VALA 2014 – Streaming with possibilities

The biennial conference VALA’s theme this year was ‘Streaming with possibilities’ and the conference featured sessions ranging from data to ‘the cloud,’ from user experience to social media.

The State Library of Victoria

Monday was a day for people to brush up on some of the subjects to be covered with VALA’s L-Plate series before the conference began proper on the Tuesday. I took some time on the Monday to visit the Melbourne Museum and the State Library of Victoria to see how they compared with the libraries we have here in Christchurch.

I found the State Library to be well-used – especially the use of the free wifi – but also the number of people using it for research. During one of the sessions at the conference, the presenter referred to the La Trobe Reading Room with its huge dome as having been designed along the same lines as a prison back in the 1800s, where all the tables pointed into a central point, rather like a star, where the librarian / warden could sit and see everything going on.

I liked the addition of art galleries within the library but it was the very stereotype of a library with little talk and or interaction and in the time I was there I only saw one librarian and no children at all.


The conference began with a brief welcome on the Tuesday followed by the first Plenary session. These sessions were easily the most informative. Two of them mentioned Christchurch City Libraries, both presenters, Gene Tan (Director, National Library of Singapore) and Matt Finch (Parkes Shire, NSW) saying that our response after the earthquakes was the reason they are motivated and inspired by libraries.

Gene said that when he is feeling down about his work he thinks about our response and what we did for the community and feels inspired again. His talk was on the Singapore Memory Project, which Cath and Dyane mentioned in their coverage of the IFLA conference, and how the idea came about, getting it off the ground and the ongoing struggle to keep it running successfully whilst dealing with the politics and pressures associated with such a large project. The project is an attempt to build a library of the entire Singapore experience. He wants to collect photos, memories, ideas (Where’s the richest place in the world? The graveyard because that is where millions of ideas have died along with their owners. If they had been tried or even recorded they would still have a chance), even video and social media posts, everything that makes up being a Singaporean. Gene hopes to have the Museum of ME – the library of social media – finished before the National Library conference in 2016. Sounds ominous and messy and Gene says it should be. People are too complex to be put into categories or demographics and that that is one reason to collect all the memories from Singapore.

Matt Finch on the other hand spoke about ‘The book of the world: crossing boundaries in culture and outreach.’ He spoke about his events with zombies  and getting the whole school and fire department involved so as to get real engagement from the participants.

Matt’s talk was called ‘The book of the world’ after a Dr Who script that was never made into an episode but floats around on the Internet. In it, the Doctor takes two librarians with him on his journey. The Tardis takes the visitor, both their body and their mind, on a journey just like libraries do. Librarians are like Dr Who, Time Lords who know to use the library / Tardis and can take visitors on a journey of exploration and adventure and books are like doors, opening up new worlds and enabling the user to explore as they see fit. Maybe the new library should be shaped like a giant blue telephone box, our own Tardis?

Public library websites

Two presentations were particularly pertinent to me. Usability of public library websites in Australia provided some interesting information on library websites in Australia. It said that a good website should be easy to use, have good, up-to-date information and be well designed. Most websites reviewed did not provide easy to find contact information or have up-to-date content and do not use web 2.0 technologies well (which she defined as social media only) or at all. It was good to see that we cover all of the bases and a surprise that so many do not. Speaking to someone afterwards, they said it was a reality and based on the fact that they do not have dedicated teams to do the work but it is a list of things to be done by a centralised Council web team or when a librarian has time i.e. never.

Journey into the user experience: creating a library website that’s not for librarians was given by AUT who have recently redeveloped their library website. This was done in response to the needs of the students having changed. They were bringing their own devices as opposed to using University supplied devices and the majority of these were mobile devices which necessitated a responsive website. Students were interviewed to get their opinion of the existing website, which was predominantly negative as it had too many links, most of which led to information the student had no interest in.

Google Analytics, expert reviews and heat maps as well as focus groups and interviews backed this up and showed that in fact students only used a tiny fraction of the links on the home page. Personae and a content audit was done and design went through several iterations before the final one was agreed upon. The site was designed with the user in mind, not the librarian and this meant that change had to happen not only to the website but also to the thinking of librarians. User-centric means basing the design on what the user wants, not the librarians.

Other things of interest said in the talk included remembering that the website is a gateway to other services and so it is important to get the vendors on board as well; you are never finished – there are always things to do and improvements to make – Go responsive. Users are increasingly mobile so delivering a mobile friendly site is more important than ever.

Finally they saw Instagram as the place youth are going to and have been focusing on that social media channel. I found this talk interesting as it showed that what we are doing is along the right path and that maybe we should be taking a step back from what we want on the site and going back to the basics and offering our users what they want in an easily accessible manner.

Social media and more

There were several presentations related to social media. The perfect storm: the convergence of social, mobile and photo technologies in libraries from Bond University in Queensland conducted a study of libraries from around the world using Instagram to see what their experiences were like from capturing and sharing photographs. Their research showed their were only 74 libraries worldwide using Instagram. A limited number of these participated in their study which concluded that the reason for using Instagram was to create a friendly and approachable image. Different libraries used it in different ways such as Singapore Libraries using it to show pets with books photos. The presenter’s library had more Instagram than Facebook followers and used a tool called Nitrogram for measuring use of Instagram.

Another presentation Is it Tweet-worthy? discussed use of Twitter by librarians and found that most are liberals and like cats. Seems nothing can be a cat tweet or Facebook post. Their research found that most librarians use their personal Twitter account to tweet about work and their personal life and are happy to mix these together, not concerned about their tweets being related to the organisations they work for. Librarians are also quite happy to tweet about their political views and controversial subjects even though their professional colleagues could see it. This research also showed that a lot of librarians share content on Twitter.

A plenary on social media as an agent of change  covered everything from American presidential campaigns and their use of social media especially with Obama’s campaign through to use of social media in the Spring uprisings in the Middle East. As the presenter Johan Bollen is from a University background and relies on funding and grants to do his research he presented a case in which he concluded that aggregating information from a crowd can yield better decisions than from individuals, even experts, a kind of collective intelligence. He suggested that if funding was distributed this way, the best people and projects would get the best money whilst at the same time saving billions in administration and application processes.

Michelle Hudson of Kiama Library talked about their journey to being one of the first libraries in Australia to connect to the national broadband network (NBN) and the challenges they faced, having to deal with state government, funding, training, digital literacy and the consequent increased use of ebooks and tablets.

Another on streaming archives was interesting because a local television station offered the Woolongong Library their 1964-1984 news collection. If the Library refused to take them they would have been dumped. There were over 1,000 reels of footage and associated scripts that had to be digitised and have metadata associated with it so it would be findable. The presentation detailed some of the hurdles they faced with technology, copyright and logistics to get to the point where the archives are now available to be viewed online.

Other sessions looked at data, what it is, how it can be manipulated, how important it is to make it accessible, the risks associated with that in regards to releasing all data related to research as well as doing data analysis using such tools as SPARQL, which is apparently a great tool for queries, and Openrefine, a tool for cleaning up and reconciling data.

On top of the sessions themselves there was the opportunity to meet other delegates and compare notes. This helps us in think about our services, our new Central Library, and what 21st century libraries  should be.