appearance by Melinda Gates announced a $300,000 grant to fund ALA Spectrum scholarships, which promote diversity in the profession, and Christopher Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, was honored with The Freedom to Read Foundation Roll of Honor Award. Keynote speaker Dan Savage, author and syndicated columnist, then delighted librarians with the message of hope and inspiration behind the "It Gets Better" viral video campaign he spearheaded with husband Terry Miller. "It’s a real honor to be here and a thrill," Savage told librarians, because the It Gets Better campaign, is at at its heart about "access to information."
Like the city of New Orleans itself, librarians are fighting through some tough times of their own. Advocacy is a major theme of the conference sessions. With library budgets are under stress, showing the value of the library has become critical at a time when "anti-tax" and "anti-government" sentiments, have exacerbated the effects of a historic recession. Sessions ranged from using statistics to show the library's value, to a rousing panel by New York City librarians on their activist efforts to bring attention to budget cuts, which included a "Zombie March;" getting hundreds of people together to "hug" the library; and a 24-hour read-in at the library. But the panel also offered great advice on how to balance library activism with one's professional work, how to deal with political leaders respectfully, and how to engage local media.
Technology, especially the explosion in the popularity of e-books and e-reading devices has also put more pressure on libraries, and a slew of panels discussed strategies for e-books and the digital future, including a panel on which Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle told librarians that his Open Library e-book program had just signed up its 1,000th library partner. Under the program, libraries can have their books scanned in partnership with the Internet Archive, and made into e-books available for lending, managed by the Adobe Digital Editions software. "We see this as a way through the thicket," Kahle said, helping to chart an e-book future for libraries with "millions of books...lots of winners and no centralized points of control." On the show floor, meanwhile, librarians were jamming e-book service provider booths for demos, including market leader OverDrive, which was rolling our new enhancements to its program; 3M which recently announced the debut of its Cloud Library; audio vendor Recorded Books, and B&T’s Axis 360, which offers librarians a collection development channel that bundles digital and physical content.
On Sunday, two of the conference's featured keynote speakers discussed the changing technological and media landscape. NPR's "On the Media" host Brooke Gladstone, gave librarians a thought-provoking presentation based on her illustrated bookThe Influencing Machine, (Norton), which looked at the past and future of media. Despite the uncomfortable side-effects that come with technology, Gladstone was upbeat about the future, urging those in attendance not to fear the digital future, to embrace the gadgets, but to be aware of the effects of that change. Among those changes, she noted, was the withering notion of "objectivity" in media, which, she pointed out, never truly existed, anyway. "We can't ignore our biases," she said. "All we can do is be aware of them." She told librarians that in the Internet world, "transparency is the new objectivity," where journalists can say anything as long as they say who they are. While media companies may be suffering from "broken business models," she also pointed out that history shows a long pattern of such disruption. In general, she said, the problem with newspapers isn't that they can't make money, but that they can't make margin within the media big corporations.
Later that afternoon, Sue Gardner, CEO of the Wikimedia foundation put some of Gladstone's observations into context. Gardner spoke about the success of the non-profit Wikipedia against early criticism and hand-wringing. "When I came to Wikipedia, I had some false assumptions, that it was all digital natives, oppositional to the world I came from, the world of traditional media, to the traditional institutions of knowledge," Gardner said. In fact, she said, Wikipedians are "lovers of institutions of knowledge." She acknowledged that the world is still sorting out how it feels about Wikipedia, but it is undeniably successful: it now exists in 273 languages, serving 410 million people, all without ever spending a dime on advertising. It has over 100,000 unpaid, citizen editors, (a stunning 91% of which are men, something Gardner seemed eager to have change). The company, which relies donations of effort, and money from readers, has only 75 full-time employees.
But it is that very "for the people, for the people" model that, 10 years later, has established Wikipedia as a success, Gardner explained. For all its faults and problems, which Gardner readily acknowledged, people like Wikipedia because they understand it is for them, she said, not the work of government, or a corporation. And Wikipedia is proving that people are more interested in building things than destroying them, as sham entries are often quickly reversed by the millions of Wikipedia users dedicated to its mission.
She quoted Charles Van Doren, the former Columbia professor who was involved in the famous "Quiz Show" scandal, who once observed in an essay that "the ideal encyclopedia should be radical," and should "stop being being safe. "Wikipedia is based on a radicalism that librararians share," Gardner said. "A radicalism that people should have a right a right to access information. We wish we didn't have to live in a world where that was radical. But we do."