Online 2011: the student view

Lauren Niland gives her perspective as a library school student on the recent Online Information conference in London.

This year, thanks to the generosity of SLA Europe, I was fortunate enough to attend the Online Information conference as a student delegate. The theme of this year’s conference was Information and Collaboration: Meeting the challenges of a mobile generation, with a mixture of tracks each day that highlighted how people are facing these challenges in their work today, and how we, as information professionals, can get ready to tackle them in the future. I could have happily attended any and all of the presentations offered over the three days; as a part-time student who has just started her Masters in LIS this year, everything seemed relevant!

In his welcome note to the conference proceedings, conference chairman Stephen Dale had said that that one of the worries for him was not the number of changes that were taking place, but the significance of any one particular change, and which would have the most impact on how we work, particularly in response to the explosion of social media interaction we have seen in recent years. However, as Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, pointed out in his keynote speech, social media is not new – he used the examples of John Locke, Martin Luther and St Paul’s epistles to illustrate how new technology has always been used to effect social change. The challenge now is in the speed of that change, and both how and where we need to position ourselves in response to it.

One of the main ideas in Craig’s keynote, and an idea that was reinforced by the subsequent sessions I attended, was in the importance of authenticity and trust in a mobile generation context. Craig spoke about this trust through the prism of his personal involvement in campaigning for fact checking in US news organisation, arguing that journalism becomes pointless if it cannot be trusted. Having done my graduate trainee year, and now working part-time, at a newspaper library I found this idea of trust and reliability particularly interesting, yet it is an idea that can be applied to all information professionals in a mobile world. As Phil Bradley illustrated in his presentation on Google+, the context of a mobile generation means people will be far more likely to ask their friends in their mobile circles for what they want to know. Brit Stakston pointed out that now is the time for us to “be curious” – to embrace and enhance the new possibilities offered by these technologies. We don’t just need to be present in the places where the conversations and searches are taking place, but we need to be there as a trusted person in the knowledge cycle.

Another major idea talked about in many of the sessions I attended was that of collaboration. Rachel Botsman’s fascinating keynote on Day 2 introduced the idea of collaborative consumption, where social networking is changing the way we consume – and what we want to consume. Rachel sees mobile technology as changing traditional attitudes towards ownership – we pay now for the benefit and experience of a product, rather than the product itself. Again, collaborative consumption, where we exchange assets and skills, depends on an environment of trust and reputation. This idea of offering experience over ownership is one in which libraries already lead the way, not only in the traditional model of a lending library, but in new innovations as well. The sessions I attended on linked data illustrated the way information environments are opening up their data, changing not only the way it is presented to users, but how they can then use that data themselves. Neil Wilson, talking about the approach taken by the British Library in creating a linked data version of the British National Bibliography, answered the question of “Why use linked data in libraries?” by again coming back to the point of reputation and trust. Opening up your data, as well as using new technologies and platforms, allows you to reach new users in new places, building on the authority of trusted information that libraries already offer.

The change that we as information professionals must navigate is the effect mobile technology will have on users expectations. As Rachel emphasised in her presentation, change is the opportunity; irrelevancy is the threat. The rise of mobile technology is changing the way people are consuming information – users expect to find information at the point of where they are, and they want to find it, as opposed to search for it, to experience an anytime, anywhere, everything – as well as, more simply, how people are talking to each other. Libraries must make the most of the interaction and collaboration between librarians and users that mobile technology can offer. David Ball, head of Academic Development Services at Bournemouth University, spoke about the opportunity new technology offers libraries in supporting users as they embrace new habits – that the traditional role of bringing the world to our libraries has been turned upside down, and we can instead make our libraries available to the world. I came away from the conference with the feeling that the challenges of mobile technology are throwing up a lot of questions that nobody yet knows the answers to, yet I also came away inspired that libraries and librarians are at the forefront of anticipating those answers.