Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Chicago blog post - Part 3

…SLA conferences represent much, much more than just 3½ days of workshops, meetings, and networking activities. These are things you attend at a conference, and you do not simply attend an SLA conference – you immerse yourself in it, allowing the ideas, the conversations, the personalities, and the sense of community to wash over you, to the point that you become almost oblivious to the passage of time and the events of the outside world. The end of the conference comes almost as a shock, and it can take days and even weeks to fully re-engage with your job, family and friends.
Janice LaChance, SLA CEO, ‘Magic that never wears off’ in Information Outlook, 16 (4), p. 3. 

16 July 2012, 2330 CST 

We’re in the heart of the conference. It’s the end of Day Two and we’re deeply immersed in the life of conference attendees. We’ve been completely enveloped by librarianship for days and I can’t speak for the others but it’s leading me into a state of ‘conference-madness’. As Ruth puts it, it’s “A surreal and wonderful experience.” 

The following quote comes verbatim from my notebook and was written lying on my hotel bed immediately after I got in from the International Reception and a couple more Open House events at the Chicago Hilton. Reading it back, it seems like real Heart of Darkness-type stuff: 

This conference is freaking killing me. My meal schedule is fucked. As Giles observed, I can't remember the last time I ate a meal with a fork. I stole a Moleskine notepad from the PAM Open House. I regret nothing. We live the conference now like nomads: grabbing what food and goodies we can when we can. We are not humans: we are conference attendees. (1) 

The conference is so full-on and so intense and I am having the best time of my life. Every day runs from 0800 to past midnight and every second of that time is spent doing something. During our normal lives, we ‘do’ library stuff for 7-8 hours a day – and even then it’s not wall-to-wall new experiences: I have breaks, I read the news, I talk to my friends at work, I create repetitive spreadsheets – and then we can go home and briefly stop thinking about it. Here, it’s all around us for 16 hours a day and the only break we get is for sleep. This morning, I had ten minutes between showering/shaving and leaving for the Sci-Tech Breakfast at 0650 to just sit and listen to music in my hotel room (2). It felt like an unparalleled luxury. 

The actual conference sessions run from 0800 – 1730 everyday followed by various networking events and Open House events that run officially until 2200 and unofficially until everyone leaves. During the day there are always about a dozen sessions running parallel at any one time and the ‘game’ is that you have an hour-and-a-half to find the one that you find most interesting. You do this by ducking out of less interesting sessions (3), flicking through your – if you’re organised, pre-highlighted – pocket guide to the conference, and finding a more useful session before too much time has elapsed that you’ve missed the bulk of it.

On Tuesday, there was even this spontaneous flash-mob unconference.

Between sessions, there are half-hour buffers in which you can wander the Info-Expo, head to the lakefront to melt in the heatwave (4), or just hang out in the expansive foyer. Groups of people tend to be clustered around power sockets. Even just hanging out, there’s always someone to talk to and, since I was presented with my award, Sci-Tech people have been coming up to me to chat about library campaigning and e-resources and my accent and whatnot. At the networking events in the evenings, there are hundreds of people to chat with (5), hundreds of business cards to be exchanged, and everyone is so smart and funny. Someone at the First-Timers Meet (I think it was SLA Treasurer, Dan Trefethen (6)) said, “You have more in common with any stranger here than you will ever have with any other group of strangers.” This whole conference is like a little nomadic village of info pros that has somehow, seemingly magically, coalesced at this place at this time and that will exist only for a short time before dispersing as quickly as it formed. It’s the same feeling that I got at the first Library Camp back home last year but on a much grander scale. 

17 July 2012, 0935 CST 

In one of the buffer times, I’m taking a break to process my experience. I’m finding it difficult to adequately parse the experience into a form that I can analyse and understand because there’s simply no time to sit down and quietly think about what’s happening. It’s an odd combination of being overwhelmed, overstimulated, overexcited, way too busy, and having not had enough sleep and it’s meant that my brain has gone into a sort of emergency mode by Ctrl-Alt-Del shutting down the cognitive and philosophical processes that usually run non-stop. 

