Chris Rhodes, one of the 2010 SLA Europe Early Career Conference Award Winners, has shared his thoughts on his conference experience with us. He has also written a report for the Leadership and Management Division, co-sponsors of the award, available on their blog.
The SLA conference in New Orleans was by far and away the largest conference I have ever been to, with such a variety of styles of presentation and topics covered that any neat summary of the experience would be somewhat vacuous. However, there are various aspects that I would like to emphasise which I think distinguish it from other conferences I have been to and elevate the experience of attending.
Although conferences in the UK certainly do involve speakers who are genuine professional leaders, at SLA, the number of people like this, combined with the fact that the sessions are for the most part held in seminar-style rooms, means that you get many more opportunities to interact with them. I went to quite a few Leadership and Management Division sessions (maybe division to which leaders are attracted in greater concentration), and one of the most interesting aspects of these were the discussions which always followed the main presentation. On one particular occasion, during a session called ‘The Future of Government Libraries’, there was a long and detailed discussion of ‘risk’ in libraries. This is a concept or methodology that I have never heard applied in the library context (the idea is that every decision should be assessed in terms of what benefits may come of it, weighed against the risks associated with it). It was interesting to hear people at the very top of their respective organisations bringing their own experience to bear on this matter, and exchanging approaches in a way that instantiated the true, practical value of face to face conferences.
In another session, this time on ‘The library of the future’, there was an extended discussion on the idea of “just in time, not just in case”, with various senior figures describing applications of this mantra to their organisations and highlighting various strengths and weaknesses of the approaches that they had taken. The perspectives that senior figures were able to give the discussion provided valuable lessons to me on how to think strategically about libraries, as well demonstrating how ideas sharing and informal collaboration can be highly advantageous to organisations – clearly one of the key benefits to an organisation of sending employees to conferences like SLA.
The SLA conference provided unrivaled opportunities to network. At conferences in the UK, explicitly stating that one of your aims is to network is very uncommon, and I still feel somewhat craven going up to people and introducing myself with the express intention of adding them to my list of contacts. But at the SLA conference, quite the reverse was true. The fact that people’s position and affiliations at the conference were clearly indicated on their badge meant that much of the pressure was taken off someone in my position (with a ‘first-timers’ indicator on my badge) – it seemed to be universally acknowledged that I knew barely anyone, meaning that people were constantly approaching me and beginning conversations.
The way these interactions were often followed up was illuminating as well. At conferences I’ve been to here, a contact has been followed up at the next conference we have in common, or on chance meetings in the future, whereas several people I met at SLA had already contacted me in a professional context by the time I got back to England. As well as the apparently higher level of networking skill at SLA, there is also the fact of elections to positions within the overall SLA organisation which means that senior figures give significant attention to newcomers and all the other delegates alike. This is a very effective way of strengthening the link between the people leading the organisation and the main body of its membership, and it’s also quite fun when one candidate forgets that they have already met you and gives you their card multiple times, often during the same session.
The confidence with which SLA approaches its status amongst other professions is also illuminating. SLA is comfortable with the fact that it is a major organisation, representing significant people in an important profession. SLA operate in the knowledge that they have a considerable contribution to make to the professional debate in America, and that their members have a skill set that marks them out as critical players in the modern economy and in society more generally. This is perhaps related to American self-confidence, or perhaps the lack of this confidence over here is a function of the profound status-anxiety that UK librarians are subject to, but it was refreshing to be at a conference where information professionals did not feel obliged to defend their right to convene, their abilities and their very existence against often only potential doubters. SLA completely disregards the doubters, which enables them to more convincingly argue for the future importance of information professionals, and to more coherently discuss the increasingly significant roles that we are well placed to adopt.
So, the chance to meet and hear the arguments of professional leaders, the nature of interactions with other conference delegates and organisational attitude of SLA were the stand-out features of the conference for me. I greatly enjoyed my time there and hope to have the opportunity to work with SLA more closely in the future.