Saturday, June 25, 2011

TEDx LibrariansTO - An Idea Worth Spreading

I've enjoyed watching TED talks online for years but I've never been among the elite who can attend the conference in person. TED talks are on a diverse range of topics but all are brief (18 minutes or less) and highly engaging. Between TED's effective format and history of impressive speakers, TED talks are a popular and powerful source of ideas and inspiration (and confrontation).

TED talks are available free to view on their website, but watching a video online isn't the same as attending in person. As the events are very costly to attend, far away (in California & the UK), and are only open to those approved of, attending in person is not an option for most of the planet. However, TED has opened up by allowing independent events to model themselves on TED, hence the TEDx movement. I think this is a great idea and have been eagerly awaiting a local TEDx event.

So I was excited to attend a TEDx event today in Toronto - TEDx LibrariansTO. Although, I am not a librarian (despite pulls to the contrary), I was interested in the conference theme as librarians inspiring society on new (hopefully better) ways to share and use information.

Speakers identified the importance of adding and valuing games to collections, on encouraging "slow reading" of print books, adding hackspace or playspace, organizing more community events and unconferences, or ditching the idea of libraries altogether. The goal was to reconceive of libraries beyond book storage and the librarian profession beyond the "bunhead" stereotype (although there was a heated discussion on working with the old stereotype). I would have liked more discussion on the role digital libraries and m-libraries can play, but overall the speakers all presented interesting and provocative ideas also pertinent to the information field in general.

Being new to a TED event and having heard that presenters receive instructions on the TED format, I was excited to experience something new and ideally more effective. I find academic conferences are often tedious and self-serving, industry conferences are often too vague and corporate self-serving, and unconferences are often lacking in focus.

Overall, I found the TED format was extremely effective. I read over the TEDx details they give to would-be organizers and they certainly have a lot of rules and guidelines - which they assert is based on their 25 years of experience. And it definitely works!

The TEDxLibrariansTO event organizers did a great job in finding interesting and effective speakers and ensuring that the event ran smoothly - managing logistics and overcoming technical hurdles is no small accomplishment. The caterer (Mystic Muffin) was awesome, which always keeps attendees happy.

Here's what I find worked well:
  • visionary, call to arms messages 
  • no jargon, esoterica, or self-promotion
  • spartan, highly-visual slides
  • rigidly enforced time limits
  • smaller number of attendees

One of the problems with conference speakers is they get too much into the details of their subject. I'm Sesame Street generation so sell me on your vision. If people are interested in what you're saying they can look up the details. TED actually recommends people read their speech if they are not comfortable speaking without notes. But I'm not sure that reading a presentation is any better than rambling.

TED has lots of guidelines about the structure of the event too and advises against having any panels or keynotes (to promote equality) and they insist that some of their videos be shown (no hardship as there are so many amazing ones to choose from).

TED also recommends that there be long breaks (45 minutes) between sessions and that speakers stay for all or most of the day. This is so attendees can discuss amongst themselves or with speakers the points raised. The event organizers followed this and as the crowd was particularly friendly, so I found this format worked really well. But, I do not think it would work with other groups or with a large number of attendees.

TEDx LibrariansTO was an excellent showcase for the format. The event today raised a lot of fascinating points and sparked discussion all within a short period of time.

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