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Not the Usual Suspects

By Rachel Frick

This week I had the great opportunity to moderate a panel discussion, “Culture Hack: Libraries & Museums Open for Making,” at the 2013 SXSWi conference. For the uninitiated, South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) is one of three conferences (Film and Music are the other two), held annually in Austin, Texas. Interactive is the largest of the three, with more than 40,000 participants.

That is not a typo. Forty thousand people descend onto Austin for a crazy, energetic five days. Some say it is where the Internet comes to meet. Speakers range from Al Gore to Rachel MaddowElon Musk, and Matthew Inman. At the panels you can meet bloggers, hackers, entrepreneurs, artists, and other creative people.

As you might expect, there are not a lot of librarian types.

But there is a librarian presence, thanks to a group of hardworking folks, spearheaded by Andrea Davis, reference and instruction librarian at Naval Postgraduate School. This group of passionate librarians, archivists, and museum (LAM) staff—loosely organized under the SXSWi LAM identity—attend, present, and actively recruit their colleagues to join them at the conference. They see SXSWi as an opportunity to talk with other creative people and to evangelize about libraries and how they are being reinvented in the 21st century.

In a mass of 40,000 one might ask, how can a few (less than 100) librarians make an impact? By being as creative and passionate about librarianship as other attendees are about code and swag. This year, in addition to the usual activities, the SXSWi LAM group energized a few new SXSWi endeavors: Little SXSW libraries, LibraryBox@SXSW, and IdeaDrop House.

Little SXSW libraries are a riff off the little free library idea, which promotes free book exchanges. Student volunteers from the University of Texas iSchool, along with some SXSWLAM folks, built several free-standing little libraries to be placed around the conference venue. Some were even mounted to pedicabs. In addition to physical books, digital resources were also made available via LibraryBox.

LibraryBox is an open source, portable digital file distribution tool based on inexpensive hardware that enables delivery of educational, healthcare, and other vital information to individuals off the grid. Folks have been using the tool to distribute digital content (books, movies, audio, and more) and provide access to digital resources to communities of users that don’t have access to the Internet or where Internet access is limited or censored.

The purpose of LibraryBox@SXSWi was to let the SXSWi community know about the role of libraries and librarians in a networked, social media driven world.Libraries are more than buildings for books. The LibraryBox@SXSWi project shows how libraries provide an amazing combination of resources, and how the content of each box can inspire learning and making. The “LibraryBoxen” offered a number of open access electronic books (from, MIT Press and other vendors), audio files (such as Walt Whitman reading the poem “America”), and mashable data sets from the Digital Public Library of America. LibraryBox@SXSW could not have happened without the generous support of the DPLAEveryLibrary, and individuals who made their own donations. LibraryBox access points were distributed throughout the conference. Some were mobile—placed on pedicabs or carried around by volunteers; the rest found permanent homes at the Create Space, the Trade Show, and the IdeaDrop House.

IdeaDrop House was sponsored by ER&L and Proquest, with DLF sponsoring the live stream. What started as a small experiment ended up being a huge success, with over 700 unique visitors logging on and checking it out. Bonnie Tijerina, founder of the Electronic Resources & Libraries Conference, came up with the concept as a way to broadcast to the library community topical content of conferences that aren’t part of the normal roster for librarians. It is also a way to capture those hallway conversations or spontaneous moments of inspiration that are missed if one attends a conference virtually. The goal was to broadcast two sessions a day, with a wrap-up salon conversation at night. In addition to serving as the broadcast venue, the house would serve as a destination for conference attendees to network, relax, and discuss the ideas of the day.

By working with talented folks like Margy Avery of MIT Press, we ended up having a jam-packed schedule with as many as seven sessions on one day (see schedule). Houseguests included Abhi Nemani, chief of staff, Code for America; David Weinberger, co-director of Harvard Library Innovation Lab; and Alistair Croll, founder of Solve for Interesting. Their conversations were broadcast on U-stream, and the recorded versions will be posted shortly. We are working on ways to replicate this experience at other conferences.

It was great to spend a few days hacking the conference experience, and, in a broader sense, librarianship. The LibraryBoxen, the SXSWLAM group, the IdeaDrop House, and the greater SXSWi conference provided opportunities to think about librarianship differently, creatively, and with a renewed sense of purpose.

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