MA Library Association Wrap-up Thoughts

I extended my trip to Mass, by a day so that I could go to more MLA. My goal when I speak at library conferences is always to see some programs as well as give mine, but I only sometimes manage that. This conference was fun, accessible and enjoyable both to present at and to attend. Here are a few thoughts, my apologies for lack of thoroughness.

I already mentioned that I thought my talk went pretty well. This was despite the weird room temperature, the last minute “can someone find a longer cable for the projector!” issue and the flaky wifi. Big thanks to Scot and Michael for making this happen as well as the local IT guy. I hung out with Andrea a lot of the first day as she was covering the day for the MLA Conference Blog. We went to the banquet with Tom Ashbrook (the NPR guy) and I was a little underwhelmed. Ashbrook seemd to have a stump speech and didn’t seem to have prepared too seriously. Compared to seeing Pete Hamill last week it was night and day. Good food and company, including getting to talk to a woman who runs the Suicide Prevention Resource Library and has what seemed to me to be a very interesting job. Then Andrea and I went back to the hotel and planned to go to karaoke, but sat upstairs laptopping instead.

The next day I got up and went to a session called Privacy Rights of Minors – A training session for policy and beyond. It was run by Ruth LaFrance, the chair of the MA Intellectual Freedom Committee who attended ALA’s Law for Librarians program. I found the program good, but somewhat frustrating. The upshot was that the Massachusetts law is fairly clear about the privacy status of library user records and does not in any way state that these rights do not extend to minors. So, librarians try hard to help minors’ library records stay private. However, there are many wrinkles in this situation which make this difficult to deal with.

– Parents are financially responsible for their children’s overdue fines and missing books. This is true even though the library will not, if they are properly applying the law, tell the parents what books their child has out. I wonder about this in terms of contract law and whether you can make someone pay for something and not reveal what it is.
– Parents often have to approve of their child getting a card in the first place. A minor cannot legally give consent in a contractual sense which means to the extent that a parent “owns” a child (I am not agreeing with this assessment morally, just saying that the laws tend to support this except in extreme cases) they also own thir debts and obligations. Keeping a teenager’s record private makes one sort of sense in that a teenager can make their wishes known, but with a 3-4 year old it’s really hard to gauge what the intent of the child is.
– Often libraries maintain a child’s privacy only to let someone else reveal it. So if you are a library that sends overdue notices home — this was an example they gave at this session — then it’s between the parent and the child who has access to that notice or letter. I think this is a cop out. I think the whole issue is sticky, but if you think privacy and the law is this important, you don’t just let the post office blow a kid’s privacy when you won’t or can’t.

A lot of the session was about what the session leader called “add-ons” basically codicils in a library’s privacy policy that would make a minor’s records easier for a parent to obtain. It was clear that this wasn’t a direction that Ms. LaFrance agreed with entirely, but it was equally clear that many people in the audience thought the idea of minor privacy was overblown and impossible to enforce. A lively session but ultimately I left with many more questions than answers. I also left with a Star Wars gym bag full of books because I won the raffle. Actually, I won the raffle twice. I bought three tickets (one of my “How to be a gracious presenter” tips is “Always buy the raffle tickets”) and both of them were winners. I passed on the second prize to someone else.

I went out for a walk and ran into Michael and Jenny walking down the street and we went and grabbed sandwiches an ate them on the Sturbridge town common and spent some nice quality time walking around looking at things which included popping into the labyrinth at St Anne’s for some contemplation time. It was nice to see those guys; with all the running around they do, it’s hard to find the time to just goof off for a little bit. We went back and hung out on the porch and talked about public speaking in libraryland and I was encouraged to start a more professional “about me” page (in process still). We went out to dinner at a Thai place called Thai Place and I got a glass of water spilled into my lap which translated into 30% off dinner.

I got back too late to be on a team for the trivia evening, but it was in full swing by the time I got back. I sat with Jenna and Eric in the back of the room and said hi to Keith Michael Fiels and Steve Abram and other folks. Nora Blake, who was my capable and gracious host, was the one running the trivia night and her advice for other trivia-planning librarians is “always cite your sources” since the librarians got ornery with small errors of fact. It was a great idea for a library conference evening because the drinkers could drink, the non-drinkers could socialize, it got people into a room for an auction and a silent auction fundraiser, and it was right in the hotel. I had a great time. Stayed up late drinking with radical librarians.

Got up the next day and went to two sessions, Jenna and Eric’s RadRef session. They are a great librarian/techie tag team [and married couple] she talks about Radical Reference and he talks about open source software for libraries in this matter of fact “hey this is actually pretty simple” way. Their sets of slides are on this page on the Radical Reference site. I caught up on email while other people went to the luncheon and came back in time to see Jenny and Michael and Jessa Crispin of Bookslut fame do their blogging panel discussion. I have to say, it was strange.

If you don’t know Bookslut, it’s another early blog, more book-oriented than library-oriented but it has a lot of librarian readers. Jessa is a well-spoken writer and reader who now does the site full-time (I think) as her job. Michael and Jenny are Michael and Jenny and do their blogs as sort of side projects within their regular jobs. As a result, the two “sides” of this program had vastly different approaches to blogging which sort of made for lively conversation but sort of just made me feel that it would have been nice to have one or the other. Jessa blogs for work, then she turns off her computer and goes outside (her words). Her blog doesn’t have comments. She says she doesn’t read blogs. She tells new bloggers often to not bother. She’s not a techie, and not even tech curious. She says MySpace “scares her” as does the idea of having comments on her blog. She reads books and seemed to have some level of disdain for people who couldn’t find time for reading. I may be misreading this, but I just got a weird vibe off of her, that despite her making a job out of her blog, she maybe felt that bloggers were nerdish and dorky and self-absorbed and … lame.

I think part of this may be the general vibe I get from these conferences where pretty much everyone is approachable and personable and while there are a lot of introverts there are rarely any “too cool for school” people who you couldn’t just walk up to and/or have a drink with. I thought Jenny and Michael did a good job of explaining why blogging could be useful — and not in that “everyone needs a blog” way that I think has mischaracterized their position for a while now — but I felt that they and Jessa were talking across each other. Jessa was discussing blogging as a job and Michael and Jenny were discussing it as a tool. In any case, it was my last session of the conference and then I headed home to think and type and bring some of my free books back to my tiny libraries. Thanks for having me, MLA!