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This was my first ALA Annual in 6 years, my first as a ZSR librarian, and my first with a subject specialty, so I tried to focus my sessions this year on building my knowledge and network around two of my main subject areas, History and Psychology, as well as larger issues related to teaching and reference.

My conference started on Saturday morning with a Connection breakfast hosted by the RUSA History Section, which was intended to connect new history librarians with experienced ones. This 90-minute breakfast turned out to be one of the best events of the entire conference for me, as it genuinely did connect me with new and experienced academic librarians doing the same work and asking the same questions that I am. I had some great conversations during our informal meet and greet, and those continued when we moved into our committee meetings. I am on the RUSA-HS Instruction and Research Services Committee, and this group is definitely active! I learned about their past projects (such as updating their Primary Sources on the Web page) and their priorities for the coming year, and I’m really excited to be a part of that work. I later attended the History Librarians Discussion Group, where I saw many of the same people, as well as new ones, and was able to discuss issues surrounding transnationalism in digital sources, creating context for digital sources, the Google News Archive (and why its search function is so terrible), and PDA/DDA models. I’m really grateful to RUSA-HS for enhancing the conference experience for me – I already feel like I have a great network of history librarians to call upon!

I didn’t neglect Psychology – I attended an intro session (along with Roz) on the new APA Style Central on Sunday and asked LOTS of questions about this new platform, and I also attended an APA Lunch and Learn on Monday, where I heard about updates to the PsycINFO interface (mostly to better support health sciences researchers), PsycINFO platform differences across vendors, and about how the cited references feature actually works. APA also recently translated its PsycINFO Topic Guides into 8 additional languages.

Later on Saturday, I attended the EBSS/IS panel, “Authority is Constructed and Contextual: A Critical View.” This was a panel session with 6 librarians, who were each able to give their perspective on this particular frame and respond to questions submitted via email and Twitter. The panel included such people as Nicole Pagowsky, Kevin Seeber, and James Elmborg, all of whom brought a different perspective on how this frame has impacted their practice. Some are pro-Framework, some were not, but all found something in this frame they could use in some way. I’m still wrapping my brain around everything that they said, but a few takeaways:

  • We as librarians often make library work look invisible and easy, but we aren’t just facilitators. The work we do requires expertise and authority, and we need to be able to assert that to our faculty and our larger community.
  • We need to remove the binary, oppositional language from our discussions of scholarly (i.e. good) and “other” (i.e. bad) sources. Start using “and” instead of “versus” when talking about these sources. Focus on contextuality and emphasize the connections/conversations between different kinds of sources and what contribution each source makes.
  • Libraries and librarians have a certain measure of authority, but we must also acknowledge that we are flawed and that our systems are flawed so that we can make steps toward fixing them (even when that may actually require an act of Congress to do).

This was a really engaging panel, and I hope they’ll make a recording or transcript available for everyone to watch/read. This session was followed by the ACRL/SPARC Forum (described here by one of the speakers, Emily Drabinski) and the ACRL-IS Current Issue Discussion Group, which was on creating a first year experience for graduate students.

On Sunday, I attended the Readex breakfast, where I heard Dr. Mark Summers from the University of Kentucky give a fantastic talk entitled “Politics is just war without bayonets: Dirty politics in the Genteel Age: 1868-1892” (very appropriate given our current political climate). If you think politics are dirtier now than ever, just watch his talk. (He is also a very lively presenter who had a tendency to jump on and off the stage.)

Later that morning I went to the RUSA-RSS Reference Research Forum, which featured three presentations. Laura Hibbler from Brandeis discussed what she discovered about the research process of first year students after conducting 15 in-depth interviews with them throughout the course of a semester. Tara Cotaldo from Florida presented the early stages of an IMLS grant-funded project in which they are exploring how STEM students evaluate sources. Their methodology for this is really unique, because they are studying 180 students ranging from 4th grade all the way up to graduate students, and they’re gathering this data through creating a Google search simulation contained in a module (in order to control variables). More on this project is available on their libguide. Finally, Amanda Folk from the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg shared what she found regarding the mindsets (based on Carol Dweck’s research) of students who schedule PRS. I was really interested in this topic because, right before I left HPU, they had chosen Growth Mindset as the topic of their next QEP, and not much research has been done on growth mindset in the academic setting (most has come out of K-12). If you’re interested, Amanda has shared more about how mindsets and librarians intersect in a recent C&RL article.

My last session on Sunday was the LITA President’s Program, which was presided over by our very own Thomas Dowling. However, no offense to Thomas, I attended this program because Dr. Safiya Noble was the featured speaker, and she was just as amazing as I expected. Dr. Noble’s work around race, gender, and media reinforces that search engines and algorithms aren’t neutral, because they are ultimately created by biased people. Her talk (which I’m hoping will be up on her website at some point) was titled “Toward an Ethic of Social Justice on the Web.” She shared some powerful examples of the ways that bias reveals itself in web searches and how the purchase of keywords affects search results. (If you’re interested, she’s detailed some of these examples in her previous publications.) She brought up issues around how the internet and Google, specifically, can impact elections, citing a study by Epstein and Robertson (described in this Politico article), as well as work by Nicole Cohen on the ways journalists are pressured to change stories in real-time based on metrics and Matthew Hindman’s book, The Myth of Digital Democracy. Although most of her work is centered around Google, she urged librarians to consider how our systems and practices impact those who are searching for meaning on the web. In particular, how do we help people create context? 1.2 seconds isn’t enough time to answer really complicated questions, particularly those we’ve struggled with for centuries, yet many people expect to have a quick and authoritative answer from a single Google search or two. I’m still thinking through how this impacts my own practice, especially in LIB210, and I’m really looking forward to reading the essays in Dr. Noble’s upcoming edited book, The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online. Thanks to Thomas and to LITA for bringing her to ALA!

These were my highlights from this year’s conference, and I’m happy to talk more with anyone about any of the sessions/topics that I mentioned above. It was well worth braving the 100+ degree heat to be in Orlando for this experience…and yes, I also went to Harry Potter World (as did, I think, every librarian at the conference, based on the conversations I overheard).