Libraries, Robots, and Squirrels … Oh My! Day Three at SXSW

A day of technology and ideas at South by Southwest

March 16, 2015

The author and a squirrel take a break from South by Southwest.
The author and a squirrel take a break from South by Southwest.

If I were to sum up Sunday in three words, I would say: libraries, robots, and squirrels.

Libraries

There were two sessions on Sunday that highlighted the awesome events taking place at libraries across the country:

Both sessions tackled library innovation but in two different ways: The first showed how D.C. Public Library and a number of others (Chicago, Cleveland, rural Kentucky, and Phoenix, to name a few) are using coworking/collaboration spaces and makerspaces to foster a new age of community support and building.

“Libraries are not just the building,” said Kerelchuk. “It’s the people and services that make up and serve the community.”

A BlabDroid
A BlabDroid

Through D.C. Public Library’s Dream Lab coworking space, fledgling companies like Marino’s MapStory are not only able to flourish in spaces where they can work for free but also able to access resources such as human capital for collaboration and user testing, and research resources that otherwise wouldn’t be available.

“We now have access to a number of resources it would take a company years to build,” said Marino.

In the Anythink session, Ledden showed what innovative and amazing things can happen when you start over from scratch. The worst-funded library system in the state of Colorado became a library leader by not only creating a new logo and communications campaign but by changing the relationship the library had with customers and staff.

“We didn’t disrupt for disruption’s sake,” said Ledden. But disrupt they did. The libraries moved away from the Dewey decimal system, trained staff members on hospitality, and rearranged the spaces and programming.

Anythink’s unique focus and approach to staff stood out, and it makes perfect sense: Well-cared-for staff and enthusiastic staffers are your first and best ambassadors—or “walking billboards,” as Kerelchuk described them in his session.

Robots

But the day wasn’t just about libraries: Between sessions, I explored the “Robot Petting Zoo” and the exhibition floor. In the petting zoo, there were plenty of tech gadgets that offered solutions to various situations, but the item that stood out was the cute BlabDroid.

Technology abounds at the SxSW exhibition hall.
Technology abounds at the SXSW exhibit hall.

The BlabDroid, a small robot with a childlike voice, is testing the theory that people are more willing to get more personal with machines than people—and it’s creating a documentary in the process.

The cuteness didn’t stop there.

On the exhibition floor, nestled among virtual trips to Mars in the NASA area and technology that gives vegetables a voice, were dancing dolls, adorable note printers, walking mini robots made of 3D printable components, and more.

As my colleagues and I walked the floor, my brain was brimming with ideas on how some of the technologies could translate to great library partnerships and programming.

That is the great thing about South By: From the sessions to the meet-ups to the demonstrations, one can’t help but generate new ideas, concepts, and collaborations that can make our world better and more fun, both inside the library and out.

Squirrels

A start-up called Squirl—which bills itself as a Foursquare for books—has had folks walking around in squirrel suits all weekend.

I’m not gonna lie; they freaked me out.

But I faced my fears, sat down with a squirrel, and checked out a good book. Nut too bad.