ALA Battledecks IV: Chicago Showdown

July 2, 2013

Improv was an unstated but undeniable theme of this year’s ALA Conference. There was Friday’s Learning Round Table preconference with Chicago’s Second City Communications, Saturday’s ProQuest Scholarship Bash featuring Second City performers, Sunday’s LLAMA/NMRT discussion about what to do if you’re called upon to speak unexpectedly, and Monday’s Ignite session about collaboration based on the improv principle of “Yes, And!” But perhaps the most eagerly anticipated improv event of the conference was Monday evening’s Battledecks competition.

Battledecks has been an Annual Conference tradition since 2010, and it has spread to library conferences on the state and ALA division level. The competition, also known as PowerPoint karaoke, requires contestants to present a deck of PowerPoint slides they’ve never seen before. In this year’s Chicago Showdown, 10 different decks and 10 library topics were randomly assigned to five competitors who’d participated in the past (including defending champion Christian Zabriskie) and five brave first-timers.

In some ways, Battledecks is just an elaborate parody of PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation tool reviled as a crutch for poor presenters. In his essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,” scholar Edward Tufte wrote about the “corrupting” influence of the tool’s canned templates and meaningless layouts. This year’s ALA slide decks, assembled by Andy Woodworth and event cohost Janie Hermann, infused this traditionally bland canvas with creativity, hilarity, and a healthy dose of scandal. Then it was up to the presenters to wrangle their assigned topics—“Reinventing Libraries in the Age of Ebooks,” “Library Advocacy in the 21st Century,” and so on—into some semblance of coherence with the slides.

Battledecks competitions are almost impossible to capture, and for most presenters, that’s a relief. (Searching Twitter for #alabattle13 reveals some of what transpired. If you have 40 minutes, watch this video.) The results, however, are straightforward. With six judges ranking each presentation on criteria including poise, flow, and audience response, two Californians (San Rafael Public Library Director Sarah Houghton and Fresno State University Associate Dean Dave Tyckoson) came out on top. But all 10 competitors demonstrated the kind of ingenuity and agility that librarians must continuously practice in order to keep pace with change.

In other words, even though this year’s improv-heavy conference is over, the #alabattle13 must go on.

BRITA ZITIN is participating in the ALA Student-to-Staff Program.