Friday, 3 August 2012

The Chicago blog post - Part 2

15 July 2012, 1800 CST 


I’m sitting in the Arie Crown Theater in the McCormick Place Conference Center – an auditorium that could seat 4267 people. Librarians and information professionals seem to occupy every seat around me. Twinkling in the semi-darkness are hundreds of smartphones and dozens of tablets as these highly-connected individuals tweet, Facebook, and make notes while, on-stage, Brent Mai, the current SLA President, presents awards to high-flying and very impressive SLA members. As the award winners walk to the podium, 20-second snippets of dated pop songs play: the kind of cheesy, up-tempo, major-key songs, with steady percussion and killer guitar riffs, that exude and represent ‘celebration’. I forget the actual songs but at a guess I’d say there had to be at least some of the following: ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Survivor; ‘Celebration’ by Kool & the Gang; ‘Takin’ Care of Business’ by Bachman-Turner Overdrive; ‘Stayin’ Alive’ by the Bee Gees; ‘A Little Less Conversation’ by Elvis Presley (& JXL). The award-winners dance along to them a little – those little dancing-while-walking moves that suggest a free spirit and a certain light-heartedness. Their brief speeches – in their still vaguely-novel-to-me American accents – are enthusiastic and passionate tempered with genuine modesty and a palpable respect for their colleagues and the SLA as an organisation. 

The pertinent point here is how sincere the whole thing feels. I’m sort of looking around in amazement because my British cynicism and my irony-detector are working in overload. This feels like such a tacky, purposefully exuberant, unironic way to go about doing this. It’s big, it looks expensive, and it seems strangely commercially slick in the way that big events on TV – award ceremonies, sport-related opening ceremonies, inaugurations, etc. – seem and in a way that, in my experience, library events are, generally, not. The cheesy songs are being played without a knowing wink to the audience; the American on the commentary sounds like either a newscaster or Don Draper; unless they’re being very subtle, no-one appears to making any snide remarks or allusions; there’s an honest-to-God autocue machine with those transparent panels on either side of the podium; there’s no hint of anyone laughing at themselves for taking part in this extravagant event. In the dark of the auditorium, it dawns on me that this whole over-the-top opening address is meant to be taken seriously. It’s utterly strange and… yet… really fun and... somehow refreshing. 

It’s all uniquely… American. 

15 July 2012, 0600 CST 

I’ve woken up in America feeling kind of guilty that I didn’t make any notes last night. after the ECCAs descended from the Willis Tower and visited McDonald’s, I ironed my shirts. It felt like a horribly mundane way to send my limited time in this Experience (1). I feel the need to wring every morsel of experience out of this trip and so every second spent not doing something important is time wasted. Hence the unnecessarily early start. 

Wayne Tower (but not really)
Yesterday I briefly wandered the streets of Chicago partly because of the experience-morsel-wringing thing and partly to find the building that appeared as Wayne Tower in Batman Begins. Of all the cities in America for the SLA Conference 2012 to be held, it feels significant that Chicago should be the site of my first trip to the USA. It’s significant because of two personal heroes: Batman and David Foster Wallace. As a massive Batman fan, I was incredibly excited to be travelling to a city that stood in for parts of Gotham in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (and on the eve of The Dark Knight Rises appearing in cinemas). Most notable is the Chicago Board of Trade Building: the aforementioned Wayne Tower proxy (2). And as a massive David Foster Wallace fan (3), it felt apt to be going to the state where Wallace grew up and which informed his view of America and the Midwest (Peoria, Il. being the setting for his posthumous novel, The Pale King). Also, Barack Obama is from Chicago and he’s pretty cool. 

So far, the visual influence that I feel most keenly in America is that of the Coen Brothers. Every now and then I see something that reminds of me of The Big Lebowski. My hotel is straight out of Barton Fink: it’s a quiet turn-of-the-last-century building in which the lobby was deserted when I arrived and I’ve yet to see another person in the empty corridors on my floor (4). My room itself is hotel-typical but the style of the furniture, the high ceilings, and the fact that it looks out over an alley and a fire-escape make it look exactly – seriously, eerily so: it freaks me out a little – like the hotel room in which Barton attempts to write his screenplay. On the way into Chicago on the CTA train, I glimpsed some American suburbs which strongly reminded me of the quasi-parodic setting of A Serious Man. Star-Spangled Banners on the lawns of quintessentially middle-class American homes stretching away down perfectly-straight tree-lined streets: they make me imagine a child wearing a baseball cap throwing his bike on the front law and barrelling into the house. This all may say more about the Coen Brothers’ skill at capturing American life than about America itself. 

