Five things I learned from #NDFNZ

Last week I had the privilege of attending the National Digital Forum 2016 conference in Wellington, New Zealand. It was my first ever conference and I had an absolute ball. Despite being a self-funded participant I thought it was an excellent use of my time, funds and annual leave. I got a lot out of the conference and would love to go again next year! Here are my five take-home thoughts, brought to you by a late-night flight home:

People are keen for practical ways to implement the Next Big Thing. The ‘Digitisation 101’ pre-conference workshop was heavily waitlisted; I was only able to attend after a last-minute venue change to a bigger room (cheers #eqnz). Similarly, a breakout session on practical implementations of linked open data (LOD) was standing-room only. By this point, most GLAM tech people have at least heard of things like ‘linked open data’ and ‘digital preservation’ but remain baffled as to how to actually implement these in their workplaces. It was great to see some practical solutions being demonstrated, using freely available online tools that people can tinker with in their own time. (I plan to go into more detail on those LOD solutions in a later post.)

Contextualising visual objects in museums and galleries has incredible potential. I know I wasn’t the only person in Te Papa’s lecture theatre furiously scribbling notes with one hand and furiously tweeting with the other (I’m @lissertations, for those playing along at home). The ‘second screen’ phenomenon, whereby people will watch a TV show, sporting event or lecture while simultaneously on their phones tweeting / snapchatting / etc., has given cultural institutions pause as to how they can best capture their visitors’ attention on both fronts. Auckland and Christchurch Art Galleries gave separate but closely related talks on contextualising their visual collections with digital text, audio and virtual reality. People no longer view an artwork or a museum object solely in the context afforded it by the curators. They’re reacting to it in the digital backchannels of social media, reading what others have to say and adding their own interpretations. 

#NDFAU needs to happen. Seriously. As a first-time attendee and one of very few delegates not from New Zealand, I was awestruck by how collaborative and congenial the atmosphere was at Te Papa (no doubt helped by the fact half of NZ knows each other on a first-name basis). Indeed, I chose to go to NDF in the first place because I loved the idea of technologists from different GLAM sectors collaborating and learning from each other. The potential to export NDF across the ditch is obvious, and I’m determined to make it happen. Yes, I’ve had a few comments about NDF being ‘hard to export’ but I’m not someone from NSLA or GLAM Peak trying to implement a digital forum by fiat. I’m a techy student librarian at the bottom of the totem pole who still has some of that New Professional Enthusiasm™. I’m also not someone who reacts well to being told ‘no’. It’s well past time to bring Australian GLAM tech people together and start some real conversations. (If you’re interested in helping me make this a reality, hit me up!)

The GLAM sector is crying out for digitally skilled students and new grads, but too many are graduating without these skills. I am proof positive of this. I am a 100% self-taught GLAM technologist. My MIS course does not place a high priority on tech skills, despite the huge need for them in the sector; I get the distinct impression that the administrators are comfortable teaching a horrendously dated curriculum and have no real wish to innovate. We can no longer assume that LIS grads who need tech skills will be motivated enough to teach themselves (although I am), nor that not every grad will need to know how to code. It needs to be baked into every LIS curriculum in Australia. If that makes the courses too challenging for some students, well, too bad. It’s not like they can opt-out of technology at work.

Don’t give up. You’re not alone. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to sit in Te Papa’s theatre and meeting rooms, listening to talk after talk from people who love the intersection of GLAM and technology as much as I do. People who have great ideas and manage to make them happen. People who want to change the world. People who stand up and empower us all. Matthew Oliver’s closing speech was deeply inspiring: a tale of hope in a time of trouble. It gave me the confidence to acknowledge that no, all is not right with the world at the moment. We as librarians and archivists and museum curators and gallery hosts—as custodians of national memory—have a crucial role to play in researching, recording and retaining the events of our present, so that they do not become the events of our future.

I got home at around midnight Wednesday and was at work the following morning, so my conference hot takes were decidedly lukewarm by this point. The above are by no means everything that NDF had to say, just those I listened to the most. I hope to one day have something worth saying at a conference like NDF.

‘They said it couldn’t happen here.’

I haven’t yet finished reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. I’ve been trying to read it for months. I borrowed it from the library twice and still haven’t made it to the last page. I know how it ends, though, and it leaves more questions than answers.

Written between the world wars and at a time when Hitler’s true motives were unknown to most Americans, the novel describes the rise of a fascist American demagogue who turns the United States into a dictatorship. It’s an unsettling read. Until yesterday, it was speculative fiction. Now, it’s almost an instruction manual.

Sorry, Sinclair. Turns out it can happen here.

Today I attended a symposium on digital collections. I’d been really excited about going, and I wound up getting a lot out of the day, but this morning my heart just wasn’t in it. As I walked from the bus stop to the venue my thoughts were, naturally enough, given over to the news from America and what that would mean for me, an educated twenty-something white lady from the Antipodes.

In the last eight years, has American politics directly affected my day-to-day life? No. Has it affected the laws I live under and the way I view government? A little bit, but overall not much. Will the new administration affect my day-to-day life? Possibly, but there’s an ocean and layers of government between us, not all members of which will be receptive to his ideas. I’m fortunate to be so far away.

Am I in any position to affect or change anything in America? Concretely? Practically? No. No I am not.

But what can I do? I can act locally. I can ensure that what has come to pass abroad does not rear its ugly head in my city. I can support, with my time and/or money, causes and organisations that seek to better our society for all who live here. I can raise awareness of good people doing, saying and thinking good things. 

Most of all, I can use my skills as an archivist and a librarian to take information and information literacy to the masses. If people are gonna get all their information from Google and Facebook, let’s try to make that information reliable and accurate, and show people what they might be missing. If people are currently inclined to believe everything they hear, let’s gently educate them of the perils of that habit. If people are being ill-treated as a direct result of the election, let’s show them how they can record and preserve their experiences.

I can’t change the world, but I can record it.

This realisation has helped me process the news from abroad. At first, like most people, I was upset, anxious and terrified. Deep down I still am all those things, but I can’t be those forever, and my privilege enables me to focus on practical steps. The world needs people who can document these uncertain times. I can only hope to be one of those people. Without hope, we are truly finished.