Since at the time I didn’t have the mental faculties to process the experience, here’s a quote from Ned Potter (7), a 2011 ECCA who has had a year to consider his experience and put it into words:

I found that being taken from where you live and deposited in a new place, and then having an absolutely intense period of several days in which the moment you wake till the moment you go to sleep is shaped by being an ECCA, and is dominated by SLA-related work or play, was almost akin to an out-of-body experience! 

Because you are destabilised by being taken somewhere else and your new reality is entirely shaped for you, and you have this shared and deepened experience with the other ECCAs, and the time is so packed that it's the very opposite of mundane or boring so that makes it hyper-real somehow - and it all amounts to something which is much more singular than any other experience you normally have in everyday life. You go places in everyday life - you experience new places. You go to intense events or things, like conferences or even stag dos or whatever. And you meet new people. But rarely if ever do all these come together in such an Alice-in-Wonderland total experience package, if you know what I mean? Plus the sheer scale of the thing, as you say. 

 It's its own bubble. And when you're in it you're at once both incredibly aware of the amazingness of it and yet completely unqualified to really understand the bubbleness because you've not yet had the experience come to an end and give you distance from it. 

The packed Mary Ellen Bates session.
In the session I’ve just left – the highly recommended Mary Ellen Bates session ‘From Info Pro to Info Hero: 5 Easy Ways to Turn Information into Insight’ which, by the way, was packed out: in an 0800 session, there was standing room only. Marie and I sat on the floor in one of the aisles along with at least two dozen other people – Mary Ellen Bates said that being an info pro is about extracting what is important. We take raw data and we find, we analyse, we extract what matters to our users.

What matters to me about this experience – what I’m extracting despite being exhausted and cognitively impaired – is that it’s making me stronger (in the Neitzschean ‘whatever doesn’t kill you…’ sense). Every day that I’ve been here, I’ve felt exponentially more confident and more competent. Everything – most notably networking and talking to complete strangers – feels easier than it did a few days ago. In the midst of this conference-madness, I can feel myself levelling up.

17 July 2012, 1430 CST 

I’m in one of the most enjoyable sessions of the week – '60 Apps in 60 Minutes Redux: The Next 60 Apps You Need To Know' led by Scott Brown and Joe Murphy (8). I ducked out of 'How and Why Things Fail – Forensic Engineers and Information Specialists' (9) to get here so I only get about 30 apps. My notes for this session are a frantic list of app names and sentence fragments telling my future self how the apps might be useful. It’s a fantastic session presented with an amazing amount of energy and I feel like I’ll never have the time to investigate each app as thoroughly as it deserves.

More than any other event, conferences make me feel like a cybernetically enhanced human. Because during conferences, I basically never put my Android device away and it becomes a vital extension of myself, fulfilling the functions of virtual memory, communication device, and information discovery tool. In this session, I’m using Evernote to make notes, I’m uploading a couple of photos to Facebook, I’m downloading a couple of the apps mentioned, I’m keeping up Twitter conversations with Anneli (10), Ruth, and Sara on the relative merits of the two sessions I’ve been in, and I’m checking the Twitter stream for the hashtag #SLAChicago (11). It’s during conferences that I feel most like a ‘digital human’: 50% of me is online and 50% is in my physical meat-body. By spreading my self out in this way, it feels like I’m more of myself than I usually am. As Ned put it, the experience is “hyper-real somehow”.

17 July 2012, 1715 CST 

Note the red and white checkered tablecloths. Very Italian-American.
Chicago deep-dish pizza is a microcosm of America: at first it seems absurd but it turns out to be huge and wonderful and you can’t take it all in in one sitting. The ECCAs are visiting Giordano’s on East Lake Street, Chicago and enjoying a “Famous Stuffed Pizza”. Chicago pizza is basically a crust exterior stuffed with a layer of mozzarella an inch thick with tomato (and other toppings though we didn’t have any) on top. One slice each, particularly after insanely-sized appetisers, is enough.

Part of our conversation during the meal is about our impressions of the SLA. (12) Speaking for myself, my impression of the SLA is one of overwhelming positivity. Every member seems to really value their membership and, most importantly, seems to be genuinely proud of the organisation. Conversely, the organisation seems to genuinely value its members as evidenced by the seemingly unending stream of awards that were presented at the conference’s opening address ceremony. A great deal about the organisation – the vocabulary, the structure, the general outlook – seems a lot more corporate than I’m used to or indeed comfortable with (13). But it seems to work for them and, coupled with the American lack of irony, it’s refreshing to see an organisation that takes itself seriously and views itself as thoroughly and unashamedly professional.

