What Librarians Can Learn From SXSW
Text and photos by Brandi Scardilli
Everyone will tell you how overwhelming South by Southwest (SXSW) can be. It’s easy to dismiss this as an exaggeration until you’ve actually set foot in the Austin Convention Center for the SXSW Interactive Festival. This year’s event was held March 13–17 in Austin, Texas. With hundreds of sessions, more than 10 official venues, and plenty of meetups and special events, the SXSW experience is best compared to a trip to Walt Disney World: Be ready to walk everywhere, wait in long lines, and make peace with the fact that you can’t possibly do everything.
Despite the crowds and numerous programming choices, plenty of activities can be accomplished in the 5 days of Interactive, during which technology companies and industry leaders show off the newest tech and trends. It’s no wonder libraries, archives, and museums (LAM) are a growing presence at the conference. The lib*interactive group (lib-interactive.com), originally called sxswLAM, hosts its own meetups and rents a house to serve as its home base. There were 11 LAM-focused sessions in 2015, and someone at the EveryLibrary-sponsored meetup remarked that this year’s event was the largest LAM gathering yet. Here are some highlights from conference sessions that LAM attendees could use to bring fresh ideas back to their institutions.
New Ways of Thinking About Data
Molly Bohmer (Cato Institute), Rebecca Williams (Data.gov), Daniel Schuman (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), and Molly Schwartz (R Street Institute) were the panelists during the session Your Laws, Your Data: Making Government More Open. They celebrated recent developments in government transparency, including the THOMAS.gov transition to Congress.gov and the launch of the Congressional Data Coalition (congressionaldata.org). There’s been momentum in both federal and local governments to create new policies around open data standards, said Williams.
Schwartz said that with the passage of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, the government is now more accountable for its spending. The panelists concluded that it is a transformational bill, but it’s just one building block for creating more transparency. Bohmer suggested two ways to take a stand in favor of transparency: for people to make Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and to get involved with Wikipedia, where there are projects in progress that would help transfer data automatically to the site. Schuman said calling local representatives and asking for congressional research reports will also promote open government. These government transparency issues are of interest to anyone in the information industry, and hearing experts’ perspectives showed how far the U.S. government has come, and, yet, how much more needs to be done.
Are You Smarter Than Your Brain?: The Big Picture of Big Data was another session that dealt with the importance of having accessible data. Representing National Geographic Channel’s new show The Big Picture, three panelists discussed how interpreted data can be a driving force behind storytelling. Kal Penn (an actor and formerly an associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement), Lillian Pierson (founder of Data-Mania), and David Konschnik (an executive producer of The Big Picture) asked the audience to tweet about their home states, and they gathered the responses into a U.S. map showing that the majority of audience members came from Texas.
Although the session primarily served as a plug for The Big Picture, LAM representatives could take some of the approaches to data the panelists shared and use them to discover new ways to analyze their patrons and institutions. The panelists used maps to highlight demographic trends and patterns and showed clips from the show that featured infographics to display datasets.
Thinking About New Technologies
At the session Publishing Innovation: Next Century Reading, Booktrack’s Jason Hovey and Wattpad’s Ashleigh Gardner showed how their up-and-coming platforms exemplify a 21st-century approach to publishing. LAM representatives should have both services on their radar as ways to get their patrons excited about reading.
Booktrack is a new company that offers “synchronized soundtracks for digital texts.” It aims to compete with the games, music, and other media that appeal to today’s audience. Reading is the only entertainment medium that doesn’t have sound built into it, so Booktrack adds, for example, waves crashing when characters are on a beach or gunshots when a character is in a war zone. The service tracks how quickly a person reads to match the sounds to the words, and its free studio allows readers to upload their own music or choose some from Booktrack’s library.
Wattpad is a site that’s focused on serialized content (writers can post one chapter at a time and receive reviews), social networking (90% of its users are readers, not writers), and mobile (85% of Wattpad’s usage comes from mobile devices). Teens make up the majority of users, and in February 2015, Wattpad had 45 million visitors. More than 100 million original stories have been uploaded so far.
Summer Anne Burton, BuzzFeed Distributed’s editorial director, talked about how her team uses social networking to draw viewers to the BuzzFeed website in The Future of Distributed Media. Anyone can take Burton’s advice to learn how to connect with customers, patrons, and fans online.
The BuzzFeed Distributed team decided to reach its audience primarily on Tumblr, Instagram, and Vine. It’s important to go where customers are and discover how they balance their time, said Burton. She emphasized a culture of experimentation, looking at data, and leaning in to success to her team members. They produce short videos, create memes, and run social networking profiles as a way to bring awareness to the BuzzFeed brand. Burton’s tips for managing content distribution are 1) capture the zeitgeist, 2) relate to personal relationships, 3) make things visually striking and colorful, 4) be real and heartfelt, 5) be funny, and 6) give people something to share.
