Information Today
Volume 19, Issue 5 — May 2002
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IT Report from the Field •
Ninth National PLA Conference
This meeting provided a forum for public librarians to discuss current issues
by Ana Arias Terry

ALA's Public Library Association (PLA) division held its ninth National PLA Conference March 12­16 in Phoenix,Arizona. PLA, an organization with more than 9,000 members, hosted nearly 7,900 participants and 400 exhibitors. This was my first visit to a PLA National Conference. I found the programs educational and the general session keynote speech an unexpected treat. Turnout and participation were high at every session I attended.

Pre-Meeting Seminar
Of the eight pre-conference programs, I attended "PR-iffic! Getting Specific About Promoting Your Terrific Library!" The presenters, library staff with practical PR experience, hailed from suchArizona institutions as the Peoria Public Library, Scottsdale Public Library, Chandler Public Library, and Phoenix Public Library.A design company representative also provided insights on what librarians should expect when working with creative vendors.

The day-and-a-half-long session was focused on helping librarians become more familiar with basic PR techniques and tools, including PR plans and in-house communications; the do's and don'ts of promotional activities (with special attention on developing community partnerships); tips on graphics, consistency, and working with creative vendors; effective media relations techniques; fundraising; and ways of leveraging a library's Web site for promotion. The conference rooms were packed, and librarians had an opportunity not only to receive concrete suggestions from the panelists but to ask questions as well. Participants were also able to share some of the PR and marketing challenges they faced.

Among the key messages the panelists delivered were the importance of developing tools to evaluate PR efforts and ensuring that a library's PR committee is balanced with staff that includes a mix of creative, outgoing, and fact-oriented folks. They also encouraged librarians to develop relationships with their local media; be clear on fundraising goals; and promote wisely to city, state, and county officials.

Play It Again, Maestro
Keynoting the opening general session was Benjamin Zander, the energetic and entertaining conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. With charisma and wit, Zander offered a motivational talk. While playing the piano, he strung together insights about leadership and transformation, using classical music to illustrate his point. He also spoke about three ways in which people can respond to situations: with resignation, with anger, or with possibility. Zander focused the rest of his comments on possibility. He explained that the only way to effectively use this response is to engage in "outside-of-the-box thinking."

Zander encouraged the audience to do "one-buttock listening," his metaphor for leaning into the power of possibility. "It's not a bad thing, if you're a leader, to start every sentence with 'I have a dream.'" In doing this, he says, people radiate possibilities. "Is it easy?" he asked. "No. Because standing in possibility is more intense than gravity." He asked the audience not to shy away from trying new ways of being and even from making errors. "I believe you can't learn anything if you don't make mistakes. So celebrate them." And when it comes to goals, he said: "If you reach your goals, great! If you don't, how fascinating!" Zander and his wife Rosamund Stone Zander are the authors of The Art of Possibility.

Conference Sessions
One session I attended was "Building Language Collections to Serve Multilingual Library Communities." It acknowledged the challenge librarians face in meeting the needs of patrons who speak different languages. It also allowed vendors OCLC, Multi-Cultural Books and Videos, and Libros Sin Fronteras to discuss what they think of these challenges, give recommendations about vendor evaluation, and talk about their products. I was particularly impressed with the remarks of Libros Sin Fronteras president Michael Shapiro, who offered an educational presentation on developing and maintaining Spanish-language collections.

I was somewhat disappointed with "Top Ten Human Interface Design Factors for Your Web Site" because the speaker, Nardina Nameth Mein of the Sladen Library and Center for Health Information Resources, read her presentation almost word for word. In fairness, however, I found the handout, which basically comprised her speech, to be informative and valuable. Mein explained how heuristic evaluation and usability testing can make Web sites clearer and easy to navigate. In a nutshell, "Heuristic evaluation is the assessment of a Web design based upon design rules that have been tested through human factors research," she said. "Usability testing is a procedure used by Web designers to determine whether a site is easy to use."