15 July 2012, 1500 CST 

Social interaction with Americans turns out to a very pleasant experience. After spending the morning among Americans, I am feeling engulfed by their sheer, unrelenting niceness. At breakfast this morning (5) everyone from the maître d’s buzzing around the front desk (6) to the waitress who took our order seemed ridiculously friendly and genuinely interested in our wellbeing. At first, it was disturbingly Lynchian: the rictus grin hiding some dark inner turmoil à la Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive. Eventually I came to accept it and by the last day in Chicago I was sharing a joke with the jovial homeless man trying to sell magazines to those queuing to get into the Art Institute of Chicago. But my British cynicism always warned me that, among the service staff particularly, it cannot be genuine: I’m sure more than a few were being so nice to me to get a good tip (7). 

But then earlier today, I went to a Sci-Tech Newcomers Lunch in which new members of the Science-Technology Division of the SLA met up and talked about bosons and lasers and other science-y things (8). This was my first event away from the other ECCAs and all the Americans there (approx. eight Americans and one Canadian) were so friendly and made me feel so at ease. In an American sports bar, 4000 miles from home, watching exotic American sports on the widescreen TVs, I was made to feel more immediately at ease than I’ve felt at some British library events. It turns out that librarians are universally lovely people no matter where they come from. 

Now at the SLA Fellows and First-Timers Meet, in a room full of friendly American info pros and potential career connections, I’ve run out of business cards and I’m actually considering nipping back to the hotel and restocking my card holder. Because this feels like such a massive faux-pas and my previous blog post on business cards was so so wrong. It really is the American custom to introduce oneself by thrusting an 85x55mm card at someone. It’s part of how Americans greet one another professionally and is meshed into the fabric of the ‘conference experience’. At a table chatting to a couple of new people, I’m flushing with embarrassment at the fact that I'm taking cards and not giving any.

15 July 2012, 1600 CST 

The SLA 2012 Annual Conference and Info-Expo is held in McCormick Place Conference Center: the largest conference center in the United States which I think (though Wikipedia doesn’t say this) makes it one of the largest, if not the largest, in the world. 

It feels like it. 

On arrival to the conference center, the complimentary shuttle buses pass into separate 'gates': on our first approach this morning, we passed into one of the tunnels leading underneath the East Building and the lights in the bus turned off leaving us in almost-complete darkness like in the opening scene of Battle Royale. The darkened bus pulled up to a ‘gate’ and we de-bussed, following the crowd through a plush, expensive-looking interior which has the feel of a small airport – from the FedEx office to the gift shop selling Chicago-related knickknacks to the 1930s-style shoe-shine men shouting “Shoe shine! Shine ‘em up!” in a sing-song, 1930s-style way. This turns out to be an entrance floor and to reach the main floor one has to ascend one of four long escalators leading up to a panoramic view of the lakeside. The expansive foyer on the second floor has the floor space of one whole storey of Durham University Library back home and is dotted with booths, seating areas, charging stations, and banks of computers. 


The exhibition hall itself – the site of the Info-Expo – is, without exaggeration, airplane hangar-sized. Stretching as far back as I can see there are booths staffed with congenial looking exhibitors (9) and banners / posters for big-name companies and publishers who I deal with everyday back home but who my info-civilian family and friends would not recognise: ProQuest, Springer, Elsevier, LexisNexis, ASCE, Annual Reviews, etc etc. It’s all very slick and very commercial and I’m a bit overwhelmed. Like when faced with a huge second-hand bookshop, I suddenly can’t remember what I want. I know I have work-related issues to discuss with these exhibitors and I know that I should at least pretend to be professional by doing something related to my job this week but everything about work has slipped out of my mind: it’s an ocean away in a different world entirely. It’s a different Simon who goes to work on ebooks and e-journals every day. I’ve left him behind and who I’m becoming is either a purer or a muddier version of him. 

All I know right now is that everything is bigger here. It’s on a different scale to Britain. The landscape, the buildings, the events, the food portions. Even the personalities of the people I’ve met somehow seem bigger. The conference – a four-day event comprised of days running from 0800 to midnight – will prove to be a bigger, more mentally-exhausting experience than any I’ve ever had. The sheer scale of this week will make everything that comes afterwards seem smaller and easier in comparison. 