During the closing address, Brent Mai introduces a video of the 18th Annual Conference of SLA Arabian Gulf Chapter and, on the surface, it looks so different to any library event I’ve ever seen because, let’s face it, it is. I realise that my experience of librarianship and of The Profession has been ridiculously limited: that in my tiny little corner of North-East England, I’d never even considered the presence and challenges of libraries in Arabian countries let alone libraries in every country around the world. I realise that I have had no idea about the scale of this profession or this world. The SLA is such a huge and diverse organisation and the greatest gift of this conference has been that it’s introduced me to a thousand things – ideas, concepts, people, places – that I would otherwise have never been exposed to. My notebook is filled with ideas that I don’t have the time to blog about or the brain-power to remember.

Being part of the SLA – even for such a brief time as this week and in such a tangential capacity as a tiny new professional from a small European country – makes me feel like I belong to something larger than myself. That feeling of support and genuine community is what I want from a professional organisation. Every evening at Open House events, I’ve watched people who live thousands of miles away from one another greet each other as old friends and immediately fall into a rapport of genuine connection. I’ve had people tell me that they’re glad I’m here, that they’re proud of me, and that they’re happy I’m a member of the Special Libraries Association. What I’ve seen this week is less of a librarianship event and more of a community coming together – a nomadic village of info pros which coalesces every year through the sheer will of its members.

All of which could seem terribly onanistic – and I’ve been to library events that do feel that way – if the focus weren’t squarely on other people. The SLA feels like an outward-looking organisation with a focus on library campaigning, advocacy, marketing of ourselves, and most importantly, a focus on our users and our colleagues. In the closing address, Stephen Abram made the point that we need to ‘infect’ our colleagues who aren’t here: we’re no better than them, we’re just luckier.

And I guess that’s what these blog posts are about: trying to share my experience as thoroughly and as honestly as I can. It’s kind of crass for the writer to nakedly tell the reader his/her intention but all I want to do in these posts is to share what I felt that week. Because everything about the events of the 14th to the 20th July 2012 made me feel more alive. It was a week in which I laughed, learned, felt afraid, felt exhausted, went a little mad, made friends, and danced.

And isn’t all of that what life is about?

Reminding me of that is what the Special Libraries Association, SLA Europe, and the ECCA gave to me. That was my award. (14)

Photo by Marie Cannon.

(1) OK, so, the story behind the Moleskine notebook is this:

16 July 2012, 2130 CST 

We were at the Physics-Astronomy-Mathematics Division Open House doing some networking and taking advantage of the open bar (1a). Giles noticed some high-quality Moleskine notebooks piled on a table and I took one. We later discovered that they weren’t free for public consumption. So I didn’t so much ‘steal’ it as not realise that one had to perform some unspecified task to obtain one. In my defence, if we’d known that, I would have performed the unspecified task (1b). And appreciate the underlying madness in my note: we were clearly whacked out on free conference goodies and large American portions of food-that-you-eat-with-your-hands.

(1a) Every night, there was at least one open bar somewhere. They were fantastic but I kept running in to the same surly bartender who demanded absolute clarity in a drinks order. It’s not enough to say “Can I have a [insert brand of whisky here]?”: you had to specify that you wanted it neat and not-in-a-wine-glass. She’s one of the few not-100%-pleasant Americans that I met. 

(1b) Probably. 

(2) For some reason, my personal ‘anthem’ for this trip is ‘Falling for the First Time’ by the Barenaked Ladies. I’m not sure why. You know when a song just feels right? That.

(3) Brazenly and without embarrassment. It felt awkward the first time I did it – I thought the session ‘E-Discovery Preparation through Information Management and Data Mapping’ was about resource discovery software which would have been relevant to my job but it turned out to be a specialised legal librarianly thing – but now I’m skipping out of sessions like a pro. Like the business card thing, it turns out to be part of the culture and is not only accepted but encouraged. It’s part of the conference ‘game’. There was only one session in which Sarah and Ruth were made to feel uncomfortable for leaving and everyone in the SLA Europe contingent was really genuinely appalled by this.

