Monica Harris & Karen Egan

This is Circulating Ideas. I am Steve Thomas. This episode continues my series from the Illinois Library Association Conference, and this is an episode with Monica Harris and Karen Egan, who were the Co-Chairs of the Conference planning committee. Monica Harris, is the Deputy Director of The Schaumburg Township District Library and an Instructor at San Jose State University’s High School. Karen Egan, is the Grants Consultant at Illinois State Library.

Monica and Karen, you guys are the Co-Chairs for planning this conference, The Illinois Library Association Conference, let’s start with the timeline. How far did back did you go? When did you start planning a state conference like this? How long does it take to plan?

[Karen]: We started actually a year ago, and in the planning and getting the committee together and coming up with ideas for programs and speakers we wanted to come in. I think the key notes speakers were the first thing that the committee developed as those usually have a long timeline out there and you need to make sure that they are booked.

[Monica]: Yeah, we meet the summer before the conference, and so that way we were able to put together our theme and put together our speakers that we wanted to come, and so that helps out kind of over achieving our vision of what we want the conference to be, and that way when we have a conference, we’re able to help promote what next year’s conference is gonna be, because we haven’t been able to meet ahead of time to decide what that’s gonna be.

And do you guys have a meeting at the conference, like, is there a little committee meeting like is next year’s conference committee meeting at this current conference? So, they all kinda come together in the same room?

Yes, actually somehow I got drafted to be on the committee next year as well, and the committee has been meeting already. They already have the theme chosen, which really helps because they can promote that at this year’s conference. So, to generate excitement for next year as well, plus next year will be a joint conference between two organizations. The Illinois Library Association and The Illinois School Library Media Association. So, they are promoting the joint conference at both of the conferences this year.

You come up with the theme and the speakers sort of together or do you come up with one first or is it sort of a joint process that happens as the committee meets?

We, one of the things that when people know that they’re going to be on the committee, there is some communication that goes out before we have the first meeting, and they know that this is going to be on of the first things that we will be talking about at our first meeting. So, people kinda come up with a list of people that might be interested in speaking, and there gonna range from people who would be interesting keynote motivational speaker types too, authors that they really think would be interesting to have, and so there is a lot of opportunity to explore the kind of things people might be interested in.

Illinois, you guys are a little unique in that you have a well-funded library association, so they actually have a staff that can take care of a lot of stuff, so other library people might have to do a lot more ground level work like. Do you guys do any work on getting vendors here? Do you do on getting exhibitors, do you have to I assume again you don’t choose location either somebody else is doing that for you guys. As the chairs of the conference of the committee, do you have any involvement in that at all?

Delegation is key. [laughs]. That’s the best way to say it is there are committees that work directly with the exhibits and the vendors, there is a subcommittee that also works with fundraising, to come up with sponsors who sponsor for example, coffee during registration, or lunch during the exhibits, and programs. That really helps as well. So, we use a lot of subcommittees, who do a lot of that type of work, and delegate as much as we possibly can.

Yeah, and so what we, what Karen and I do at the Conference Committee becomes about program content and conference content, but yes, there are other committees that are working for fundraising and for exhibitors, and making sure that all those things are focused on too. And the other thing is that I don’t want to give them impression that [laughs] the Illinois Library Association is well funded as they are very scrappy and hard-working organization. It is a very small office, it is a ton of work, and so that’s-

Well, when compared with other states…?

Yes, yes, this, I had a conversation with Steve ahead of time about Illinois versus Michigan for instance, and in Michigan when we were doing conference planning, so we had to do a lot of that work ourselves, and it’s been really been freeing and being part of this conference that I’ve been able to focus on content.

Absolutely, and one of the really nice things about the conference too is that Monica and I for example, are both ILA personal members of the organization, and so to give back to the organization, we volunteer our time as co-chairs for this as do our entire committee. So, we are very fortunate to have a lot of volunteers who give time and their energy and ideas and expertise to the conference.

Do you have anything to do with the exhibition part of it? The vendors stuff part of it, or is that more of the staff?

