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My ALA Round-up and the Top Tech Trends Fail Whale

I will never get this written if not now, so here ’tis.

A lot went right at ALA. I saw many friends, sat on many committees where Things Were Accomplished (including a meeting for LITA Forum 2009 that my awesome friend Zoe wrapped up in an hour!), did some fun booth demos (including one where someone who shall not be named paraded back and forth in the aisle in front of me in a bright blue boa, causing me to snicker uncontrollably at strange moments). worked an exhibit booth for the what, four hours I was not in meetings or in programs, and had many hugs/cab rides/refreshing beverages/meals, including with Steve, Millie, another Steve, the Nameless Gang who know who they are, Amazing Kate Sheehan, the well-spoken and thoughtful Tim “I really don’t CARE what librarians think of me” Spalding, one of my favorite former NYLA peeps, and other folk.

Two of my programs went quite well; the Ultimate Debate was well-attended (even though the Hyatt was not in Anaheim but Santa Cruz, based on the walk) and we were in top form (that’s one of the few audios of myself I can listen to), and my talk on Monday to the LITA Next-Gen Catalog IG about open source went fine, plus I got to sit next to Amy Kautzman who is just a hoot.

On the minus side, first, what were we doing in Anaheim, again? It was all ersatz California, mediocre food, and a “family hotel” experience, immortalized on Twitter, that began with an encounter with Cruella Daville at the front desk and remained at best overpriced mediocrity.

The library press noted that conference attendance, at 22,000, was better than New Orleans in 2006. Um, yeah, attendance was better than when (during the height of hurricane season) some of us gamely trooped to a city that had recently been devastated by a natural disaster, but not as good as the 28,000 who went to D.C. in 2007, which is a city oriented around business travel and perfect for conferences.

A telling moment was a cabby who asked, “How come you people didn’t bring family members?” Because it’s a business meeting, that’s why.

But then there was Top Tech Trends, deservedly panned in the press and the Biblioblogosphere as a minor techno-disaster.

This is the point where (with a little shame) I will emphasize something people do not understand. The Trendsters who sit on the panel do not make decisions. They just show up. We Trendsters, in a way, like your hapless library users, or even the majority of library workers, who don’t select the technology, but have to live with it.

My take on technology is that with sufficient shortchanging of planning and implementation, any technology, no matter how simple, can be made to spectacularly fail. It is o.k. to experiment with technology and to get some things wrong. But really, it is a far, far better thing to give technology the effort it’s due, because far too many people will blame the technology and not the implementation.

If you want to try a blended presentation, bringing in people online, here are my suggestions:

* Start with basic deliverables and minimum configurations. For example, a reasonable goal is that the technology can only happen if you can maintain reasonable lighting levels. If you think it was odd not being able to see the panelists (we were likened to the Witness Protection Program), think what it was like to be up there and to stare out into a well of darkness.

* Test everything well in advance and think about the environment you’ll be in. Someone commented that you don’t know the environment in a conference room until you get there. But you can always control for a few things, and heavens, we’ve all been to conferences before.

The Midwinter TTT featured a chat panel with fonts that couldn’t be resized — something that would have quickly shown up in testing. The Annual TTT, which wasn’t much worse that Midwinter but was simply on a grander scale, featured enormous screens floating with disembodied, blurry heads at strange angles. I really don’t know if Sarah realizes that we spent an hour and a half looking up her nostrils, or that Karen Coombs had a distracting bright light behind her suggesting the Rapture was imminent (“I can SEE open source in the distance! Come to me baby!”)

Any complex technology plan pulled together at the last minute is a big ol’ recipe for FAIL, which is too bad. TT suffered from the failure of many small details (the bright light behind one speaker, the muzzy audio, the lighting) and yet added together… Crash. Burn.

* Focus on one or two technologies and do them well. Bringing in not one but two people online, flipping screens between Skype chat and Twitter, etc. — there was a muchness to it like a stew overloaded by too many ingredients, particularly without testing.

* Don’t let non-technical issues kill technical implementations. One reason TTT wasn’t as fun as the Debate was that there were 11 of us at TTT — far too many. We can’t do the fun stuff, arguing and back-and-forthing, if we have just enough time to give a spiel. For example, Cliff said some of our trends weren’t “new” trends and I really wanted to dispute that — on both counts — because a trend can be a long time emerging, and besides, some of them were quite new. But honestly, we had no time. That was simple math: 90 minutes divided by 11 people. Manage the wetware.

Some of the complaints are more LibraryLand. I have been to tech conferences where IRC backchannels are really common. I sometimes think we’re like those tribes that haven’t been exposed to technology. “Oooooh, there’s a chat channel and people talking at the same time!” Um, yeah. We also use tools made from metal; get over it. But if that’s just too hard for library types, take the chat off the screens and keep it on the laptops for the people who have seen mirrors and so forth and won’t faint when confronted with More Than One Thing To Do.

Maybe ALL the Trendsters need to be fired and the committee needs to be canned and we need to start over. Just a thought. I actually offered that up to Andrew. I am loathe to quit myself on my own because I feel we just started to get good female representation on Trends, after my being up there on my own for years. But I’d agree to retire if it meant we could redo the Trends — not just the heads on the stage, but the works behind the process.

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