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VALATechCamp 2017: Libraries as the vanguard of digital literacy

Libraries have played a vital role in shaping society for thousands of years. From the library of Alexandria – which preserved ancient knowledge, to the American Library of Congress – which facilitates access to political and historical records, to the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre, which actively engages a post-industrial community – the role of the library is evolving.

Coupled with the rise of digital technology, the move of services to e-delivery models and new personal threats in the form of cyber-attacks, libraries are now standing as the vanguard of the most important skill our citizens will have in the 21st century: digital literacy. It is fitting then that VALA – an independent not-for-profit organisation that aims to promote the understanding of information technology within libraries and the broader information sector – sought this year to run an event at the intersection of GLAM – galleries, libraries, archives and museums – and technology.

Enter: #VALATechCamp

The event aimed to help librarians and associated professions ‘level up’ on emerging technology, and inspire people to continue their technical learning journeys. By all accounts, it was a strong success.

Talk highlights

There were several excellent presentations at #VALATechCamp, and these were my personal highlights.

Ingrid Mason (AARNet) – Infrastructure, research and innovation as components of digital literacy

Ingrid’s presentation was pitched perfectly for the audience, and challenged us to think about the concept of infrastructure literacy as a subset of digital literacy – the ability to understand how pipes, and bytes, and bits all fit together, thus providing a Rosetta stone for the seemingly arcane languages used by technologists. This has touchpoints with initiatives such as Skills for the Information Age, which is a rubric of technical and related skills for professional development in technically-driven organisations. Reflecting on this more however, we almost need something like ‘SFIA for ordinary people’ – some form of syllabus which imparts basic digital and infrastructure literacy. Ingrid’s talk was very well received by the audience, due both to her conceptualisation of the topic and the empathy and warmth with which she was able to deliver it.

Athina Mavromataki (Melbourne Library Service) – Defence Against the Dark Arts – Cryptoparties in Libraries

Athina’s engaging and energetic presentation highlighted again the role that libraries play in imparting digital literacy, as she recounted her experience in delivering knowledge on personal privacy and encryption through running Cryptoparties at the Melbourne Library Service. It was refreshing to hear from someone who is self-admittedly not a “techie” – and the challenges faced by explaining concepts like privacy and encryption to people who have only a basic understanding of computers. Again, this made me reflect on the digital divide and digital inclusion – digital literacy is now required because of the push toward e-services by government and other service providers, but personal digital literacy – the ability to safeguard one’s own privacy in a digital environment – is not emphasised. Thus, the digital divide not only disadvantages people because of the barriers it creates in accessing services, it also entrenches disadvantage because only the skilled will be able to protect themselves against new threats.

Natasha Simons (Australian National Data Service) – Unpacking persistent identifiers for research

Natasha, who is well-renowned for her work on DoI – Digital Object Identifier System in Australia – presented on the different schemes for persistent identifiers for research artefacts – journal articles, datasets, and ‘grey literature‘. The challenges here mirrored those of other archiving and referent systems – what happens if the auspicing organisation no longer exists? From an open data viewpoint, what struck me here was so many different competing standards – some auspiced by government, some by corporate interests such as publishing houses and others by NGO bodies – who are reliant on member funding to operate. As an international community, we still have a long way to go in negotiating, adhering and nurturing international open standards – but with someone of the calibre of Simons in the mix, there’s strong hope for the future.

Linux Australia Diversity Scholarship

With thanks to my colleague, Sae Ra Germaine, Linux Australia was able to partner with VALA to provide a Diversity Scholarship. As with many other areas of life – employment, social mobility, access to education and healthcare – Indigenous, regional and remote Australians have poorer digital literacy and participation in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – than the non-Indigenous and urban population [1]. A diversity scholarship is a small step towards providing additional opportunities to help address the digital divide. Through a rigourous selection process, Wiradjuri man Nathan Sentance, Project Officer at the Australian Museum, was selected as this year’s Diversity Scholarship recipient. Nathan will be able to share his learnings from #VALATechCamp with his broader community.



Concluding thoughts

In conclusion, I was left with the impression that libraries and the broader GLAM sector are realising that while their core remit – that of preserving, facilitating access to, and engaging communities around knowledge – remains valid and pertinent, the ways in which those services are delivered is rapidly changing, concomitant with the wave of digital transformation. Just as libraries of yore helped citizens become literate, librarians are now the vanguard of digital literacy, and events like #VALATechCamp are providing a sorely-needed arsenal.

Further information

#VALATechCamp on Twitter

#VALATechCamp programme


[1] Chubb, I. (2014). Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future. Office of the Chief Scientist, Commonwealth of Australia.
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