16 July 2012, 0830 CST 

I’m vaguely embarrassed at the Sci-Tech Business Meeting and Breakfast and, again, I can feel my face flushing. The breakfast is in the South Building of the McCormick Place Conference Center (my reaction to this: “There’s a whole other building?!”) and the coffee is underwhelming (10). I’m a little worse-for-wear after the ECCAs and I did some networking at as many open house events as we could get to last night, all of which had open bars. However, I was ready to accept my Early Career Conference Award which I did with some blushes and some purposefully half-hearted, semi-ironic, kind-of-laughing-at-myself-but-not-really hoorays. I gave a speech thanking everyone who deserved to be thanked and in which I spoke about the power of technology, its oftentimes rocky relationship with libraries, and my work with Voices for the Library on behalf of the UK’s public libraries (11). Afterwards, I attempted to follow the business meeting portion of the Business Meeting and Breakfast but it was a bit specialised, a bit commercial, and my head was groggy. 

That’s all fine. The reason I’m embarrassed is because I’ve won one of the small joke awards for ‘Youngest Person in the Room’ (12). It’s not only because I don’t want to appear to be hogging awards but because, in truth, I’m kind of embarrassed about my youth. When I was an awkward teenager, I craved the weight of experience: I thought that age would allow me to know what I should do in any given situation and so I wanted to be older. I wanted to be a grown-up. Now, though still being young, my (relative) career success means that I’m playing with the big boys. At the CILIP in Wales Conference for example, I was very very VERY conscious of being not only the youngest person on the Leadership Panel but one of the youngest people in the entire room. The best way of explaining it is that I’d rather be ‘The Guy Who Has Achieved Stuff’ than ‘The Guy Who Has Achieved Stuff Despite Being So Young’. 

Me and Sheila Rosenthal, Chair of the Awards Committee for the Sci-Tech Division. Photo by Bethan Ruddock.

And yet, in hindsight, this experience seems apposite. Because I’d describe the United States of America as a country that is young and is OK with that. Historically the country is only 236 years old and it certainly feels younger than the United Kingdom: there’s something about the people and the collective population that makes it feel more exuberant and less cynical, less ironic and more sincere. America has a certain lack of self-awareness that I associate with youth and, far from being a handicap, while one is surrounded by it, it becomes refreshing. The people there don’t seem to be constantly worried about what other people think of them and so, in a way, their lack of self-knowledge leads to more of a certain kind of freedom. America is a country in which people will dance-walk onto a stage to cheesy pop songs, not because they’re being ironic or self-deprecating, but because the songs are fun and up-tempo and they feel genuinely happy. 

And so, like America, maybe I do need to be young. And maybe that’s OK. What I came to feel in America is that I - my perspective and my attitude towards the world - was wrong and America is right. (13)



(1) Sam Wiggins told me not to iron before going to America but I did anyway. While I’m ironing, I spend my time marvelling at the strangeness of US television, being unduly excited by the American mains socket, and wishing I’d listened to Sam.

(2) Liam Neeson and Batman race towards it during the climactic showdown aboard Gotham’s elevated train which was modelled partly on Chicago’s own elevated train system.

(3) This travelogue owes more than a little to Wallace’s far-superior travelogues such as ‘Big Red Son’, ‘Up, Simba’, and ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’.

(4) There’s an odd moment later in the week when I exit the elevator to discover a girl sobbing on the floor directly opposite the elevator door. She didn’t look up at me and I walked past (4a) and later became not unconvinced that the whole thing had in fact been a dream.

(4a) An act I feel tremendously guilty about but when I finally decided that some attempt at comforting her was the gentlemanly thing to do and went back, she’d already gone. 

(5) We went out for American-style stacks o' pancakes. This seemed an Important Thing To Do.

(6) Multiple maître d’s. Every restaurant seemed to have so many members of staff: a small army of waiters, busboys, maître d’s, and people whose function, as far as I could tell, was to look pretty, smile at people, and ask if they were having a nice day.

(7) I’m fairly certain that during my time in America, I was a chronic under-tipper. I got confused with the whole no-added-tax thing and the tipping thing and it was all too complicated. I understand the economic reasons that make tipping so important over there (7a). That doesn’t mean I like it.