(4) From the 14th to the 20th July 2012, Chicago and much of the Midwest suffers from crazy temperatures around 100°F every day. I go for a walk around Museum Campus on the Monday which, although very pleasant and life-affirming, turns out to be a mistake since it’s really unbearably hot and it causes me to sweat a very visible and thoroughly unattractive amount such that I am forced to wear my – really truly impractically hot – tweed jacket to cover up my shirt and the obvious evidence that I’ve sweated a very visible and thoroughly unattractive amount. Needless to say, I shower a lot more frequently than usual during my time in Chicago.

(5) One of the first people I met, on the first night in Chicago, at Kitty O’Shea’s Irish pub, was Stephen Abram. THE Stephen Abram. I think I acted like Troy from Community when he met LeVar Burton. I distinctly remember turning to Sara Batts and saying, in a squeaky, excited voice, “That’s Stephen Abram! I just shook hands with Stephen Abram!” Sara, as always, was cool and nonchalant.

(6) It was either him or Tom Rink the Cop-Librarian, who, as you can tell by his name, has an awesome story. He was a cop in the Tulsa Police Department who decided to set up a library in the police station and just went ahead and did it. He became a cop-librarian. A librarian with a gun.

(7) Ned, as well as sort of being a Bizarro version of myself (or vice versa), is a really nice guy and gave me oodles of advice for my original ECCA application. Thanks, Ned!

(8) Which, bizarrely, has been allocated the traditional hour-and-a-half slot.

(9) Though, as it turns out, not especially relevant to my interests, this session did contain the great line: “Wikipedia is like CliffsNotes for reality.”

(10) Minor but pertinent semantic point here: whenever I’ve referred to ‘the ECCAs’ going somewhere or ‘we’ doing something, this includes Anneli Sarkanen who won the SLA Europe Conference Award 2012 rather than an ECCA as such. Apart from the pizza adventure below: we invited Anneli because she’s cool but she was doing conference-y stuff.

(11) This hashtag turns out to be really well-utilised and I need to give props to whoever was in charge of @SLAChicago (11a) because he/she/they was/were well on top of the hashtag during the conference and gave a great running commentary on the whole event without being too heavy-handed or overwhelming. Towards the end, he/she/they tweeted me to thank me for tweeting and to say “We feel the hashgang created is a very tangible benefit to professionals following the conference.” And the word ‘hashgang’ is perfect here because the Twitter presence during the conference made it feel like 20% of the networking I did was with people who were also at the conference and who I never met in physical form.

(11a) Even though it must have been a person (or group of persons), it really felt like @SLAChicago was the digital embodiment of the conference as an abstract entity. And since we were so immersed in the conference experience, @SLAChicago came to seem like some omnipresent God Of The Conference. Which kind of makes my really-positive feelings towards this Twitter account seem like either religious mania or Stockholm syndrome. 

(12) I’ve been a CILIP member since September 2009 and the subtext (12a) of this closing bit is that CILIP does not have the below-mentioned attributes. I have (for the most part) always supported CILIP and I mean no offence when I say that it now feels like I've seen what the organisation could be. The fact is that I do wish CILIP were more like the SLA.

(12a) Or, now that I’m making it explicit, the text. 

(13) See, for example, Guy Kawasaki’s keynote speech which I found to be entertaining but essentially meaningless corporate twaddle.

(14) It’s obvious that by this point, either through exposure to America or through exhaustion/conference-madness, my British cynicism and irony detector were turned off. And – full disclosure – SLA Europe paid for my SLA membership, my flights to and from the US, my hotel room, my conference fees, and my – embarrassingly minimal, as it turns out – expenses. So how could I be anything but grateful to them? Nonetheless, I like to think that if I’d had a crummy experience, I would say so. Since I got back, my standard response to everyone who has asked “How was Chicago?” has been to say, with a slight wistful sigh, “Oh, it was so great.” As simple and dull and undescriptive as that statement may be, I really truly genuinely mean it. It was so great.


Anneli said...

I completely failed at session hopping at the Conference. I'm sure there is a knack to it, but I once left an ok session to head to a really not that great one to then leave to one that was just ending... Just not cut out for it!

katefromuk said...