Yeah, you know again, this can vary conference by conference, but for us it’s really not part of what we do. Although what we try to do is make sure that we around that exhibit hall and talk to these vendors you know about what they’re doing, so but truly pulling those people in ends up being you know responsibility of others and not us which you know as a big group of librarians sometimes, it’s freeing for people, because you know one of the great things about the committee is that it’s not all administrators. We try to pull in people who come from all different kind of libraries and who do all different kinds of library work to make sure that we have a balanced conference, but a lot of those people aren’t focused on vendors and financial relationships and so being able to allow them to focus just on the content of what is being offered for librarians like them is a really amazing opportunity.

You guys have planned a lot of extracurricular activities. Can you talk about a couple of those, and do you try to tailor those specifically to the city that you’re going to, Springfield, you do Abraham Lincoln things because of its omnipresent stuff, like that, like do you look at what that city specifically can offer as an extracurricular activity?

Yes and no. There are some extra curricular activities that are repeated every conference that just are popular and people love them. Others do go with the city, for example, In Springfield, we did a ghost tour where the people registered in advance for the tour and then they did a walking tour of the Lincoln sites in downtown Springfield, they had a narrator who was telling about the ghosts and the spirits of Lincoln and other folks in downtown Springfield.

One of the other things that has been interesting when we’re talking about what we’re doing is a lot of times when it comes to a conference in Chicago, as it’s often every other year in Chicago then moves to a location that’s further down state, is that when its in Chicago, a lot of times people are wanting to try a restaurant or go on to some other kind of tourist excursion, and when they’re coming to some of these other cities where they may be not familiar with, they really look to the conference committee to provide more activities for them to do after the conference is over, and so I think because of that, some of what we have you know to offer that we have in mind, that we know a lot of people really want to have some kind of fun organized things for them to do.

Yeah, I totally agree for example, when the conference is at Navy Pier in Chicago, that is a self-made event for people to have evening activities to do, whereas Springfield, not so much so.

What other kinds of things do you do, I know that you do Battledecks and we’ll let Monica talk about that for a minute as she has some familiarity with that, you’re doing a Pub Stroll later. Before we get into Battledecks, what are there, are there any other extracurricular activities that really excites you that you’re doing?

Another one that was last night, there was a couple last evening as well which was Tuesday evening, and one is called Stories and Spirits, which is sort of long running interesting kind of, I don’t know, it’s a social gathering networking opportunity for you used services for librarians. I know a lot of librarians go to it, and have the opportunity to see it, and then Karen’s organization actually hosted a really cool reception at the state library last night.

Right, we had a dessert reception at the Illinois State Library last night, where people just came in and it was a networking opportunity for people to come, gather together to share stories, connect with each other, there were desserts of course there, and people were making video postcards about some of the CE programs that they had attended in the past, just to you know validate the worth and value of it, but it was a good networking event, but the Battledecks, Monica.

For the very first time this year at our welcoming reception, we decided to do Battledecks, which some of you may have had the opportunity to seeing it in ALA in previous years or at South by Southwest generally the way that it’s done is that there is a slide deck of 10 slides, and there is a presenter who is going to present on that slides, and the big catch is that the presenter has never seen those slides before, and so a theme is chosen, our theme that show our “Kickstart Or Die” in honor of our conference theme as well as Halloween being just around the corner, and so then they were going to be ten slides that are gonna show up and we had 5 competitors you know it can be done differently and the competitors aren’t allowed to see each other compete, and there is, well at least that’s how we’ve done it [laughs], and there was a group of judges who look at all of the things that the presenter is doing well. So, are they able to hold together the use of presentation or you know are they able to use hand gestures and have poise and be funny [laughs] and engaging and of course audience interest and participation is one of the things that we’re doing. So, I was dumb enough to say yes [laughs] that I would do it this year, and to be honest, it was like the thing that I was most worried about heading to this conference which was hilarious, because there is this whole giant conference with all these people coming to town, and the thing I am most worried about is doing Battledecks, but it was a great experience, you know it was a lot of fun to be able to not take myself so seriously and get up in front of so many of my colleagues that I have known for so long, and have them have the opportunity to really see me trying not to fall on my face [laughs], but it was a fun time.

