For many folks in academic libraries, the 21-22 academic year represented a cautious re-opening, with 22-23 marking a more comprehensive return to some pre-pandemic services,and opportunities for professional development. Casual, in-person conversations after a presentation, during a meal, or participating in workshop sessions are more important to networking with colleagues than we’ve perhaps given them credit for. The annual WLA Conference felt like a welcome return to some of those opportunities for casual networking. Connecting in beautiful Wenatchee, away from our normal workspace, also required physically separating ourselves from emails, phone calls, and the daily routines of library work. This year’s theme of “all in, reach out” held true as the conference brought an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues.
This year’s WLA Conference offered online session recordings and simultaneous viewing options alongside the in-person experience. For us, attending the WLA conference in Wenatchee was a “return” to in-person conference attendance. However, for many of us “return” isn’t quite accurate - “return” implies that changes are reversed, and we get back to where we were. As many library professionals would likely agree, “return” may not be the most accurate way to describe our new state of libraries as we navigate a new normal.
This tension between “returning” and “moving forward” was a theme in the Academic Libraries Unconference session, which took place Friday evening of the conference. Since the Washington Chapter of ACRL merged into WLA’s Academic Library Division, the annual WLA conference has become a new opportunity to bring together academic librarians. National involvement with ACRL through their bi-annual conference has changed since one of their peak conference years in 2019 and attendance trends have been changing at a national scale. While attendance trends for WLA’s annual conferences have also changed, this year’s annual conference saw good numbers with 359 in-person attendees, including an estimated 67 people working in academic libraries based on job title. This is slightly down from last year’s involvement of academic librarians at the annual conference (86). For any academic librarians new to WLA, the annual conference is an excellent opportunity to connect with other librarians in your field, build your network, and learn more about what your peers are doing.
Offered as a session option in 2022, the ALD/ACRL Unconference is becoming a new tradition for semi-structured conversation during the WLA Annual Conference. The Unconference format was reflective of “informed uncertainty” that our academic colleagues described; while there is no official agenda and no top-down structure for an unconference– there was a collective understanding of what the issues were and how we wanted to discuss them. By voting via poll in Whova before the event on some wide conversation topics, we narrowed our scope of discussion to include: Instruction, Futures in Reference, and Artificial Intelligence in higher education. As facilitators of this unconference, we were uncertain what to expect from the discussions and what directions they might take.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Higher Education:
One of our conversations centered on ChatGPT and some of the products using its code base. As we cycled through threads in this discussion, these included sharing our knowledge of current AI products and how they are affecting student work, exploring concerns about fully embracing AI, negotiating concerns about not embracing AI, and considering the potential impact for libraries. As a powerful tool using predictive language generation, chat code from OpenAI and others is quickly becoming integrated into many writing tools. From the perspective of learning and skills development, it seems inevitable that the practice of outsourcing writing to a language tool will bring with it some downsides, even as all the implications remain unknown. On the other hand, instruction in constructing effective prompts that elicit helpful results will be an area for skills development. As a predictive language tool, ChatGPT has limitations and dangers when it comes to citations. Its strength is in making up plausible word combinations into sentences and is known for making up plausible citations for articles that don’t actually exist. Since our conversation in March, more tools have been developed that claim to be capable of summarizing real research, including Inciteful, QuillBot, and Consensus, though determining their reliability will take more testing. As with any new market and social disruptor, it’s impossible to predict its future impact. Together, we focused on areas of librarianship that might be affected and changed by these technological developments. Top areas for predicted change included: student knowledge of summarizing research, increased time to fact check cited sources, reviewing citations with students, use of chat reference service, and disruptions in publishing due to a higher output of research.
Reference and Instruction services:
As we shared our experiences with instruction during the pandemic shift, we found that library instruction followed the campus trends towards online synchronous delivery, with librarians simply joining the online classes in very similar ways that they joined in-person classes. An emerging concern is the reining-in of pandemic-era recordings of librarian presentations being used in lieu of reaching out to the librarian for an updated, live instruction event.
Reflecting on our pandemic and peri-pandemic service models, we found similar trends across all our libraries. Our reference and in-person services in particular saw rapid and unplanned changes, which led to services that valued being nimble over being perfect in order to respond to the changing Covid safety directives at the campus and city levels. As libraries returned to in-person service models, there were several reports of merging reference and circulation desks, and a conscious re-thinking of the number of physical service points rather than a simple roll-back to what had been done before. We also shared how our libraries have reignited the roles of student assistants, whose presence had been reduced during the pandemic in most cases. The interplay between student and professional services at our libraries were also discussed, with (1) students being given substantial autonomy over some in-person services, and (2) a continued focus from the pandemic era of providing librarian services online and by appointment, rather than passive availability at a physical reference desk. Sharing not only the service models, but the rationale behind them offered friendly and lively debate that allowed us to tease out some of our own biases, excitement and frustrations among informed but neutral colleagues. This space to actively reflect among peers rather than with coworkers allowed for thought exercises and a more open and collaborative environment than may be the case within a workplace.
The opportunity to connect with fellow Washington Academic Librarians at the WLA Unconference allowed time for reassurance, reflection and recalibration. As many of us worked within our libraries and institutions to respond to the rapidly changing needs and risks of the last three years, the Unconference offered an opportunity to compare approaches, successes, and stressors with our colleagues. It was a valuable return to the knowledge-sharing and community-building aspects of conference attendance and a reminder of the value of engaging with our wider community of academic library colleagues. As the pressures of pandemic change-management subside, reengaging with our local chapter is one way to ensure that we can regroup and build back our services based on the wealth of evidence and experience we now hold in our collective professional memories.