"Digital Reference: Virtual Users, Real Issues" provided insightful perspectives on launching, maintaining, and managing digital reference services. The session, moderated by Rivkah Sass of the Multnomah County (Oregon) Library, was very interactive. The panel comprised presenters from organizations such as the Division of Library Development Services, the Maryland Department of Education, the Cleveland Public Library, the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative, and the University of Washington Information School. They discussed successes, the challenges of effectively managing and training staff, working with end-users and their expectations, technological hurdles, the availability of the service, various implementation models, and how their respective institutions have been affected by virtual reference. Attendees asked many questions, including which types of budgets were needed to implement such a service and how to get buy-in from staff.

Addressing the challenges of public librarian recruitment was a session titled "Where Have All the Public Librarians Gone?" Michele Besant of Florida State University talked about image issues, ways to emphasize the available opportunities in public librarianship, and greater promotion of the profession. Joey Rodger of the Urban Library Council (ULC) shared her personal views on the topic, not those of her organization. She discussed the importance of making sure the "path to the library world" was well-marked and of understanding key decision points in a young person's life.A ULC survey of its membership revealed that offering in-house incentives to staff to get them to recommend others is the most effective recruitment strategy. Rodger stressed the value of recruiting teen workers as paid employees and the importance of providing social and food components to meet their needs. She also pointed out that with the graying of the profession, a big brain drain will occur within the public library community when these professionals retire. But she said that this also represents a fantastic opportunity to promote the next generation of library directors.

Diane Mayo of Information Partners, Inc. focused her remarks on how technology can be used to recruit public librarians, locate young candidates, and find ones who "speak geek." She emphasized that in today's world, libraries are about connecting people with information. Mayo also shared tips on how to provide a good environment for these young recruits, how to make their experience within libraries worthwhile, how to provide training and skills that will give them a solid foundation on which to build a career, and how to motivate them.

"Libraries Change Lives—Oh Yeah? Prove It!" dealt with outcome-based evaluation (OBE). This tool helps librarians demonstrate in concrete ways the value of their services and how these programs are changing patrons' lives. Led by Karen Motylewski from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, participants learned about the benefits of outcome-based evaluations, key terminology, the OBE planning process for public library programs, and how libraries can use the results.

"OBE is a planning tool that will help you understand whether you're achieving your mission and goals," said Motylewski. "This will help you deploy [fewer] resourcesto programs or services that aren't working, useful, or needed." She indicated that measuring outcomes could help improve programs, steer management, and satisfy the "need-to-know" requirements of a program's funding organization.

The last session I attended was "Current Issues in Technology: Ask the Consultants." It was educational, perceptive, and interactive by design. Representatives from Susan Baerg Epstein, Ltd. and Information Partners, Inc. set the stage by assessing the current technology trends in the library field. They then opened up the rest of the session to questions and input from the audience.

The speakers pointed to trends in patron self-service, patron self-registration, and electronic reference, and the increase in push technology (online notices sent to patrons before material is due). They said that push technologies have interesting implications for library/vendor relationships because public librarians will have to manage larger infrastructures and accept more responsibility in writing and managing contracts, handle bandwidth and PC-management issues, and ensure appropriate systems integration.

Among the topics brought up during the Q & A period were the future of e-books in public libraries, how ready wireless networks are for "prime time," the future of desktop and firewall security, the future consolidation of vendors, the need for ongoing staff training on new technology and systems, standards, and the possibility of significant changes to MARC records.

Final Assessment
The National PLA Conference was worth attending. The thing that surprised me was the lack of paper evaluation sheets. Only one program I went to offered them. However, an online evaluation form was made available to participants until the end of March. According to the PLA Web site (, approximately 1,200 attendees responded.

If you'd like to stay in touch with the hot issues in the public library world, pencil in the next conference. It will take place February 24­28, 2004 in Seattle.

Ana Arias Terry is vice president of Informed Strategies, a consulting firm. Her e-mail address is

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