Do you feel like you did well?

I did pretty well. We, what happened was our judges decided that there was a three way tie for the first of five people [laughs], and then they had the audience choose the winner, and so I made it into the three way tie for winning, and then the audience chose another winner [laughs]. So, I did not win. But, we had a great time, it was a lot of fun.

I would highly recommend any organization who wants to try a Battledecks type of event, do it, because it was a wonderful way to start off the conference and the conference started with people laughing and just truly enjoying themselves, and it was like improv comedy, it was a wonderful way to begin the conference on a happy note.

So, one of a great things about a state library conference is that you get to see people face to face, one on one, and it’s not reading about them on the magazine, not talking about them on Twitter or Facebook, it’s really communicating face to face. Do you think that networking is really an important part of a state library conference?

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s really a, one of the only opportunities that we have all year to get to see so many faces in one place, and that was actually one thing that our keynote speaker Josh Linkner commented on, and when he first just started was how warm everybody was at that opening, like people were seeing people that they may have not seen in a whole year, any opportunity you know just to come face to face and to see them and talk to them, and are relaxed setting where they may have the opportunity to go over some things they have been thinking about, or things they have been thinking of trying and really wanted to bounce some ideas off other people in a way which was really natural and comfortable.

Oh yeah, and like Monica just said is, a lot of times in conference, you’re seeing people that you haven’t seen in a year, and it’s a great way to reconnect and network and share ideas, and that’s why we do the extracurricular activities in the evening as well as programs during the day. Because the evenings allow for time to spend in a relaxed atmosphere where you can share, you can reconnect with your colleagues, and to share the ideas that you are experiencing throughout the conference and what’s been happening.

Right, I think what you said is really important, because we spend so much time absorbing this information throughout the day which can be exhausting, and if you go to 4 or 5 sessions in one day, and you’re trying to learn things it can be tough to take any more in, and so a lot of conversations that happen really become about processing what you’ve learned, you know, and pulling out the things that you’ve heard that maybe you know are really going to work for you or that you’re gonna focus on in the next year, and I think without the opportunity to talk to other people about that, whether that’s through social media or other ways or otherwise, ‘cause that’s obviously component of conference too [laughs] is that you have the opportunity to say like, these are the things that are really important, and I am gonna make sure that I talk to somebody else about it.

And that can be important is just through the informal stuff. I mean, if you go to a restaurant or a bar later that you’re just sitting around talking and you’re obviously gonna talk about other things too, but you might talk about what you learned that day, and about that processing that you talked about, so.

Yeah, the Pub Stroll is really planned networking, because we have different places where people will gather, travel between one or the other, and it gives you a chance to network with different groups, and so you will see different people at each of the locations. So, it’s more about the networking that it is the pubs.

All right, so Karen, I wanted to talk a little bit about what you do outside being a co-chair of the conference, and I don’t actually have your exact title written down. I know you work with Grants. Can you talk about number one, about what is your title, and what do you kind of do on everyday basis?

My title is LSTA Grants Consultant, and every state has one person who is assigned to work with the Library Services and Technology Act funding, that comes in the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and that’s what I do is I primarily work with the LSTA money as well as other grants awarded from the state library. Our library, our state library is a grant-giving agency. We provide grants to libraries of all types, school, public, academic, and special, in Illinois, and that’s what I do, grants.

Is that, I know when you get into money it’s hard sometimes to figure things out, is that, do you administer all kinds of, or is it only the IMLS grants that you work with or do you help if libraries have questions about other kinds of grants, would you answer that for them?

Yes, that’s the short answer, yes I would. We also have state funded grants with the state funds. The federally funded grants with just the flow-through money from IMLS, Institute of Museum and Library Services. We also try to connect libraries where we can with other grants that are available around the state like the DCEO, Humanities Council, other grant opportunities that might be available for libraries that they could take advantage of. So, it’s anything we can do to help libraries get more funding, we’re all over it. The Illinois State Library is a division of the Secretary of State’s office in the state of Illinois, and a lot of states are possibly within the Department of Education, in other states depending on where the organizational chart is for that state library. So, we’re fortunate to be within the Secretary of State’s division. So, anything that’s done within the legislature usually goes through the Secretary of State’s office.

