Here to Share: Building a LAM Community
Building relationships with people broadly and narrowly associated with my profession is something I consider to be part of my job, even though it mostly happens off the clock.
Making connections with the people around me is imperative to my own success.
The library and information science (LIS) profession is advanced by stepping outside of one’s institution, openly sharing, asking questions, and giving responses.
While in graduate school at Pratt Institute in New York City, if I wanted to talk about Digital Humanities projects on a Saturday morning in a coffee shop on 8th Avenue, several people would show up from various other colleges and universities and professions. (This was a direct benefit of being part of the NYCDH Student Group.)
When I moved back to Baltimore in 2014 I sent out an email on a not-so-active listserv for librarians and archivists around the state to gauge interest in starting a User Experience interest group. One of the two people who got back to me wanted me to go to their work during work hours to discuss UX. The difference between the LIS communities in both cities was a bit of a shock.
Failure (aka now what do I do with all these buttons)
My first attempt at building an inclusive community around LIS work and principles (access to information, digital literacy, etc.) actually had some following, but it did not exactly take off. Baltimore Wikipedians was/is a group that meets at a coffee shop to do Wiki Salon-style editing. Our focus is Baltimore-related articles, but really, attendees can edit whatever they want. It stemmed from my personal interest and research of Baltimore’s Civil Rights Era and the lack of information about events and people (especially, of course, women). We hosted a few salons and one poorly attended edit-a-thon. Regardless, I learned a lot through the experience. And yes, I have a lot of Bmore Wiki buttons leftover.
I had a PR problem
I actually said the words, “I need to rebrand this,” in my head one day while contemplating my strong desire to build an LIS community in my new/old city. Bmore Wiki was a good start, but reflecting back, it was a bit too focused. If you didn’t own a laptop or tablet, you couldn’t really join Bmore Wiki. Even if you had zero familiarity with Wikipedia, you could still attend Bmore Wiki gatherings, you just might feel self-conscious about asking questions or it may not even cross your mind to attend a meet up.
The rest of this post includes steps I took to start bLAMcollective - Baltimore Libraries, Archives, and Museums Collective, which Bmore Wiki has now been rolled into. All of my suggestions are based on what seems to be working in my city right now.
Identify what you want and current groups
I’m not delusional. Baltimore will never have the population density that NYC does, which is why it may be easier there to get people to talk about DH on a Saturday morning. Visitors can write all they want about how Hampden is the new Williamsburg, but I’m of the mind set to just let the two cities be who they are (personal feelings about that comparison aside).
I’m not trying to alienate my colleagues in the library, archive, and museum (LAM) community here by saying it’s doing it wrong; I’m trying to see what we can build together that is the right pace and trajectory for us here in our city.
I thought about all of this a year before bLAM started in 2015. The not-so-active aforementioned listserv was once a group that met face-to-face during work hours, and was really for people who worked at libraries and archives. I was interested in a group that not only included librarians and archivists, but museum and cultural heritage professionals, as well as people who use libraries, archives, and museums. I wanted to be part of a diverse group that was interested in learning, being challenged, and having fun. Kind of like a Bmore Historic unconference, but all year round. I also wanted the group to appeal to students and people contemplating a career change.
I identified my goal: meet LAM professionals, but also the patrons of these organizations and institutions. What better way to get to know them and for them to get to know us than to invite them out for an informal gathering? What better way to understand our own collections, workflows, interests, than to hear how patrons use our materials, from the patrons themselves?
I also trolled meetup.com to see what else might be out there.
Pick a name
bLAM really started on Twitter. I was trying to create a snazzy handle/group name acronym that was easy to remember. The “collective” part was an attempt to indicate inclusiveness, unlike a word that would indicate a requirement for formal membership. Words I absolutely wanted to steer clear of: “young,” “professionals,” and “group.” I hope when people think about bLAM, they don’t read it as a group just for people who work at those places, but also for people who are interested in those places.
Make a logo
Personally, I think logos and branding are extremely important, even for a meet up group. It shows that there are people behind the idea that care a lot. The first logo I created on the left took me under 10 minutes and I am in no way a graphic designer. It’s not great (let’s be real — it’s just a circle with the ‘B’ tilted), but it was good enough.
Make a website, hop on social media with some hashtags, and email inbox option (and maybe later a GitHub)
Twitter, Facebook, hashtags
Don’t just start a Twitter account, have some tweets ready to go. For example, share articles or resources that might be of interest to potential followers. For both Facebook and Twitter, try not to leave areas for images (avatars, banners, etc.) blank. On Twitter, I made sure to follow certain professionals and organizations in the area that might be interested in bLAM. I’ll tweet at them or share their work and events on both Twitter and Facebook. Hashtags are great for repeating events. We use #bLAMhh for bLAM happy hours and for upcoming tech-based workshops (more on that later), we use #bLAMclass. All easily transferrable to other sites like Instagram.
