Growing Library Leaders: SXSW Edu

By Laura Stiles
This post is adapted from her presentation at the TASLA Workshop in June, 2016. She is Librarian at Canyon Vista Middle School, Round Rock ISD; part-time reference librarian at Austin Community College; a TALL Texan; past chair of TLA District 3; recipient of ALA's Frances Henne Award. Laura has written articles for School Library Journal and Knowledge Quest. Follow her on Twitter at @cvmslibrary.

Obtaining professional development as a librarian in Texas is almost like being a kid in a candy store:  with all that the Texas Library Association (TLA) offers, what more could a librarian want?  Each year TLA presents librarians, library staff and volunteers with an abundance of webinars, online training, District meetings, Round Table meetings and, of course, our fantastic state-wide annual conference.  “Annual,” as it is known, holds true to the familiar saying, “Everything’s Bigger in Texas;” our state conference is bigger than many national conferences.  The more than 7,000 attendees each year are treated to more than a thousand speakers and hundreds and hundreds of vendors.

I tell people that attending TLA’s annual conference is like being in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book.  Upon walking in, it’s decision after decision about which wonderful thing to attend: see the latest furniture on the exhibit floor, or attend an author signing?  Hear from the recognized expert about social media, or learn how to promote the latest hot titles?  It’s a librarian’s adventure wonderland, and is not to be missed.

However, this year I attended something new and so very different: South by Southwest EDU (SXSWEdu).  If one views attending TLA’s annual conference as being akin to being in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, one can argue that attending SXSWEdu is like being in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.  SXSWEdu was so unexpected, with so many avenues for education and engagement, and surprises around every corner, much like the Chocolate Factory. 

The conference is built of many components but my experience at the 2016 Conference can be generally broken down into two parts:  the Playground and the Sessions. 

The SXSWEdu Playground is a casual area within the conference center that offers hands-on presentations that highlight maker activities, STEM vendors and activities, gaming, virtual learning, arts integration and more.   

At the same time that hundreds of enthusiastic conference goers are (literally) trying their hands at merchandize and software like 3Doodlers, Kahoot! and drag and drop programming, casual talks given by experts in a range of subjects are being given.  The speakers use microphones but don’t expect a silent or still audience, and the seating is made to be flexible and moveable.  Speakers’ faces and presentations are projected onto a big screen. 

One riveting talk that I attended, “Sheriff Bus to Library: How Kids Remix Social Good,” recounted the experiences of a group of teens and adults that transformed a 1988 sheriff bus into a mobile library for use in rural Guatemala.  Another talk detailed NOVA Labs’ latest games and videos created to promote scientific exploration, and included information on how educators are using NOVA Labs as a learning tool in classrooms nationwide.

Like TLA’s Annual Conference, the sessions at SXSWedu differ in duration and the level of audience participation; unlike Annual, SXSWEdu’s sessions are primarily scheduled by community input via a tool called Panel Picker.  The sessions that receive the most votes by the community-at-large are the sessions that are ultimately presented. 

Because such a diverse group of people attend SXSWEdu, and because much of the content is chosen by popular vote, the programming is diverse.  According to the SXSWedu website, of the almost 14,000 attendees at the 2016 conference, there were people from thirty-eight countries representing government and non-profit agencies, public and higher education, and a multitude of business and industry affiliates.

SXSWEdu divides the conference sessions into tracks, which include the big trends that we would expect to see at TLA’s Annual Conference, such as Early Learning, Leadership and Continuing Education, as well as some less expected tracks, such as Entrepreneurialism and Special Needs.                  

Each listing for a program is then tagged (sound familiar, librarians?) into familiar categories, such as blended learning, digital citizenship, critical thinking, STEAM, tinkering and more.  But, SXSWEdu doesn’t stop there – there are lots and lots of unexpected tags: things like design sprints, behavioral economics, neuroplasticity, future trend mapping, upskilling, nutrition, campus carry, edtech ecosystems and more.   

One morning I found several sessions of interest that all began at the same time:  one, hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, focused on how to negotiate barriers to educational success.  A second session featured a panel discussing eliminating sexual assaults on higher-ed campuses; a third session focused on education and peace in Afghanistan.  The power of music in STEAM education was the topic in another room.   A film titled, “Oyler,” about educational equality in an urban Appalachian neighborhood, was being screened at this time, and conference keynote speaker Jane McGonigal was signing books then, too.  Unfortunately, attendees can only be in one place at a time.  Maybe we should put Willy Wonka to work on figuring out how to duplicate ourselves - ? 

In Cinema Revisited: the everlasting appeal of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (, Jordan Adler describes Willy Wonka’s dreams-turned-into-reality as “complete with chocolate waterfalls, lickable wallpaper and labs filled with Rube Goldberg-like contraptions.”  While SXSWEdu didn’t boast chocolate waterfalls or lickable wallpaper, there really was a room filled with contraptions (remember the Playground?), and I wouldn’t have been surprised to come across a fantastical element overflowing with ingestible goodness or wall coverings that were edible.  

I encourage you to attend both TLA and SXSWEdu.  Just be prepared for a Wonka-esque experience at SXSWEdu; to quote Willy Wonka, there are “surprises around every corner, but nothing dangerous!”   Hope to see you at the Austin Convention Center March 6-9, 2017.  Just look for the librarian in the Oompla Loompa suit. 


  1. Loved reading through your presentation here today! SXSWEdu! What a fascinating experience offering such a wide range of choices! Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  2. I have attended and LOVED it. While TLA is "librarian". SXSWEdu is a conference with many points of view attending - administration, providers, non-profits (museums, organizations,...), librarians, educators and more. It was the mix of all these points of view that I found so invigorating.