Wednesday, December 19, 2007

a trip to maastricht

on friday, i attended "creating new perspectives for academic libraries," a farewell symposium for maastricht university librarian john gilbert. speakers from the netherlands, the UK, and the US were invited and asked to give presentations on "change, innovation, creativity, new solutions and concepts." it took place in a room that looked like this:

gerard mols, a maastricht university rector (or what we in the states would call provost), began the symposium. he welcomed attendees, spoke about john gilbert's contributions to the library and to the university, and then stayed through the whole symposium.

the first speaker was anne bell (presentation title: "convivial spaces, convivial services: space re-design and its potential impact on the future of academic libraries"), head librarian at the university of warwick. anne shared many projects but focused on the learning grid, a physical building - a learning center - that is affiliated with but separate from the campus library. as anne revealed, the design of the learning grid's space encourages and facilitates different kinds of collaborative learning - individual, silo-like seats are replaced with moveable, changeable, group desks and seating arrangements that invite students to learn collectively. further, the learning grid is home to library, technological, and university services, with highly trained and well paid students assistants, hired on the basis of social skills, not technical skills, roaming the learning grid looking to help other students. space and services that encourage students teaching students situations. plus, there's no no's in the learning grid: students are allowed to eat, drink, talk, and use their cell phones at will. also: since the learning grid's launch in 2004, student use of the university library has increased thirty percent. brilliant.

next up was rein de wilde ("can universities survive without a library?"), dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences at maastricht university. using a single example, rein highlighted a key problem and a key possibility of library/university resources. rein focused on one entry for one book (someone help me: immanuel kant was the author; what was the book?) within the university library's online catalog. he read out loud all of the information contained on that entry and noted how most of it was relevant to librarians, not general library users. he then began to imagine an open catalog, and asked what catalog entries would look like if they contained user reviews, user tags, and user suggestions. what, in other words, would the library catalog look like if library users could contribute to it? (two examples of open catalogs can be seen with the PennTags project and ann arbor public library's catalog.)

the next speaker was the oddest speaker - "dr howard becker," from cambridge, who apparently is in charge of google's western european operations. "dr becker," it turns out, is a professional comedian. being american, and therefore a little slow, i did not realize what was happening until five or six minutes into his routine. he was hilarious. i have never witnessed so much laughter at an academic conference. it was wonderful. more academic events should feature comedy.

and then ... lunch!

after lunch (mmm, dutch cheese), maarten van roosen ("digital information paradise"), professor of history at utrecht university, got things rolling. with no notes, maarteen gave a stunning talk about one professor's history with different kinds of libraries: first, an experience at columbia university's library that changed his dissertation topic; second, his home library of walls of books built largely with the help of; and third, the library that is the internet. a professor of contemporary american history, especially recent presidential history, maarten said his primary library is the internet. who needs a library, he asked, when american newspapers, CNN, and presidential candidates are all online? a rousing, challenging, and, especially when considering maarten is a professor of history, unpredictable talk. i loved it.

next up was me ("to give and to get: libraries, web 2.0, and collective intelligence"), and i gave an extended version of the talk i delivered a day earlier. i began with bad news regarding my students' (from 1996-present) literacy. each year, my students read less and less books, which means they are less interested and/or less able to work with complex ideas that take 200-300 pages to explore. each year, my students' traditional research skills become more and more abysmal; many of today's students believe that research begins and ends with google. and each year, my students' ability to reflect - to log off; to exist without cellphone, without facebook, without ipods, without IM, without music, without television; to just be for extended amounts of time - appears to be evaporating. i added that this particular american generation is a confused generation. my 18 year old first year students were 10 when bush took office, 11 on 9-11, 12 when we began war on afghanistan, 13 when we began war on iraq, 13 1/2 when bush, in a very silly flight suit, announced the war in iraq was over, 14 when pictures of US torture at abu ghraib were released, and 16 when katrina revealed that the US could no longer take care of its citizens, especially those who are poor and black. further, most of our first year students arrived to campus with cellphones surgically attached to their ears. call me crazy but i'll say it and i'll say it in five simple words: american attention spans are shrinking.

and then i changed gears and talked about eliteracy, and went off on how creative our students are. this is the remix generation. our students believe - correctly - that knowledge is a process, that information is negotiated: distributed freely, commented on, debated over, laughed at, compromised over, and collectively constructed. our students make stuff. they make media, distribute media, and comment on other media. when it comes to things digital, this generation is extremely creative.

