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LAUNC-CH Conference
Cultivating Collaboration Across Learning Communities

Ellen Daugman and Mary Scanlon attended the recent LAUNC-CH conference in Chapel Hill. Here’s our report:

Keynote speaker: Abby Blachly from LibraryThing
Ellen and I attended this year’s LAUNC-CH conference in Chapel Hill; the focus was on collaboration across learning communities and the sessions were designed to present examples of groups that have accomplished this. The keynote speaker was Abby Blachly from the social cataloging site Library Thing. She provided the audience with a brief history of the site, describing how it began as a Classicist’s desire to catalog the Loeb volumes in his personal library. He put it on the web, invited his friends to add their books to it and it took off from there. The site was strongly influenced by librarians and it gathers much of the traditional data that library catalogs do, but with a twist. In a very Web2.0 fashion, it allows users to add new items to the catalog, to modify records, and to add social data such as tags, reviews and even message board conversations to the site. Several times she illustrated the aptness and currency of user-generated content such as tags, which unlike LCSH, reflect the books’ content much more accurately (it took a while, for instance, for “chick lit” to attain the exalted status of subject heading). Tags can also convey the subjective experience of a book, perhaps none more so than “Boring,” or “Unread.” LibraryThing has so many contributors that tag clouds at this site provide a much richer experience than one would find on even Amazon.com. In addition, LibraryThing serves as a social network, offering users a chance to connect with anything from favorite books and shared tags, to nearby libraries, bookstores, programs, and “friends.” Blachly emphasized the “unintentionality” of such Web 2.0 projects, where groups can form purely by happenstance, collaborate without meaning to, and organize without intent. These projects exist by tapping into the “uncredentialed masses” who are inspired to share their knowledge of obscure topics and to serve as ever-vigilant communities. LibraryThing now boasts more than 330,000 members, 800,000 book covers, and 32 million tags; it offers the opportunity to connect with other people based on the books one shares–other people who are, in short, book soulmates. Coincidentally, shortly after the conference, NPR aired a piece on these web sites that permit bibliophiles to indulge in virtual booksharing: in addition to LibraryThing, other options include Goodreads, Shelfari, aNobii and BookJetty.

Collaboration between UNC-CH SLS School and the surrounding county public libraries for teaching computer skills
The second session focused on an interesting collaboration, initiated in 2005, between the UNC School for Library Science and the surrounding county’s public library systems. SLS students are teaching classes in basic computer skills and information literacy in the public libraries. The public libraries identify their patrons’ learning needs and place requests with the Library School, which is then responsible for recruiting, training, and scheduling instructors. The PLs are responsible for promoting the classes and registering students, while the instructor/students prepare all instruction plans and materials. Since classes are offered during the libraries’ closed hours, the participants range from high school students, to senior citizens pressed for email skills to keep in touch with grandchildren–with a broad range of working citizenry in between. Interestingly, these classes are also being used for professional development purposes, to acquire computer skills; for example, the town of Chapel Hill has sent employees to attend relevant sessions. It has also enabled people to apply for jobs online and even to obtain W2s that Walmart and Costco employees could only obtain via the Internet. It’s a completely symbiotic relationship: the PLs are able to offer numerous classes that would otherwise be unavailable due to staffing demands and costs, and the SLS students get valuable teaching experience (not to mention subject matter for numerous MA theses). It works for the simplest of reasons: everyone benefits, and no budget is required. The program has received due recognition: in 2007, the ACRL Instruction Section gave its innovation award to the Community Workshop Program. Now it has targeted a new specific audience, promoting and marketing the classes to the Latino community.

Multi-librarian collaboration to create consumer health website
In this collaborative project, librarians and health educators came together and developed a website, NC Health Info, to provide consumers with health information. It is a local response to an era of truncated 12-minute long doctor visits and statistics indicating that approximately 50% of American adults have searched the Internet for health information. With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, they selected and approved web sites for each of a select group of illnesses and conditions. They also created a provider identification tool whereby consumers could choose a condition or disease and a city and receive a list of specialists that met the criteria. All content is approved by the committee before it’s put on the website. Broad categories include Diseases & Conditions, Mental Health, Treatments & Procedures, Medications, Healthy Living, and Health Care; in addition, there is a Reference section containing links to a handful of health-related websites. In the wake of the LibraryThing presentation, the website looked very rigid and old-fashioned, and the reference tools are a rather paltry lot. Vetting is done by sub-committees which make decisions and approve website content, design, and outreach efforts. There are no opportunities on this site for user-generated content or discussions.

UNC-CH – creating a mini-CH campus in Second Life
UNC-CH has created a miniature version of its campus in SecondLife, the virtual world, in an initiative to co-opt gaming for instructional purposes. It is a fascinating attempt to create an educational space in a virtual environment, and the session was a rapidly paced demonstration of the ongoing efforts to leverage the capabilities of SL in order to create educational surrogates. Inevitably, replicas of iconic structures like the well are there. After spending $800 to purchase an island, it took many, many hours to create the virtual campus. Its uses vary: there’s an exhibit of a digitized photo collection hanging in the virtual version of an original university building; there are virtual classrooms where online classes meet; and library students staff the virtual reference desk. However, since SecondLife is such a text-poor environment the reference librarians mostly answer questions about using SL. While the craftsmanship of the virtual campus was impressive, the efficacity of the virtual reference desk in the current SL environment seems dubious for now.

Role-play games as teaching tools; virtual environments as teaching spaces
The speakers reviewed the history of MMORGs – massively multi-player online role-playing games and their phenomenal growth; one example include World of Warcraft. The speaker discussed his research into the benefits of online games, including: learning in context, improving reading skills ( most of these games have backstories that drive the characters) problem-solving and developing teamwork.