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Reflections on a South-by experience

South by southwest 2016
South by Southwest 2016

Highbrow meets hijinks

If you haven’t been yet, South by Southwest (SXSW) is the all-the-rage conference in Austin that can only be described as highbrow meets hijinks. For every insightful point made at the convention center, there’s at least one beer swilled on Sixth Street. For every transformative technology shown on the expo floor, there’s at least one brisket sandwich consumed in the presence of a fledgling rock troupe. If you’re going, you gotta pace yourself. There’s a dab of regret in that exhortation – I just got back…And I didn’t.

But, anyone who has ever gone would find it hard to blame me. There’s a universe of things to see and do. If SXSW is a marathon, the “EDU” portion – held the week before the rest of the festivities – is the first mile. That’s the portion I attended, and I can personally attest, it kicked things off the starting block with an Olympic twitch. I fought through the South-by foot traffic to catch programs on a wide breadth of topics: from the role hip hop can play in advancing classroom learning, to the ways in which “Watson,” IBM’s oft-advertised new cognitive system, can personalize education and improve student achievement.

ALA and Benetech collaborated on session about leveraging 3D printers

Photo by Lisa Wadors Verne
Photo by Lisa Wadors Verne

As much as I enjoyed drinking in the organized madness, I didn’t attend just to spectate. On the second day of programming, I took the stage with Dr. Lisa Wadors Verne of Benetech to speak about how 3D printers can be leveraged in libraries, museums and schools to create new learning opportunities for students with disabilities. Lisa outlined how 3D printed learning tools can animate the learning process for students with print, learning and physical impairments (If you’re not quite sure what that means, think about how a 3D printed double helix or H2O molecule might bring science to life for a visually impaired student).  I described why libraries, as creative, non-judgmental spaces, are the perfect institutions to support the development of assistive technologies through the use of 3D printing technology.

Lisa and Charlie
Courtesy of Lisa Wadors Verne

After our presentation was over, I spoke with several individuals who wanted to learn more – both concerning how to find out more about Benetech’s 3D printing initiative to create educational equity, and concerning the current role libraries play in their communities. In response to the inquiries about Benetech’s initiative, I pointed to Lisa’s blog on a convening last summer that brought together practitioners from anchor institutions and industry to develop ideas for using 3D printers to put all learners on an even keel. I also plugged this District Dispatch post on the convening.

Additionally, I recommended checking out Benetech’s comprehensive “starter guide” for using 3D printed objects in education. I would urge library professionals of all kinds who are interested in educational equity to explore these resources as well. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: no one else is doing what Benetech is doing in the 3D printing space. In response to the inquiries about the role today’s libraries play in their communities, I reiterated and expanded upon points I emphasized in the presentation: libraries are one-stop community hubs, replete with informational and digital resources that people of all ages and backgrounds can use to engage in creative learning, seek government services, pursue entrepreneurial opportunities, and a great deal more. I threw out everything I’d learned and experienced over the course of two years in library land. Nonetheless, I must admit, I felt like a tiny voice lost in the whir.

Libraries need greater presence at SXSW

Living and working within the beltway’s competitive policy ecosystem has made me all too familiar with this feeling.  It has taught me that convincing anyone of anything requires organized, concerted action. My colleague, Larra Clark, recently wrote an article in the American Libraries blog,”The Scoop,”  previewing all of the library programs and activities at SXSW. It’s an impressive list, to be sure.  I am now convinced the library community needs an even greater presence. SXSW has a bounty of content, all of it pithy, packaged and powerful. To truly convince attendees that libraries transform people and communities in the digital age, we need to deploy a mass of library folks to the conference – a veritable army of speakers, makers, movers and shakers who can reach both minds and hearts.

So, if you haven’t thought about proposing a program, or at least attending the conference next year, consider this post a big, loud, formal call to action. I promise: if you go, you won’t regret it.

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Charlie Wapner

Charlie Wapner is an information policy analyst for the Washington Office.

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