So, outside of your work as working on the grants and outside of being the co-chair of conference, what advantages do you see as being part of the state library association. What kind of advantages do you see to people joining something like that, what do you get out of that?

I am very fortunate to have been a member of the Illinois Library Association (I can’t tell you how long I have been a member of this Association, because that would date me) but there are so many opportunities that the Illinois Library Association provides for its members such as, you know, for example, in Illinois, the ILA provides summer reading program materials for public libraries, school libraries, anybody who is interested and they announced today that we have other states, we also have a contract with the Department of Defense, to provide it for the military across the world which is very cool when you think about that, that summer reading is going to military families around the world, and advocacy efforts are done through the Illinois Library Association, and they have a pulse on legislation that’s happening, keep us apprised on filtering issues becoming up or bills that affect libraries. They take care of that, and so we as the general membership can depend on them to let us know what’s happening around the state, and let us know what issues are current or pending, that’s really critical because there is so much information out there, that it’s hard to stay on top of it all. So, that’s one of the advantages of being a member is having that information, I guess, given to us, and they keep an eye on it.

So, Monica, you used to, you first came to my attention that I knew who you are on twitter and things like that, and on the Movers and Shakers list cause you were working with teens, and for instance you moved up sort into management of all things. Do you miss working with teens directly?

Yeah, I mean, I think the main reason that I got into libraries in general, was to work with teens. So, it’s been kind of an interesting ride you know through library services [laughs]. I originally thought I was going to be a teacher, and teach Arts, and English, and went as far as doing my first kind of student teaching program, and it was really great, but it came into my attention just through some relationships in my life that there was another way that I would get to go and still be involved with kids, and be able to really help with education on my own terms, and one of the other things that I love about libraries besides all of the amazing, you know, pieces of being a librarian and the ethics and tenets that we hold to, which I believe in so dearly, is the opportunity of being so flexible in what we do, and that was immediately what was appealing to me to be able to work with teens and work with them on literature and also you know in the programming and education and information literacy that we do, but do it through a library setting.
And so yeah, I started out doing that and I did it for quite a few years, but as happens in the library world [laughs] sometimes you are offered opportunities and you just move forward with them as you go. So, the way that, I have been in libraries where teen was part of children’s requirement in my last library team was part of Adult and Teen Services department, and so I had the opportunity to move into Assistant Manager of that department, and from there I was really able to look at some of the wider kinds of things that were going on in libraries and really think about how interesting those things would be. I could say things what I missed the most was that kind of day to day, the day to day experience of getting to interact with other people that are visiting the library, and really have that moment where you get to find something perfect for someone or really help them with something important, but you know, somebody’s gotta do the administration [laughs] piece, too, and that’s something I’ve really come to understand is that all pieces of the library are important, and so even though I do miss some of those things, it’s really important that you’ve got somebody working on the behind the scene stuff in the same way, too.

I mean, you always need sort of the people, the force and the trees gonna do nothing, you’re gonna need people looking on the trees, and you need people looking at the whole forest and then you need that connection there. What kind of projects do you work on now in your current position as – is it Deputy Director, is that the right term, yeah? So, what kind of projects do you generally work on, sort of as in and I am sure it changes day by day, but what kind of things are you working on now?

Yeah, so one of the really interesting side steps that I took in my career is that I moved from that being in the Adult and Teen Services to doing a new position at the Oak Park Public Library that which was a Customer Service Manager, and what they did there was decided to have the circulation manager, be someone who is focused on all the staff, the support staff that was coming in without an MLS, and talking about that experience, and so I actually moved from you know working with the teens as a librarian, to doing something with had very little to do with my MLS, and working on how to make sure that people were getting this amazing experience as soon as they came into this library, and that was fascinating to me, and honestly what led me kind of directly into administration, and so in my new library a lot of what we’re working on is some of that same kind of stuff. I am overseeing the circulation department, the branch locations, security, and then I am also just connected with the director and the management team, and working on new strategic planning and you know, some of all those large scale things. So, it gives me the opportunity to really have my hands on planning for a new culture, moving forward, I work for a relatively large suburban Chicago library, where you know, we are fortunate to have a lot of staff, and a sizeable budget and so we have the opportunity to move into like a new generation of library services.

