One month after: Reflecting on my first-ever VALA experience

 Opening Remarks by the two Conference Committee Chairs

Opening Remarks by the two Conference Committee Chairs

Text by: Chloe

I attended VALA 2018 from Feb 13 to 15 in Melbourne, Australia. It didn’t dawn on me until I landed at Melbourne airport that it is an incredibly adventurous but scary thing to do going to a conference completely on my own in a country I had never been to before.

Greeted by the unpredictable Melbourne weather, I went on to have a very action-packed three-days of learning about the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) sector in Australia. As one delegate put it, VALA is a big conference but not so big that it feels impersonal. I was still able to have some great conversations with other delegates and get inspired by some thought-provoking presentations. 

Overall, it was a refreshing experience for me and I would like to share some takeaways from my first-ever VALA here.  

A Cool Conference with Thoughtful Details

 Assortment of conference food

Assortment of conference food

The in-person experience was definitely invaluable, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much one could get out of this conference just by accessing the materials on its website. As this is a technology conference, it was thoughtful of the organizing committee to provide free pre-recorded online introductory videos (L-Pate Series) on some of the key technologies (e.g. virtual reality, APIs) that would be discussed during the conference.

Moreover, all of the papers were posted online before the conference even started, and all of the sessions were recorded and put online very quickly. They are both freely available on the web. As there were concurrent sessions at the conference, the recordings were tremendously helpful as they allowed me to catch up on presentations that I missed. Moreover, the Twitterworld was kept busy with #vala2018. This back channel helped both the conference attendees and people who were not able to go to experience VALA, as shared in the blog post Five things I didn’t learn at #VALA2018 (because I didn’t go).

My reflection wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the food. Most of my conference food experience has been in and around Hong Kong, and they have been excellent, just at times standard. The VALA2018 conference food experience struck me as dainty and refined. Maybe it’s just me. Is all conference food in Australia like this?

The Learning/Unlearning

 One of the most popular stands in the Exhibition. Nao made quite a few appearances in the conference!

One of the most popular stands in the Exhibition. Nao made quite a few appearances in the conference!

Food aside, the most rewarding part for me was learning from the speakers about their exciting projects, new tools, and interesting ideas, especially those ones that challenged my existing thinking. Like many delegates, I was most inspired and provoked by Angela Galvan’s keynote The Revolution will not be standardized (text summary) and Deb Verhoeven’s keynote The Library is open. Or is it? Both presentations have been hotly discussed and have generated so much conversation beyond the three-day conference. Although focusing on different topics, the theme of valuing multiplicity/diversity/differences/ recurred throughout both presentations.

Here are my takeaways from Angela Galvan’s keynote The Revolution will not be standardized (be sure to watch the Q&A too):

  • Being angry with the status quo—be it frustration with vendors, or being stuck in a project—can only get us so far. Influencing changes involves overcoming fear, letting go of baggage, and allowing room for mistakes. It is NOT a waste of time to try something that ends up not working.

  • If you are lucky enough to work in an organization where there is room for you to push for change, fantastic. If not, you can try transforming that energy into something else that you can still put out in the community through compassion. Compassion can be shown in many ways and in various capacity through your work. It could be as small as tweaking the password reset process for a particular service so patrons can access it 24/7 instead of only during opening hours, or it could be as big as comprehensively reevaluating the user experience of your whole discovery layer.   

  • There is a difference between mastery and having a foundational understanding of something that enables conversation. The example used was whether librarians should learn to code or not. You do not need to be an expert coder to have a conversation about coding. There are different levels of proficiency that one can seek. A basic understanding of something can go a long way in starting conversations.

Deb Verhoeven is a humanities scholar who has worked closely with librarians. In sharing three of her research projects, she demonstrated the power of data and the possibilities posed by data. Here are my takeaways from Deb Verhoeven’s keynote The Library is open. Or is it?:

  • On librarians supporting research, a true collaboration does not limit to the strict model of librarians only managing the content, and non-librarians managing the analysis. These self-imposed divisions are based on conventional ways of doing things, librarians can take on a higher stake than they think.   

  • From researching gender inequality in the Australian film industry to more broadly the gender inequality in Australian research grants, the issue at hand is not only about adding more women but redressing male domination. In her words, it is not a diversity issue, but a “Daversity” issue, referring to David being the most popular funded name in NHMRC program grants.

  • On the openness of data, she shared The Humanities Networked Infrastructure (HuNI) in Australia, a platform where researchers find serendipity in data. Making data open is only the first step, it is what we do with them that presents infinite possibilities.

There were many other informative presentations that I attended. One of them is the presentation “Print versus digital preferences of university students in Australia” (paper, recording) by Nicole Johnston and Alicia Salaz. I was glad to learn about this international study on university students’ preference between print and digital format for academic reading (e.g. course readings, textbooks). This study was done in 31 countries and the results consistently show that students overwhelmingly prefer print. In the presentation, the speaker shared the results of the study done in Edith Cowan University in Australia for the very first time. Here are a few highlights:

  • Convenience vs Focus: Although students are aware of the convenience of digital content, they prefer print because they can focus better and memorize better, especially for more complicated content.

  • Students like highlighting and taking notes on paper. When reading online, even though these features exist, they rarely get used. There is actually a statistical significance in this learning engagement behaviour. For students who annotate and take note a lot, they are more likely to prefer the format in which they do these activities.

Looking at the 31 countries where this study was conducted, China and Singapore were the only two countries in East Asia. I think it would be worthwhile to explore replicating this study in Hong Kong.

 Assortment of avocado toasts I had in Australia

Assortment of avocado toasts I had in Australia

The three days went by quickly, and whenever I could, I went out to experience the amazing coffee scene in Melbourne. In total, I spent around 10 days in Australia. When it was time to leave, I was quite satisfied with my indulgence of avocado toasts and flat whites, oh, and not to mention the 5 libraries, 3 museums, and 2 zoos I visited within 10 days.  

I am now back in Hong Kong. It’s been a month since VALA 2018. It is easy to get bogged down by petty details at work and losing the big picture. I hope I will continue to delve into ideas I learned from the conference and continue to get inspired along the way.

Thanks heaps VALA 2018!