Everything, they say, is bigger in America. Well, it's true. Portions of food, buildings, cars and library conferences. If the UK Library Association's biennial conference is an Umbrella, the American Library Association Conference is a marquee. It had 20,000 delegates, 2,300 meetings, programmes and events, 1,300 exhibitors and a conference handbook thicker than the Bath and West Wiltshire telephone directory. Of course such a large event can be somewhat overwhelming. Sessions were held either in a gigantic conference centre (surely two or three times the size of the NEC) or in hotels around the city. Physically moving from session to session often meant a bus trip across town, followed by a hunt for a small conference room in a cavernous hotel only to find the session full, the seats all taken and the temperature rising.
However if you could deal with the sheer scale of things, work out the codes in the conference handbook and factor in the transportation time there were wonderful sessions to be found.
The hot topic for the event was e-books. The conference exhibition had been sponsored by an e-book supplier called Net Library , there were a number of e-book sessions which attracted 300 - 500 people each and the chief topic of conversation on the conference buses was once again e-books. I attended an e-book session which also looked at handheld computers. This session explored what exactly were handheld computers and what was their relationship to e-books and library services. The first speaker, David Pogue, talked enthusiastically about how handheld computers make available some of the utilities of PCs - mainly diaries, e-mail, note-taking/writing facilities and increasingly e-book readers - in a very small and lightweight form. Products like the Palm Pilot  are replacing the filofax due to their additional functionality and ability to synchronise with a PC. They are now becoming ubiquitous in the USA. People are using these devices not only to access their diaries but also to read their newspapers, books and magazines. Rather than carry a number of different texts people prefer having it all accessible on their handheld computer.
Mike Seagroves, from Peanut Press , then talked about how Peanut Press has become the leading supplier of e-books for handheld computers. Books are bought through the Peanut Press website and then downloaded, via a PC, to the handheld computer. Purchasing and downloading a book takes only a few minutes and the cost is lower than buying a traditional paper based book. Currently Peanut Press have a catalogue of 22,000 books - ranging from main stream novels to Star Trek novels to the latest best sellers to academic and specialised texts. As the typical Palm Pilot user is male (90%) and under 50 (65%) the catalogue is somewhat science fiction heavy though! Peanut Press are currently working on developing a facility which would allow them to work with libraries. They want to allow libraries to let their users to check in and return Peanut Press books and integrate with the Peanut Press catalogue with the existing library catalogue. The company is also working on developing kiosks which will be placed in locations like airports and train stations which will allow users to purchase and download e-books immediately.
The final speaker of this session was Hye Ok Park, Systems Officer at California State University, Fresno . She fascinated the audience with a description of the development of a wireless LAN in her library. Installing a physical LAN proved to be simply too expensive and technically inappropriate for the library building. The innovative solution the library chose was to install a wireless LAN. A Wireless LAN means that users' computers do not physically have to be connected to a network point in order to have network access. Wireless network cards can be installed into either existing laptops or special laptops the library circulates. These network cards allow the computer to access the LAN without the need for a physical connection. The wireless connectivity means that every reader space in the library becomes a networked PC point, students can move around the library and take their laptops to where the books are, and the OPAC is accessible everywhere in the building. The potential for other libraries in old, listed or simply difficult buildings is immediately obvious and with the development of facilities like BlueTooth  wireless connectivity of this sort seems likely to become more and more familiar.
Among other sessions that I attended topics such as how to use the Internet to promote reading, how to provide web services for people with disabilities, designing web pages to attract donors (a very well attended session!) and providing electronic services to children and seniors were covered. There was a strong emphasis through out the conference that no matter what the skills or needs of the user are, the library should be able to support them in accessing their electronic services.
For Seniors (OAPs in English) this can often prove to be challenging. Irene Goldberg, from Monroe Township Public Library , New Jersey talked about the challenges her library faced setting up Internet classes specifically for Seniors. Fifty percent of Monroe's population is retired and living in specifically built retirement communities. Library staff found the challenge for seniors when developing computer skills was learning to control the mouse. Without this basic skill, which most of us take for granted, most computer functions are impossible to access. The library had to learn that its users needed additional equipment like trackballs to get them started. Also slowing down the drag speed of the mouse was a great help. Eventually the library computer sessions became so popular that over 200 people turned up for a session for 20 people. Every one there asserted their right to attend the session and refused to leave. Tempers became fraught and eventually the library had to call the police to have the truculent Seniors physically removed! Despite incidents like this, the library's programme of gearing Internet training to seniors has been very successful. The library has found that its users feel that the library is the one place where they can learn about technology in a non-threatening environment.
These two sessions are just highlights from what was an incredibly diverse and busy conference programme. The scale of the event and the wide selection of programmes to choose from meant that it could often be a frustrating experience. All too often two fascinating sessions clashed and hard choices had to be made about which one to attend. The geographic spread of the locations of the sessions also meant that it was hard to move quickly from one session to another. Planning a day's conference going involved precision timing, a good grasp of the geography of Chicago and a ruthless ability to decide what you really were interested in and wanted to hear.
The conference was a good opportunity to see the kind of issues that UK public libraries are going to have to deal with in the next couple of years. E-books seem set to become one of the major new services libraries are going to have to get to grips with. Judging from the amount of money that e-book suppliers and publishers were spending on supporting the conference (by exhibiting their services and providing free bagels) they view the library market as one they want to make big inroads into. They have spotted the library/e-book potential synergy even if all librarians haven't yet. No doubt they will try and seduce UK librarians in the very near future. Here's to free bagels at Umbrella 2001!
|Sarah Ormes |
University of Bath