And I think libraries now are, the good ones anyway, are looking towards this economic recovery now as opportunities now that we can, things that we have the sort of have some lean years, and get by much more, it almost gave us the opportunity to be more, to find efficiencies in our work, that the budgets were getting cut, and things like that, so you find ways to get things done, and now maybe we can get some of that money back and do some new things. I had talked to somebody earlier about all the new kind of makerspace and kinda new things like that, those are all great, but we also don’t want to throw away what we do well, which is books and reading and things like that, but we also wanna have a balanced approach to do all these great things. So, you guys have been working on a new strategic plan, now is this your first strategic plan you’ve worked on, directly like this?

I was on the management team, sorry I was on the management team at Oak Park Library, when there were some strategic planning, but really as you know this is just a part of the management team where you are there to like balance ideas off of, but it’s not my plan, and so what we’re doing at Schaumburg now is, we’ve refer to it as “plan of service”, it’s a little different, so what we’re doing right now is focusing so much on the assets of our community and so, it’s that whole concept of the assets-based community building where you really look at what you have in abundance and the things that you do really well, and focus on that rather than the things that you need to change and improve. So, what we’re doing is really taking stock with our library of what is really great about the place that we live, and what is really great about the community that we serve, and what can we do to make it better by focusing on those things, you know, like really focusing on our strengths, and so that’s been an interesting thing. Schaumburg, I don’t live in Schaumburg, I travel there, I have been in other communities, and so Schaumburg is the sort of what you think of this being of this very traditional 50’s suburb, like suburban tract homes, but so much of what we think about has changed. I would say so much of the new census data that we’ve seen especially in Chicagoland, you’ve seen the city itself of Chicago get more gentrified, it’s, we’ve moved from something like 36% white in 2000 census to 75% white in the 2010 census, and it’s like the same time you’re seeing a lot of those middle class diverse families moving to the suburbs and we’ve seen that happen in our district. So, we are approaching about 35% of the students who go to the schools in our district speak a language other than English at home, and so we are realizing that we have a different focus that we had 10 years ago, you know, and so we are trying to keep up with the way that our community is changing in the things that they want, and so that’s been a super interesting part of this process.

Are you guys doing a lot of new, or wanting to do a lot of new technology projects, like make a space-ish kind of stuff?

We were very fortunate to have a new teen center developed a couple years ago, and that included to a lot of, well, digital media lab production and studio type equipment as well as things like a 3D printer and you know we have a robotics club, we do a lot of that stuff through our teen center, but one of the other things that of course we discovered was that once you have those tools, you know there is more than just the teens in your community that you want those things obviously, and so one of things that we’ve been able to do is to open up, you know, some of those things as we’re going through. We also have a large building, our central location for the Schaumburg Township District Library as the second largest library in Illinois, and so when we’re looking at that building which is now 15-plus years old, you know we’re looking at things that maybe we weren’t thinking of 15 years ago -what are the things that we need now? – and of course, talking about creation is super important, but I think beyond talking about just maker stuff there’s a lot as far as participatory activity that we’re looking at, we’re looking at ways for us to offer new opportunities to reflect our community as it’s things and people are coming in, whether it’s questions that we ask them and have them respond to, whether it’s just having more things to do when people come into the building. One of the concept at looking at it is the idea of being “Places of 10”, and so anytime you walk into a place, there is at least 10 things that you can do when you go there, and so we’re really looking at ways that we can be a better community center for our community by providing more things for people who want to be there.

I wanna also ask you about your program that you are presenting here at Illinois Library Association Conference, you said you are moderating a panel about presenting for librarians, ‘cause a lot of librarians don’t know how to do that. I don’t know if I pointed this out earlier on the show, but I did do some presentations here at the conference, and there were my first presentations, so I should have gone to your, traveled back in time and I would have gone to your presentation first to learn some skills [laughs] and come back. So, kind of tell me basically what, how do idea came up for this session, and some things you think obviously you haven’t done it yet, but now that we’re talking you think you can come out of it?

