Next Library 2019

People tend to remember an event by the way in which it ended.

To me, upon my arrival home, that’s an 18-hour door-to-door journey from a superbly designed hotel room in Aarhus, Denmark to the third floor of a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

It’s only human, and yet. I’d prefer to remember my time at Next Library 2019 by the in-depth conversations with brilliant thinkers in the field, taking part in expertly facilitated sessions, and, yes, folding a huge number of Data Detox kits for the Data Lab. (By my coconspirator’s estimation, we ultimately gave away 200.)

There were several moments when I was overcome with the feeling that things had come full circle. I participated in the development of the Next Library Data Lab, replete with a version of Tactical Tech’s Glass Room exhibit. I heard the gong at Dokk1 announce the arrival of a newborn, a concept I’d first learned about at METROcon in 2017. And in visiting Denmark, I was as close as I’ve ever been to my roots as an Anderson.

Data Lab @ Next Library
I’d pitched a session on our work on NYC Digital Safety and ultimately came away with a much more rewarding task: helping to plan the first Data Lab for Next Library.

Creating an amazing space alongside collaborators you have yet to meet in person is a challenge, and I lucked out in working with Jeroen. It’s unusual to find someone as well-versed in the way our data is being collected and used while simultaneously maintaining a stance that we each have the right to decide how to react.

Jeroen has done extensive work localizing Tactical Tech’s materials, and so we joined with the folks behind the organization to mount a version of the Glass Room exhibit.

a beautiful setting for a Glass Room exhibit
We also planned a few hands-on activities, including Map the Web. This was my first time leading an international edition of this activity. Thinking about the contexts of data privacy in India, Switzerland, Denmark, and beyond added a depth to the activity I’d had yet to experience.

Best of all, we had a lot of interest around the Data Detox kits; many people wondered about translating them to their local contexts. My gears are turning as to how to make this a reality.

From Library Hugs to Data Sets
As a first time “Nextie,” I was also keen to attend a few sessions. My work is broadly on the Web Literacy beat, so I wanted to see how libraries around the world are handling topics like machine learning, algorithms, and data literacy.
Who’s in Charge? How algorithmic decisions shape our lives featured a partnership between Bibliotheek Utrecht and SETUP, a media lab from Utrecht. I was dismayed to learn about computerized screening for job applicants. One brave participant sat for a mock interview using a tool SETUP had created to make legible the behind-the-scenes mechanisms that rank one’s viability as a job candidate.

I tend to opt for a scrappy approach to teaching folks about data, AdTech, privacy, etc, and I’m starting to wonder if this is approach is rooted in perceived austerity. I don’t have the cash to hire/work with technologists who are interested in building tools that bring awareness to the largely hidden costs of our growing reliance on machines. It’s dawning on me that my interest in using common office items as teaching tools may be a reflection of the ways in which this work is (and isn’t) supported.

A similar reliance on paper and pipe cleaners and fluff balls was evident in a Rahul Bhargava’s Creative Data Literacy Activities. We participants created a data set on chart paper with which to understand terms and issues inherent in dealing with data, and we did a separate hands-on activity that helped us to use data to tell a story. None of this required interfacing with technology in any way, which I find useful and refreshing and is also in keeping with the way I go about facilitating workshops. It’s not lost on me that Rahul lives and works in Boston.

I missed Erin Berman and Deb Sica’s Library Hugs session and was glad to be able to make up for it in the Next Library Lab. A group of us sat on the floor on blankets and shared chocolate and talked about emotions. The conversation was a well-received first for me; library conferences tend toward the cerebral. It’s good to remember that there are humans behind the work.

Visiting Aarhus
Put abstractly, many of the informal conversations I had at Next Library oriented around the ways in which library services represent a cultural context. I had several conversations about U.S. politics and am still blown away by the nuance of these talks. I met a Norwegian fan of A.O.C., talked about gerrymandering several times, and received no small amount of compassion for living within a country that no longer appears to represent my interests. I’m endlessly grateful to be seen as distinct from so much of what is going on here in the U.S.

Visiting another country — and another ideology altogether — can’t help but to invite comparison. The gong at Dokk1 seems to me to be the tip of the iceberg of the ways in which Denmark values its citizens. Creating space for healthy families is evident in the presence of paid maternity leave (there are debates on how to promote paternity leave) and other benefits for families. I saw this in the built environment, too: whereas playgrounds in the U.S. tend to exist over foam and with easy-to-climb mostly-plastic structures, there were several structures at Dokk1 that invited a movement-literacy approach.

I appreciated the inclusion of Aarhus itself into conference proceedings. I opted in to a historical tour. We learned about the history of Aarhus as a Viking settlement, talked about the ramparts that once protected the city, and discussed the role of faith in early Danish society.

As with all good conferences, I came away with ideas to implement going forward and many people with whom to keep in touch. There’s more work to do on the data/privacy front, and so much adjacent material to learn…. not the least of it having to do with Vikings.