Not everyone uses social media
Don’t forget this unless you’re cool with alienating this audience. There are people who attend bLAM events who want an alternative to social media outlets for news and updates. I use TinyLetter to get the word out straight to inboxes. I only send out an email when plans for the next meet up are solid and a reminder at the beginning of the week of the event. I also throw every event up on our Wordpress site.
bLAM is using GitHub for documentation and we’re hoping to expand this usage in the future. Many organizations are using GitHub for things that aren’t code, such as documentation, as explained by Heidi Tebbe of NCSU Libraries at Code4Lib 2016 and Fiona Romeo of the Museum of Modern Art in her Medium post. There aren’t many bLAM-mers who are on GitHub, but maybe this will change when we offer it as a workshop.
The part where you identified the LAM-related community you’re ready to build will help develop your community events. The events might change as you go along, but that’s good. The events should reflect what the community wants.
The first bLAM event was a project share happy hour (not exactly a spiffy title) on the Preserve the Baltimore Uprising archive “presented” by Dr. Denise Meringolo and Joe Tropea. “Presented” is in quotes because we discussed the project over drinks in a local bar. I prepared a few questions in case there were moments of awkward silence, but I’m happy to say they weren’t necessary.
Our second event was a discussion based on an article by Angela Galvan on whiteness and librarianship and bias. Our third meet up was an open happy hour with no agenda. I call these our “Say Hello” happy hours.
bLAM typically has meet ups during happy hour, from 5:30p-? on a Thursday in a space that can accommodate roughly 10–15 of us. We generally look for spaces with alcoholic and non-alcholic drinks and food. The discussion about whiteness and librarianship took place at Red Emma’s, a radical bookstore that has food, coffee, and alcoholic drinks. It seemed inappropriate to host this discussion at a bar. In other words, the topic can drive the decision on venue.
We typically plan an event at least two weeks in advance.
Make yourself known
It’s just good user experience.
If you’re hosting a meet up, please make yourself known in the venue. Newcomers to the group will feel intimidated if they can’t find you.
I always bring notecards that I fold or tape to something that say “bLAM” and I usually tell an employee at the venue in case someone asks.
Promote the good work around you
Take the opportunity to tip your hat to other LAM-related groups doing good work in your area. bLAM has held co-events with other groups in Baltimore, including Baltimore #critlib, Baltimore Heritage, and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Moving Image Archive.
Recruit for help
If you’re starting out on your own and you’re garnering some interest from others, straight up ask for help. In the early days of bLAM, I emailed four or five people who seemed to want this type of LAM-related community for a consensus on a topic. Then I started asking, “Would you be interested in planning the next bLAM event?” and I explained what this entails: picking the topic, venue, and time, creating the Facebook event, and blasting it out on social media. I’m still working on my recruiting skills, so don’t get discouraged if this type of involvement doesn’t pick up at the beginning.
Pics or it didn’t happen. Share widely. Use those hashtags.
Tips for things that might come up
Beware the haters and backseat drivers
I hope people don’t literally hate bLAM, but there are certainly people who talk about it and make snide comments like they’re mad about something.
It’s cool — it’s not going to be everyone’s thing. I’ll stop there. That topic could be it’s own post. Similarly, you might run in to people who want to tell you what you should be doing, rather than helping out. I always counter with ways people can contribute rather than criticize. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. They may not realize how they’re coming off.
Notice who isn’t joining you
My ideal LAM community would include people from all types of institutions and organizations: non-profits, colleges and universities, public libraries, city-supported museums, state and city archives, etc. Making connections with and hearing from people from diverse places is invaluable. I recognized who isn’t represented at bLAM and asked blam-mers to help by getting the word out to friends who work at particular institutions. Recruit!
The second bLAM meet up I mentioned earlier where we discussed whiteness and librarianship was of interest to me as a woman of color in a profession that is dominated by white women, especially, it seems, in my geographical location. I wanted to talk about the issue, possibly meet more people from underrepresented groups, and discuss what we can do now to eliminate biases in our hiring committees to become more representative of the patrons we serve. It was a great discussion that won’t be the last on the topic within bLAM.
I hope everyone in LAM groups stop for a minute during a meet up and recognizes who isn’t there and comes up with ways to be more inclusive.
New York City is a great place for professional development. The Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) alone is an incredible group that offers a lot to its members, not to mention all the other groups in the greater New York area. There aren’t many opportunities for professional development in the Baltimore area, and there are very few focused on technology that are low cost.
bLAM sent out a survey a few months back asking what people want to learn. The purpose is to curate a series of community-driven, tech-based workshops we’re calling #bLAMclass. There are lots of talented people in the area working in tech and cultural heritage in some way, but there’s also a large technology gap that we’re hoping to shrink. This is all a work in progress and wouldn’t be possible without everyone who has volunteered their time already or in the future.