(7a) Basically, American employers don’t pay their employees enough and everyone seems to accept this as the case. So we (conscientious individual customers) ensure that they (the employees) have enough money to survive by giving them a little extra. Why should this be the burden of the individual rather than the business, which, after all, is more directly responsible for the employee? There’s some point to be made here about American individualism and the Randian perversion of the notion of liberty but I’m already in a nested footnote veering dangerously off-topic. 

(8) Those conversation topics didn’t happen. Interestingly, we did talk about the distinction in the US between library schools and i-schools, the gist of which seems to be that library schools are focused on traditional librarianship skills and i-schools focus on the modern role of information in society. This wasn’t a development that I was aware of in the UK and seems to have interesting implications for embedded librarianship, our Profession’s place in an information society, and the changing nature of information.

(9) Exhibitors wear orange name-badges while conference attendees wear purple name-badges. Presumably to warn one that the person one is talking to may have an ulterior motive. (9a) 

(9a) Our ribbons are a name-badge related talking-point. After completing registration and receiving plain name-badges, conference attendees are free to grab as many descriptive ribbons as are applicable from the Information Booth in the foyer. In this way, an attendee may classify him or herself. The ECCAs get approx. five each, thus producing name-badges that stretch down the length of our torsos. It’s kind of ridiculous. 

(10) I didn’t have a good cup of coffee while I was in the States. You really dropped the ball on this one, America.

(11) I wish I’d had the courage to go with my original plan of delivering the speech in the style of Peter Weyland in this promotional video for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.

(12) Serendipitously, I was sat on the same table as the Oldest Person in the Room. We chatted about cataloguing.

(13) This is a nice place to end: it’s very positive and upbeat and whatnot but it’s not the whole story. The way I think of it is as a spectrum of perspective-towards-the-world: British cynical ironic detachment on one end and American exuberance on the other. What is true probably lies somewhere in the middle.

19 comments:

Gopal Yadav said...
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Lesley said...

Re. footnote 8:
Sheffield calls its Information department an iSchool. I feel that the focus of the MA Librarianship is far more about information & society than it is Librarianship. Other PG courses which don't use the word 'library' or 'librarianship' have Cat & Class as a core subject whereas Sheffield's Librarianship course doesn't. Odd!

Thanks for the blog posts, really great reading!

Simon Barron said...

Oo, thanks Lesley. That's good to know. I knew that some library schools over here have a different, more modern focus than others but I wasn't aware that any explicitly call themselves 'i-schools'. It seems like a really interesting idea and I'm going to look into the concept a bit more.

John Kirriemuir said...

Another good read. There is more cynicism in America than you found (be there at election time for bucketloads of it, especially in the ongoing six billion dollar one).

Interesting observation from Jonathan Ive on cynicism, British-ness and American-ness.

I think I'll take the sometimes over-the-time positiveness of Americanism over the relentlessly negative "seek fault in everything to give a fake feeling of superiority" of the British character and psyche. Because, well, the former is more positive and happy, and the latter is quite possibly a mask or distraction from the long (and now accelerating) decline of Britain.

Simon Barron said...

My feelings on the atmosphere of America are quite complicated and I'm going to try to explain them more clearly in another post because they did develop as the trip went on.

This represents my first impression and ultimately I did end up somewhat 'infected' with American positivity and I left America wanting to go back. The atmosphere was different to what I'm used to and, even if I only experienced it for a short while, it was well worth experiencing.

Tara said...

This was a really enjoyable read, thank you! Being a small-town girl (and a New Yorker by birth - we're a bit more cynical and guarded than Midwesterners) I always have a similar reaction to the size of cities and conference centers, and the slickness of award ceremonies.

Ned Potter said...

I think the most important category of the people you met was 'info pro' and the second most was 'North American'. I think Info Pros tend to be nice people, friendly, and quite empathetic. I think English Info Pros are generally nicer than 'the English' and I think the niceness and exuberance of American Info Pros is generally genuine and real and heart-felt more so than 'the Americans'.

I never got the impression that any of it was anything other than real. They're just *really* nice people, like English librarians, and without as many hangups that mitigate the way that niceness is expressed.

Also I'm properly old, unlike you, and I've got far less cynical as I've got older, and consequently more embracing of exuberance, postivity etc. Hardboiled cynicsm was probably some kind of self-protection which I no longer feel I need. Detachment is a self-imposed buffer, after all. You feel the need for the buffer less as you get older.

