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Special Libraries Association (SLA) conference 2009

In Conferences, Information industry, Professional Organisations on June 24, 2009 by Hanna

Just got back from the US where I was holidaying after going to the crazy cycle of lecture sessions, vendors, networking, and more drink and food to swing a cat at which is SLA 2009. Celebrating their centenary and, despite the economic conditions, boasting record numbers of delegates the key themes in Washington DC were unsurprisingly centred around the issues of how our skills are relevant and how we can promote what we do when we are walking dollar signs who even in boom times may have problems putting across our value. Some hand outs are available for those who couldn’t make it as well as twitter posts (tagged as #sla2009) and one of the SLA Europe early career winner Laura Woods has blogged about it  from a first timer perspective (I’m a old hand on my second conference) but here’s my take…

What I enjoyed: I enjoyed making new connections with people as well as meeting people who I met last year including people from the Science and Technology division who looked after me as the sponsoring division last year and with whom I have a lot in common even though I’m not a science librarian (wouldn’t mind moving in that direction though, liked working in a membership library). The all sciences poster session meant that instead of saying er hello how’s your conference you had something to talk about and could discuss someone’s work project which are often innovative. These included getting out there as an academic liaison librarian, making links with faculty who can then refer your services directly to students and also meeting an equivalent in Canada who works for CADTH, the Canadian health technology assessment programme. I was quite excited as no one else had heard of NICE that much and even my conference badge was printed with NIH which is quite different; later on did meet a researcher at NIH, a conference gatecrasher, and were discussing how rich the Wellcome really is. Anyway they have a nifty grey literature search tool (which I’ve yet to test so all feedback welcome). Some other people who might have heard of our horrid culture of clinical and cost effectiveness were my colleagues in big pharma who gave the FDA in their about how they work, they’re shockingly slow and don’t release enough information (excuse my cynicism, I also wouldn’t rule out working for big pharma myself, I’d love to see how they work). I enjoyed going to receptions and hearing about how SLA who are based near Washington are trying to reach out to new and existing members outside of the US. There are rumours of an Australasian conference (it is normally in the US or Canada) and perhaps even a European one (someone asked me if we had somewhere large enough here but in the same breath said that US librarians won’t travel, that old stat that only 1 in 5 people in the US have a passport but perhaps they are the larger ones thus the need for space? ahem yes we have conferences here). I enjoyed chatting to vendors with their freebies and sharp suits (since I may have to renegotiate our journals albeit with no idea of budget yet) and had a great chat with a woman who works for a vendor and had worked for pharma companies and was giving me general advice on trying to push on through the challenges of work politics and trying to persuade people to innovate and move on from what has gone before…when all else were dancing to the proverbial wedding hits at the disco (I’m not old enough I said that this is the only opportunity I have for dancing in public, note to self to continue this).

What I didn’t enjoy: I’m not an early morning person so 7am breakfast meetings are impossible. Many sessions were suffering from lack of money for speakers’ fees/travel expenses and where they would have been panel discussions were now opportunity for one woman moaning (I know I do this perhaps but hopefully this proves the point). Also they finished before the end of their slot of 1 1/2 – 2 hours for the same reason but perhaps could have just been shortened and the day would have had fewer clashes. I was disappointed the secret service agent for the forensic science session couldn’t make it (I did go to the spy museum though so perhaps this made up for it). The international session should have been in the conference venue itself as the shuttle to the fabulous Embassy of Zambia was at rush hour…it was a great though and apart from people too busy stuffing their faces to hear the international information professional award winner Gimena speak about her work at the US Embassy in Rome (she is actually from Paraguay and started her IS work there so offers a different perspective). Speaking of stuffing faces I am now joining the legions of Americans who are feeling the effects of their diets and need to lose a few pounds. Boyfriend and I actually started ordering one meal between two as I couldn’t eat those portions…

The best sessions were not necessarily about librarianship and the elephant in the room was I felt where people had not as I said justified the need for someone retrospectively suck in their teeth at this or that copyright violation as their role was not clear or respected or positioned at the heart of the business, as long as we are not pioneering and communicating with others and not just related departments like IT but with the members of the board, the CEOs and the ordinary rank and file members of organisations we serve then we will merely be a talking shop for American upbeat but low status relics. Yes the culture is to sell, you, your services, your skills, but often lacking in substance; the shiny bravado, the insistence on a smile at all costs, difficult questions are brushed aside, perhaps this is where a British modesty is needed, if we are failing we need to remedy this and we need to recognise when we have made a mistake and move on.

The Onion newspaper in a session entitled ‘Onion editor calls for end to reading’ had a guy talking about being innovative and daring and basically showing off their archive of headlines stretching back to 1868…there is a free print edition on the streets of DC and talks of one in London. I enjoyed a session on critical thinking which fell into semi-psychological posturing but was good for trying to encourage people to start thinking about framing questions differently from the off, a call for original thinking! I’m not sure words always help, perhaps a bucket of water over the head for the refreshing effect? Had an argument with previous head of SLA (as you do) and feel the emphasis on genetics (we have a gene for creativity and one for every personality type apparently)- isn’t this determinism a product of not wanting to take responsibility for anything like it’s been ordained from birth? Is the argument about whether change is possible (in individual or group behaviour) something we need to worry about at a philosophical level or could we just not have more poster sessions, what works in terms of change and marketing and management?

I couldn’t make the final session but the opening one was from Colin Powell who talking about his career and divided the audience in terms of whether he was an appropriate speaker but was thought provoking and funny. His account of how he googled as fact checker on the phone to a Russian counterpart was priceless and buying computers for all his staff didn’t indeed solve all his problems although they were creative about avoiding using them…he says he can’t join in with all the social networking toys as he’s too famous. Well at least he can see where we all hang out (and it’s not just down to Homeland Security or CCTV): where the geeks is an events calendar for people interested in information architecture, mash ups, useability, tech and much more, I found out about it from a twitter contact.

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2 Responses to “Special Libraries Association (SLA) conference 2009”

  1. Ooh, cheers for the heads-up on where’s the geeks – some fun looking stuff on there! Good to see your perspective on SLA too, nice to see your status as an “old hand” hasn’t left you all jaded and cynical about it… :-p

    Totally agree with you re biological determinism btw, really annoys me when people bang on about a “creativity gene”, etc. I’m very much a believer in nurture over nature. I don’t like the fatalism of insisting that everything is determined by genetics – it’s more complicated than that, dammit!

  2. I smiled at your ‘smile at all costs’ comment-I find this aggravating about North American culture and I am one of them. I bet it was a great experience even though I sensed, what with 7am meetings and long sessions, that conferences in general feel the need to totally fill up the delegates’ time, often to their detriment. I have often found myself ‘playing hooky’ and going for a walk when their was a session or a choice of sessions that I didn’t find scintillating. There is an overwhelming sense of passivity to sit through it all and get one’s money’s worth which is silly.

    Colin Powell should get on Twitter as there are loads of big names on there-why not? Arguably folks like Kevin Spacey, Andy Murray and Stephen Fry might give him some good competition for followers.

    Glad you met up with the CADTH folks from Ottawa. I’ve met a couple of them and they do good work.

    I think SLA should look to host a conference outside of the US. In my opinion, if a US citizen doesn’t have a passport, then your chances of having an interesting/ enlightened conversation diminish.

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