Great post Simon, really captures the essence and craziness of a SLA conference, particularly from a first timers perspective. Although some of that craziness doesn’t disappear no matter how many times you attend, like the days getting longer and longer. So pleased that you found SLA as welcoming as it was, and amused that you didn’t entirely believe our first timers tips about business cards and session hopping. Now though I have some posts to point to when I make those points next year, and perhaps they’ll be believed!

So now you’ve clearly got the SLA bug can we count on your involvement in SLA Europe and long term on the wider SLA stage? You never know in 10 or so years you might find yourself running for the Board if my experience is anything to go by!


Tracy Z. Maleeff said...

I remember seeing you on Wednesday morning of the conference, with a box from Giordano's, as you explained that the ECCAs were having cold pizza for breakfast. You don't get much more American than that. Congratulations! You must tell me (albeit, privately) who made you feel bad for leaving a session early. They need a talking to. Lastly, don't forget that the Science-Technology Division co-sponsored your award. Don't forget to thank them! It was a pleasure to have met you and I look forward to maintaining a professional contact with you, Simon. Hope to see you in San Diego in 2013!

Simon Barron said...

Thanks Kate and Tracy. Based on this - obviously very positive - experience of SLA and SLA Europe and the very lovely Sci-Tech division, I do hope to be further involved in the future.

I'm already starting to plan how to get myself to San Diego next year. Evidently one week of conference-madness just isn't enough!

John Kirriemuir said...

Loving these posts; great stuff.

About that bet, that in ten years time you'll be a resident of the USA with a high profile information professional job and a family there...

Simon Barron said...

Hmm. This is a fairly long-term bet. 'High-profile information professional' might be nice but resident of the US? Family? Not sure.

John Kirriemuir said...

I bet you one meal, in a restaurant of the winners choice, that those things (resident of the USA, Info Professional job in the USA, family in the USA) happen on or before August 8th 2022.

Only condition is that the restaurant has to be in the lower 48. Loser has to pay for the meal

Do you accept the wager?

Simon Barron said...

Challenge accepted. I will see you in ten years.

Neil Infield said...

Another great blog post Simon.
I admire you honesty and openness about your experiences as a first timer at SLA and in the United States.

I have been a regular to the US since a five month road trip in my gap year in 1980, and have attended SLA since 1998 with a couple of gaps.

During those years I have learnt to switch off my UK cynicism as I board the plane in the UK. By the time I touch down I am in non-ironic - enthusiastic mode, and greet my old friends with hugs and kisses.

But don’t forget the US is full of contradictions (much like any country I suppose). It is a place where you can be arrested for jay-walking (crossing the road away from the crossing point), but can ride a motorbike without a crash helmet.

And don’t think they don’t do sarcasm and irony. Just spend a bit of time in the company of the members of the New York Chapter for a surprising and refreshingly different approach. They can also be even better at us than knocking celebrities off their pedestals too. Have a look at some of the Comedy Central Roasts to see how they do it (as long as you don’t mind a string of profanities) http://www.tv.com/shows/comedy-central-roast/

At the conference, I love the way they give so many awards to SLA members, and as the recipient of a Fellowship award in Baltimore in 2006, I have wanted to contribute more to the association.

For me the crazily long days of conference sessions and boozy open house nights act as an annual booster injection of enthusiasm which can last a whole year … till the next conference.

I also love the surprises that lie in wait for me, and the serendipitous meetings that occur. I keep on with my search for the coolest librarian (http://ninfield.wordpress.com/?s=coolest), and this year met an ex-hard-core post-punk stoner, who is now a hard-core cool taxonomist with piercings and tattoos to boot.

In the exhibition hall I met a vendor representative who was so rude she quite took my breath away. I was intrigued and somewhat spell-bound by this unexpected approach to sales, and was rewarded by her entertaining description of her Chief Executive as a Troll who lived under a bridge.

I’m looking forward to part 4 of your report.


P.S. I hope you don’t mind me taking the liberty to link to your blog posts from the SLA Europe blog http://www.sla-europe.org/2012/08/04/review-of-sla-2012-chicago-conference-by-ecca-winner-simon-barron/

Gopal Yadav said...
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John Kirriemuir said...

One thing that realised recently. At every one of the library conferences I've been to in the USA, I've made contacts, and - genuine - friends, with people I hadn't met before, and were unaware of e.g. on social media. Every single US event.

aly said...
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