PLA 2012: Powerful Advice, Practical Solutions

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 12:57
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. delivers the Opening Session keynote.

Liberty Bell Center, Philadelphia. Photo by J. Fusco for GPTMC

Admit it: You snag free books and party at receptions. But who would come to PLA2012 if there weren’t also meaningful programs, new products, great speakers, and networking opportunities? At ALA’s Public Library Association (PLA) National Conference in Philadelphia March 13–17, more than 6,000 attendees packed meeting rooms and the exhibit hall for all of the above. The 180 continuing education programs ranged from e-content and community engagement to building successful programs and websites.

The conference featured two days of preconferences and four days of programs that included “Book Buzz” and “Book Buzz Junior,” educational tours, and author events. There were 2,500 exhibitors representing nearly 400 companies.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., environmental business leader, advocate, and author, opened the conference. His talk outlined current environmental problems and their possible solutions. He urged attendees to examine ways in which they could move from carbon-based energy to renewable resources—which he characterized as the “clean, cheap, green, wholesome, patriotic fuels from heaven.” After the event, librarian and author Nancy Pearl interviewed Kennedy about the influence of books on his life.

Pearl also moderated a panel of publishers to a packed auditorium audience at “Book Buzz,” her popular crowd-pleaser that has highlighted some of the best new adult titles at PLA conferences since 2006.

New to the Philadelphia conference—the ALA division’s 14th—was the PLA Unconference. Participants joined librarian, blogger, and American Libraries contributor Chrystie Hill in an organic, spontaneous event, sharing and discussing ideas relevant to their libraries and communities, and networking along the way.

I attended a number of sessions. Here are highlights of just two:

With costs rising and budgets shrinking, how can libraries acquire the e-content that patrons want? (See the latest comments about the Association’s ongoing discussions with ebook publishers and distributors from ALA President Molly Raphael.) A panel of four speakers from the library and publishing spheres offered a slew of options libraries and librarians can pursue at “Getting E-Content to Your Customers: Challenges, Best Practices, Solutions.” The possibilities presented range from protesting, boycotting, and litigation to forming partnerships with authors and other libraries.

“Goodbye, Big Six [publishers],” TAP Information Services CEO Tom Peters predicted. “You can quote me in 10 years. Their market share is going.” He suggested that libraries stop worrying about how to get publishers to provide better terms on ebooks and start forming partnerships with online-focused companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google. The future is not fighting with publishers about terms under which libraries can lend e-content, he said, but reaching the 90% of the world’s population that has access to a mobile phone.

Library Renewal President and CEO Michael Porter said libraries need new infrastructures that are highly functional, renewable, and honor their mission to provide information to the public. “Let’s be in control and within budgets,” said Porter, who is also an ALA Executive Board member. He said the path to success involved doing research, developing relationships, forming partnerships, and creating solutions—recommendations that also constitute the main actions of Library Renewal.

As sales manager for Dzanc Books, Lisa Long-Hickman said she appreciates the role libraries play in selling books. “You’re part of our sales force,” she said, noting that 50% of book purchasers first read the author’s work in a library. That is why Dzanc Books offers ebooks DRM-free and on multiple platforms and allows their availability for loan, one copy at a time, on an unlimited basis.

Library consultants and impromptu comic duo Joan Frye Williams and George Needham served up laughs while delivering tips on how to measure and take action on community input at “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know: Meaningful Community Engagement.”

Williams stressed that libraries can’t afford to guess what people want, and demographics and satisfaction surveys just don’t provide the data needed to take action and change a library. Instead, Williams suggested targeting people who represent others, such as community leaders, politicians, and other movers and shakers. “Ask them questions they already know about: what’s great about this community, and if you could change one thing about this community what would it be,” she advised. Steer clear of questions that require simple yes or no answers, and share the questions with your participants ahead of time, she added.

“This isn’t the place to explain how libraries work. We have to listen, not tell,” said Needham. And even though you listen and do so gracefully, he says, you don’t have to accept everything that’s said and implement all ideas. By listening, you will find that some concepts generate enthusiasm, which helps sustain engagement.

“It’s not something you do once, put it in the hopper and never do again,” he said. It is a continual process of asking questions, listening, and processing.

Actor and comedian Betty White closed the conference with a standing-room-only audience during an interview with PLA Publications Assistant Editor Brendan Dowling. She shared stories of her passion for animals as well as her career as both a writer and performer. White drew applause from the audience when she emphasized the importance of libraries as foundations for learning.

The next PLA biennial conference will be in Indianapolis March 11–15, 2014.

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