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Unconference on Spaces and Places

by on March 25, 2013

On February 26th, a group of library students came together with librarians and other professionals around Syracuse, New York to create the 2013 Unconference on Spaces and Places. The nature of an unconference is explained on our wiki and the associated links, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that it was a participant-driven conference. The four student organizers, including myself, were internally tasked with promoting the event, finding a venue, and determining the overarching schedule and theme of the unconference.

Onsite, once we greeted the participants it was time for us to step back and allow the participants to determine the individual sessions. Within the sessions we were available (one to each of the four concurrent sessions) to help if conversations got bogged down or if individuals’ expressed interests were not being met, but overall we took a hands-off approach

Twelve total sessions were selected: Virtual learning commons, library outdoor space, geo-visual search, patron-driven acquisitions, making the most of small library spaces, non-public/special libraries, new technology in libraries, library as a virtual space, library as community center, making use of “crappy” furniture, makerspaces, and finally developing polices for public usage of spaces. Within the context of these topics, here are some key takeaways.

Library usage of outdoor spaces, using small library spaces and the library as community center dealt with some of the changing paradigms that are occurring in some communities. Does the library not have enough space within its walls to provide the programming and services their community desires?  Some specific descriptions of the first are the library farm at the Northern Onondaga Public Libraries, and the books at the beach program at the Tully Free Library. The first does not immediately deal with books, though it supports knowledge exchange in a different form, and the books at the beach program occurs outside of  a place owned by the library.

The appropriate usage of small library spaces also dealt with, to some extent, potential activities that could occur outside of the library. Examining needs with regard to stack space, meeting space and public space is particularly difficult when the overall space is very limited.

The library as community center shows the changes in the perception (in some communities at least) of what sort of services are provided by libraries and librarians. Do things like yoga and knitting meet informational needs? Do they have to in order to be appropriately allocated in a library? Generally, a community center would not have a librarian with a master’s degree in charge, how can these professionals apply their unique skill set to meet both informational and community-related goals? When community center is examined more literally, the library takes on the role of representing the community to the wider world. I appreciate this vision and do think that it is becoming more accurate in some communities.

Two sessions that I had an active role in were patron-driven acquisitions and developing policies for usage of public spaces. In the first there was some discussion of e-books and the limitations of not necessarily owning content, thereby limiting the library’s ability to share these materials.  Another topic area was determining how many copies of incredibly popular temporal texts ought to be purchased. Such phenomena as 50 Shades of Gray that initially had dozens of holds would cause libraries to purchase five or more copies, only to have all those copies remain on the shelf once  its immediate cultural relevance passed. One interesting solution presented was considering using the library as a network hub through which community members share privately owned works. What sort of technical support would be needed to facilitate this? Online databases of willing participants could be shared through the library, and a member history could be made available to all willing participants to help facilitate trust. Interestingly, this is easier to accomplish with print books versus ebooks, because DRM takes precedence over the first sales doctrine in some senses.

The session on policy was wide-ranging. Librarians want to avoid the stereotype of shushing or being overly controlling. However, policy protects the library and its staff.  It also helps to define members’ roles, and how they can best and safely utilize the space without interfering with the goals of other members.  Ideally, policy will help the library achieve its mission.  Policy should be an evolving, transparent document that is discussed and refined internally, then made known to the community.  How this last step is provided gets to image curation. Having policy available on the library’s website may send a very different message than having rules displayed on banners at the entryway. Understanding the community and the impact of these decisions needs to be considered and discussed internally. The library should be a safe and welcoming space; both the policies selected and how they are displayed can have either a positive or a negative impact on this.

Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from the Unconference was how the space (temporarily) became a library: librarians were collaborating, sharing knowledge, teaching and learning. All of the participants were fulfilling both the role of librarian and community member. I am curious what this implies and whether or not readers agree that a library does not, necessarily, require stacks of online resources. What is the essential quality that makes a library? I would say it is the librarian or librarians, and while I know I am not the first to say this, I wonder what alternative opinions exist on this topic.