At the session Storytelling With the New Screens, three representatives from the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab (Alisa Katz, Francesca Marie Smith, and Geoffrey Long) talked about their experiences at the institution (which is known as a “think and do tank”) with regard to how 3D printers, virtual reality, augmented reality, the Internet of Things, and other new technologies would affect the future of storytelling.
Any library looking to open a makerspace or innovation lab would benefit from their expertise. The panelists shared several case studies about their attempts to meet new media challenges. For example, they talked about how 3D printers can produce action figures, but they’re not necessarily from any particular story—that must also be created. Children can play with physical objects without having a narrative to follow, but the panelists wanted to help them play and learn with technology. They experimented with an app geared to third graders that is linked to wooden Winklebean figurines. Children could buy the toys, build them, and then scan a QR code on the completed toy to open the app, which told stories about the Winklebeans.
During the first keynote session of the conference, Curious Bridges: How Designers Grow the Future, Paola Antonelli (senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art) talked about her favorite designers and how they reflect and shape the world around them. She is intrigued by the intersection of design and nature. In a video clip she showed, thousands of silkworms spun silk into a spherical structure, creating an object of art. A LAM attendee said that being exposed to these kinds of nontraditional ideas is why librarians would benefit from going to Interactive. Even if this librarian is not able to set up her own silkworm exhibit, merely seeing the idea could spark some other design or display she may not have considered before. That’s the power of being exposed to new voices at a non-library-specific conference: It forces you to think outside the box.
At another keynote session (AI, Immortality and the Future of Selves), Martine Rothblatt, author of Virtually Human: The Promise—And the Peril—Of Digital Immortality, talked about the idea that one day, “identity will transcend flesh.” She believes that artificial intelligence (AI) will be so commonplace in the future that people’s consciousness will not die with their bodies; instead, it will be adopted by mind clones that contain a person’s mannerisms, recollections, personality, feelings, beliefs, and other defining characteristics. She said continued advances in software will eventually turn movies such as Her (which features a virtual assistant with consciousness) into reality instead of science fiction.
Learning From Other LAM Participants
One of the sessions that focused specifically on LAM issues was Anythink: The Brand That Sparked a Revolution. When LAM representatives present at Interactive, not only can they pass on their wisdom to fellow information organizations, they also can make the broader community of SXSW aware of the work libraries are doing to stay relevant. Stacie Ledden, director of innovations and brand strategy at Anythink Libraries (the public library system for Adams County, Colo.), spoke about how Anythink reinvented itself. By fostering a culture of creativity and being willing to accept change, the worst-funded library system in the state became a popular destination for the community.
Anythink follows the “experience model,” meaning that anything it plans to do should be driven by the desire to create an amazing experience for patrons. With four newly built and three renovated libraries thanks to an increase in funding, Anythink redesigned its spaces and reinvented its programming so that everything is hands-on and participant-driven. Anythink doesn’t charge late fees, and it doesn’t use the Dewey Decimal System—instead, items are shelved by keyword.
Staffers are encouraged to get up from behind desks and roam around to speak with patrons. They receive matching sneakers branded with the Anythink logo, and their roles are defined as “part wizard, part genius, part explorer.” Their mission is to be “the gateway into the mind of the idea people who come to our facilities to find or fuel a spark.”
At the ER&L + ProQuest + DLF #IdeaDrop House (lib*interactive headquarters), sisters Sandy and Bonnie Tijerina held down the fort as they hosted speakers in the living room for conversations on topics such as STEAM-powered libraries, the use of mobile social media, and student privacy. These sessions are archived on Vimeo (vimeo.com/erandl) courtesy of the DLF (Digital Library Federation).
2015 was the third anniversary of the #Idea-Drop House. Bonnie came up with the idea to rent a house in Austin after attending Interactive for the first time—at the conference, she realized that anyone from the LAM space would benefit from attending. “I was thinking people who are attending Interactive will kind of come back to the house, and bring their ideas, drop them there for us to talk about, and just kind of pull together all these ideas that we learn while we’re there, and be able to share them more broadly with the library community.”
“We’ve accumulated about 9,000 views over the last 2 years of the videos,” Sandy said. “It’s nice to know that people have been able to partake from wherever they are. … And then we get support from ProQuest [and others]. It helps us just afford the rent for the house and the nice space that we all get to share for that week.”