it took me about forty minutes but somehow i went from literacy to e-literacy to me-literacy to we-literacy, and finished by introducing GarageBand, a site patrick goodwin, a USF student enrolled in my fall semester intro to media studies course, shared with class and wrote about in his final paper. with GarageBand, you can upload your own music and people can listen and comment on it. but before you get reviews, you are required to give reviews - fifteen of them. i tried to explain that whether my students are giving to wikipedia, or giving to yelp, or giving to GarageBand, they are giving - and giving, especially within a country all too accustomed to getting, is a good thing. i said that the best web 2.0 tools allow users - us - to give and to get. i ended with the same question i asked the librarians in tulsa, oklahoma: what happens when students give to the library?

john gilbert finished the symposium with a farewell speech. he highlighted past achievements of the library (especially in the area of digital resources and digital journals) and looked forward to new developments in the library and in librarianship. he stressed customer-based services and customers' ability to comment on the resources they find.

later, at the reception (more cheese! huge slabs of beautifully multicolored cheese!), john was given and then told to release a big batch of balloons, a symbol of letting go of the library.

over breakfast at the charming hotel les charmes, anne bell remarked how nice it was to devote a retirement ceremony to a symposium about the future. i totally agree - instead of looking backwards, we were encouraged to look forward. i enjoyed speaking and i enjoyed listening. all of the talks were stimulating and each of them overlapped and conversed with portions of the other talks. it was easily one of the finest symposium i have attended in my career. my only wish would have been a larger room so that more librarians could have attended.

many people helped to organize the event, including peter niesten and coen van laer. getting to know these two was one of the highlights of the trip. peter is a fellow dylanologist and we shared dylan stories the whole time, including one night over delicious deer steak. i very much enjoyed talking with coen and hearing his ideas about libraries, technology, and space. at one point during my visit, coen gave me a tour of the library, ending with the top floor - a fascinating mixed-use space that includes a computer lab, a group work space, a language lab, and a silent study hall.

i snapped a picture of the top floor and later was quite upset to learn that my picture was blurry. but then, after spending some time looking at the image, i realized, no - that's what collaborative learning looks like.

thank you maastricht.


p.niesten said...

The farewell symposium in Maastricht
As an attendant of this symposium I was amazed to find out that despite many differences in the lectures of the speakers (many different approaches, different roles of the speakers in the field of scientific information, some as a patron or consumer, some as intermediary, some as producer) there also was a shared appreciation of the current situation: as for scientific information, we by now have left the era of printed information behind us (though this will continue to be there for certain fields of science and for some groups of users)and we moved in to the world of digital information. This was/is not simply a matter of replacing the former mode by a new mode, but at the same time the consumer of information has changed his expectations and his preferences as far as digital information is concerned: he will no longer accept to wait for information (it should be there when he needs it), he is no longer interested in large amounts of information (he prefers small and easy to understand chunks of information) , he is brought up with multimedia information and last but not least: he prefers an interactive way of getting or viewing information, he wants to be able to comment, to give his opinion, to advise others etc.
The main question for any library will be to find an appropriate answer to these information needs, habits and expectations of the present generation.
The symposium in Maastricht did raise all these questions, but, understandably, was not able to give all the answers. Still, it was very worthwile to be there,

Peter Niesten

david silver said...

peter - thanks for the excellent comment and thanks again for your part in this symposium.

i agree with your observation that although all the speakers arrived from different positions (librarians, patrons, professors), their focus was quite similar: the library is changing and we need to do something about it. fast.

for the next symposium (ooh, i hope someone is planning another one!), perhaps some students can be invited so we can hear a bit more about their perspectives and expectations.

it's clear change is needed. how to implement that change, and how fast we can implement it, is now the question facing us.

Ivan Chew said...

David, when we meet in USF, I hope to hear your talk. If it's not to your students, maybe over a cup of coffee (while our wives go shopping or something). I read the part from Literacy to eLiteracy, and then GarageBand (mmm, my pet subject) and then I read back again. But clearly there's lots from your talk that you don't have time to blog about.

Re: answers being given at symposiums. I think answers are often upon hindsight. Which may mean the symposium is behind time. Catch-22? lol

david silver said...

ivan - oh, i look forward to many, many conversations when you visit. but i'm pretty sure sarah will be with us while we're talking - she's responsible for half of my ideas (and probably a larger percentage of my good ideas). =)