It’s a great question. So, I am very involved with the Illinois Library Association, previous to this, when I lived in Michigan, I was really involved with the Michigan Library Association, and you know you’ve gotten to do presentations at ALA and PLA, and one of the things that I think we we worry about when we are on conference committees [laughs] as I am this year, is that we start to look a little bit like an echo chamber, because we’re lot of the same people and group who are coming up and you know offering presentations, you’re not necessarily getting a diversified point of view, and the reason that, that happens is because there are some people who are comfortable with doing presenting, and those are the people who submit program presentations and, you know, good on them, I am super impressed that they are the ones that do it. I am one of those people you know, but there is a lot of other people whose voices we need to hear, and so one of the things that as a conference committee when we’re talking to people about “Hey, why don’t you submit a presentation, why don’t you submit a program?” and people are just worried about the concept of presenting like we’re librarians, we’re not always trained in [laughs] speech concepts, and so you know what we decided to do is just pull together a group of kind of local librarians who’ve done a lot of presentations from different fields, we’ve got an academic librarian, and a couple of public librarians, who have done this on a regular basis, and we just thought we would host a moderated panel that says, hey, what are your tips for presenting, what do you do when you’re putting together a program presentation, what do you do to make sure that you’re doing a good job creating your slides or not using slides at all. So, a long way of using maybe some of the tips that they’ve picked up from other resources over the years, they’re just gonna talk about their practical experience, and what we’re hoping to get out of it is a new group of people who are maybe more comfortable with sharing their perspective, and the things that they have done.

What’s the advantage of being active, not only, not necessarily just in ALA at a national level, but being active in your state level?

I am so glad you asked this question, because I am so passionate about this. So, I got my library degree in 2004, and so I have been in the library now for 10 years. I think, especially when we work in large libraries, or we work for big systems, or we’ve been in the field for a while, a lot of times we tend to think that the only value that we can get are from these large-scale kind of national conversations, which are super important, and I really respect the work that is being done at the national level, but being involved with your state association is so important. It allows you so many things, first of all, it’s less expensive, so if your library cannot afford to send you to a national conference, there is so much that you can do with your own state, and sometimes things are large so you’re still have to travel a good amount occasionally, but there is really a possibility to do something in a more local way. The other thing is that it really gives you a chance to have colleagues and one of the reasons that I got into it immediately in Michigan, was that I was a teen librarian, and a lot of teen librarians, I worked by myself, and you know I was the only teen librarian in my library and the library provided all of the programming, I had to do all of these things, and as a new librarian, I didn’t always know how to do those things, and I didn’t know have to work with someone else who could tell me how to do it, and so it immediately gave me a network of other people who are doing the same thing as I was doing, and who could teach me not just online, but like in person like really help me out with the work that they were doing, and these people became immediate mentors or immediate friends, and I really had the opportunity to do something great. The other thing is that the support that we get from libraries, and our library communities in general can only be as good as we make them. You know, you have to do the work. If you want something to be better, you have to do it, and so I believe really really strongly that if you can do it, just find a way to volunteer, it can be something that you are directly associated with, or you can just find a state association person who’s working and to say, “Hey I wanna help, where would I fit?” and I guarantee you that they will find some place for you to be. You know, typically these are not heavily-funded organizations. In Illinois we are very fortunate to have an amazing staff that works for the Illinois Library Association who does so much to make sure that these conferences are well-organized and well-attended, but I know not every state is in that situation, so sometimes there just stretching and clawing to try to get some of the stuff going, and so whatever people can do to help is gonna make their colleagues better, is gonna make themselves better. I don’t care who you are, you always have things to learn. One of the things I tell people a lot is I come from a larger library, but there is such opportunity to learn things from smaller libraries without a lot of money, ‘cause those people have to be scrappy and they can make a decision and turn it on a dime, they don’t have to move through a whole bureaucracy and you can learn things from these small places that are just amazing that you can apply it through a larger lens. So, I would encourage people no matter where they come from to really take a hard look at their state association and see if there is something they can do there.