Event Wrap Up: ALIA Information Online 2019

Last month, I had the incredible experience of volunteering at the ALIA Information Online conference.

Monday was a quiet day. My first workshop was a classroom technology session that involved 3D printing, playing with robots, iPads and VR (virtual reality). The workshop was interesting and it exposed me to some classroom tech options I hadn’t experienced before.

Four blue robots (that each look like four spheres) are on a psychedelic carpet

The conference kicked into full gear on Tuesday. After a site induction we got to sit in on the first keynote from Genevieve Bell about AI (artificial intelligence). I did miss the beginning but really enjoyed her keynote.  She talked about how AI destroys the potential for “serendipitous discovery”. For example, Spotify will recommend more of the same music that you already like, while GPS focuses us on the destination, rather than the journey and the interesting places we pass.  She also explored the concept of what it means for computers to make art – with examples of music and visual art created by computers.  One of the most interesting things she explored was the bias of algorithms, which I have read a little about.  She shared a story about how Kodachrome film was developed, using “model people” (ie people who looked “ideal”) and used that as a benchmark for how to make those people look the best on this film.  Of course, they used only white people.  As a consequence, Sidney Poitier was always sweating profusely on set because they had to have so many spotlights on him for the film to be able to properly capture his facial expressions.  Another example of algorithmic bias is automatic doors set to look for people of a certain height, meaning both particularly tall and particularly short people struggle to get the doors to open for them.  The final message from this keynote was “Build the future you want to live in.  You never do it alone.”

Genevieve Bell

Another Monday keynote I enjoyed was Mike Jones‘ keynote on the unrealised potential of digital collections, which I have talked about in another post. The talk started with the history of cataloguing, and I learned a lot, including that early card catalogues used the back of playing cards (where the back was blank) as a way of standardising the size of the cards in the catalogue.  We traipsed through history, to the modern website of museums and libraries, where entries often resemble a digitised card catalogue, rather than tapping into the potential of hyperlinking and tagging. A great quote from this session (from a guy called Ted Nelson) was “Everything is deeply intertwingled”.  The Tate in the UK does a good job of showing the potential of how we can better catalogue items for users.  The challenge was “What if I told you there is no shelf?” – could we have a non-hierarchical structure for libraries?  Mike Jones left us with this thought – what if we thought of knowledge as the flow of a river, and how would digital collections change if we thought about knowledge in this way?

This is the metadata of a computer held by London Science Museum. It tells you about the physical object but no mention of the backstory that this is the computer Tim Berners Lee programmed the world wide web on

This is the metadata of a computer held by London Science Museum. It tells you about the physical object but no mention of the backstory that this is the computer Tim Berners Lee programmed the world wide web on.

Other highlights of Monday were getting to hear some of the shorter talks.  I learned about the “renovations” of the Trove website. It was great to hear more about one of my favourite library projects – a new logo is coming along with a pile of improvements. 

I also went to a talk called Tinker time, which was about digital literacy for adults. Library staff engaged in their own digital literacy projects to develop their skills and were given space to make mistakes, with the emphasis being on the process and the learning rather than on the finished product.

Tuesday began with a keynote from the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden. Carla’s keynote (via videolink) was warm, fuzzy and encouraging. Rather than challenging and inspiring. However, I did feel like it was a good balance to have something warm like that.  

Possibly the most memorable workshop at InfoOnline was Five senses of GLAMR. We explored how algorithms turned paintings into sound. How libraries, galleries and museums can improve the experience for their blind and low vision patrons, experienced VR (virtual reality). We also discussed the role of scent and tasted the future of food – insects. It was truly a workshop that needed to be experienced, rather than something I can disseminate in detail.  

We did learn about a really interesting service called Aira, which is a subscription service for blind people. Aira allows an operator to see through smart glasses or a smartphone camera where the vision impaired person is and what is around them. This allows the operator to give them a verbal description of the location.  Libraries, galleries and museums can subscribe to with a geofence. This allows vision impaired people to access Aira for free while they are on the premises, so they can more fully participate in exhibits and exhibitions.  

Package from my chocolate ant ring

The highlight of Thursday, for me, was the strong Indigenous content.  We began the day with a keynote from Terri Janke who talked about Indigenous language and culture in the context of Indigenous Culture and Intellectual Property (ICIP). Even though this isn’t often recognised in copyright laws.  For example, Tasmanian Aboriginal Languages were put onto Wikipedia without consultation with Indigenous communities.  She talked about how to involve Indigenous communities respectfully, particularly through a program called True Tracks, that she has developed. This involves treating Indigenous communities with respect, giving them a right to self-determination and seeking consent and consultation early in the process. Not as an afterthought.

Following this I heard Sophie Herbert talk about a modification of the Harvard referencing system she developed (now endorsed by the University of Technology, Sydney), which acknowledges the country from which Indigenous authors come. It also lists undocumented authors or contributors as “uncredited” rather than the former “unknown”.  The use of “uncredited” puts the onus back on the knowledge gatherer because they didn’t bother to note down the contributor. Rather than suggesting that they were not known.  I also enjoyed hearing Marcus Hughes from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) speak about Indigenous knowledge. Marcus explained that in Indigenous knowledge everything is linked. Unlike the Western view of knowledge where everything is in “silos”.  He also talked about how that worked out in practice when Aunty Bonita Mabo donated Uncle Eddie Mabo’s shirts to the MAAS, and how the Mabo family retains ownership of these artefacts. Even though MAAS is charged of taking care of them and displaying them.

Marcus Hughes stands behind a podium, talking

Other highlights of the week for me were volunteering on the registration desk and getting to greet people and answer their questions; talking to exhibitors (who had masses of freebies); and the delicious food.  I got to meet so many people – many of whom I knew as a Twitter handle.  Kyla, Jane, Hugh, Mel, Nic. Also a shout out to Mylee who was very generous with her time and sharing her experiences of being on the ALIA Info Online 2019 Committee. 

My favourite vendor display

I have lots of ideas for ALIA National 2020, which I am on the Program Committee for! 

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