(Side-note: I mistyped buffer as bugger ALL THREE TIMES including the one in this sentence. Paging Dr Freud.)

All that said, I still don't ever relish social situations, that's wired into me I think, but I find social interaction with North Americans and Europeans much, much easier than with Brits, as a rule. Not sure why that is. But it meant I enjoyed SLA11 a lot.

Sorry, I'll stop commenting on all your blog posts now. I'm just enjoying the journey paralells. :-)

John Kirriemuir said...

Interesting use of the negative "infected" to describe positive and happy; that's so British :)

Yeah, America is complex - then again, everywhere is, suppose. Totted it up; been there for nearly 3 years off 11 visits, and I'd still be arrogant to claim I have a handle on the place.

The best thing to do; go back, repeatedly. Experience more; the juxtapositions help to clarify Britain more (and sometimes it's better to see your birth land from a distance - can't see the wood for the trees and all that).

...because my British cynicism and my irony-detector are working in overload...

Small point, in a different way. If you could turn those psychological handicaps off, you could be happier, enjoy the experiences, and life in general, more? A good thing, and more healthier in the long term than the drearily British "satisfaction through cynicism"?

Simon Barron said...

Once again, Ned, you're entirely correct and you've said what I was trying to say it better than I said it. All of the info pros (and indeed all of the people) I met in America were lovely people and I never thought their exuberance was anything other than genuine. The comments in footnote 13 are really more about 'American society as a collective' than any of the people I actually met.

What you've said about buffers hits the nail on the head. Info pros tend to have less of a buffer to their genuine niceness and American info pros even less of a buffer. And ultimately I admire that: that's what I want to work on and it does feel like I'm shedding my 'hardboiled cynicism' as I get older. Nowadays my public persona is more of the person I actually feel than it was even a few years ago.

Simon Barron said...

You're absolutely right, John, and I don't think I've expressed myself very well in this post.

My basic point is that: I - my perspective; my attitude towards the world - came to feel wrong and America came to seem right.

Ned Potter said...

John, for me the great goal in life is to achieve what you describe, *without* being so undiscerning that I become the kind of fuckwit who goes nuts every time an ABBA song comes on. :)

SEO said...
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woodsiegirl said...

The lack of cynicism and sheer, unironic enthusiam of American librarians is one of the things I loved most about the two SLA conferences I've been to, and is the reason I'm saving up to go back again next year!

I know exactly what you mean about the slickness of the awards ceremony: I remember in 2009, my internal monologue went something like:
"Are they serious? I think they're serious. Wow, yes, they actually are serious. This is... kind of awesome, actually.

...This would NEVER happen at a UK library conference."

Not that I'm having a go at UK librarians and/or library conferences - I just found SLA so much more inspiring and invigorating than any conference I've been to over here. Then again, maybe that's just because the whole thing is so much more of an "experience", just as a result of travelling so far, and to somewhere culturally very different, for it.

Tim Smith said...

I am enjoying your travelogue hugely, and am envious of your recent adventure.

As others have commented, there's a positive nature to American library conferences, and the people who attend them, that is often missing from British ones. The American ethos of "Let's be awesome in what we do" is profoundly more uplifting than the default British librarian attitude of "We're all going to fail and lose our jobs".

Actually, the last British public library event I attended, my co-worker said that it made her "feel like hanging herself in despair" (her words). I know how she feels and I am unsurprised that many librarians here appear to be heavy drinkers.

I look forward to further chapters.

Tom Roper said...

You're right about the coffee. One of the great puzzles of the modern era is why a nation that fetishes coffee to such a degree can't make a decent cup of the stuff.
As for awards ceremonies, the only way to experience them is to imagine oneself as an anthropologist observing the rites of a newly-discovered tribe.

Simon Barron said...

The coffee thing really annoyed me. I expected some kind of caffeine paradise where rich, strong coffee flowed like water from gilded taps. Instead I had to settle for 'just OK'.

Not cool, America. Not cool.

Jill Hurst-Wahl said...

I think you need to provide a recipe for good British coffee, so we can test it out!

TradeTec Displays said...

Great recap of some of the great things you experience here in Chicago. Thanks for the recap.

Jade Graham said...

Their brief speeches – in their still vaguely-novel-to-me American accents – are enthusiastic and passionate tempered with genuine modesty and a palpable respect for their colleagues and the SLA as an organisation. custom banners Chicago