ECCA winner Bethany Sherwood reflects on SLA Annual Conference 2018

Postcards from Maryland – reflections of a SLA Europe ECCA

This June, I went to Baltimore, Maryland, for the Special Libraries Association Conference & INFO-EXPO. I attended the conference thanks to the immense kindness of the SLA Europe Chapter and the SLA Academic Division, who sent me as one of two receipients of this year’s Early Career Conference Award.

We flew out on Friday evening and, after some Natwest related drama and a good sleep, we had Saturday free to recover. Thanks to East-West jet-lag I woke up early and took the MARC train into Washington DC on a pilgrimage to see the Library of Congress in all its marbled glory.

I loved the LoC Letters to Lyrics exhibit which, capitalising on the popularity of Hamilton, which displayed some of Hamilton’s writings and letters to and from the Schuyler Sisters, and linked each to their corresponding songs from the musical.

On Sunday, I visited Edgar Allen Poe’s grave and house, tucked away in Poppleton, surrounded by Baltimore’s infamous low-rise housing projects. It has a really interesting history (and dedicated volunteers), and my ill-advised decision to walk there meant I saw the other side of Baltimore (VERY different to the glassy inner-harbour).

I also visited the historic Federal Hill neighbourhood, which was lovely, and had an excellent iced-coffee and ‘unicorn farts’ doughnut from Diablo Doughnuts.

On Sunday afternoon, we got our first experience of SLA at the First-Timers Orientation.

The orientation was a really good way to begin the conference as newbies. We got to meet other first-timers and find out where they were coming from, and their hopes for the conference. It was also a good chance to meet some SLA fellows, who were the most helpful and enthusiastic conference attendees I have ever met (and they had the 20+ years ribbons to prove it).

On the topic of ribbons, I also got my own stack…

I’d not come across ribbons before attending SLA, and I can see why U.K. conferences haven’t joined in on it, but really liked that they helped start conversations, and that people made a bee-line for me as soon as they spotted the yellow student ribbon. It meant CityLIS got a lot of free advertising!

On Sunday evening, we had an SLA Europe dinner, which meant I met a few more of the SLA Europe crowd. Not living in London meant I’d not been to an SLA Europe event so it was a good chance to meet a number of people in person before the conference kicked off properly.

On Monday morning, my SLA conference began in true SLA style.

At 7:30am with the Academic Division Board Meeting (and breakfast).

A nice thing about SLA is that you can essentially turn up to whatever is on the schedule. You have to pre-book tickets for some events, but even Division board meetings are open to first-timers and people who are just there because they’re interested.

Attending the board meeting was a really good way to meet more of the Academic Division and to hear about their work over the past year and the plans ahead. And to volunteer myself for some future involvement!

Glad for the coffee and friendly faces, at 9am I speed-walked to my first session: Optimizing Library Services for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, delivered by Lesley Farmer and Kim Bloedel.

The session took us through a thorough description of ASD and its manifestations in adults, and covered a lot of very specific actions for improving library enviroments and services.

Opening General Session

Dr Carla Hayden, the 14th and current Librarian of Congress, delivered the first keynote. This was a real highlight of SLA for me. Dr Hayden spoke on her efforts to open up the LoC and how she originally got into librarianship as a career. Hearing the Librarian of Congress talk about her own persistence in getting to where she is and the knockbacks along the way was really valuable for us as new professionals.

“The common thread is service—whatever your public is.” – Dr Carla Hayden

We then had lunch in the INFO-EXPO. The INFO-EXPO was probably the part of SLA that I made the least use out of because it wasn’t that relevant to my role, although I got a lot of free stuff (shout out to Springer Nature in particular for the water-bottle).

On Monday afternoon, I mostly learnt about Blockchain.

I went to two sessions: The New Kid on the Block: How Blockchain is Shaking up the Legal and Financial Services Global Neighborhood and The ABCs of Emerging Tech in Info Pro Work: AI, Blockchain, and More.

One of the great pieces of advice I was given by Kevin Adams, all-round SLA celebrity and fellow, was to go to some things outside of what I already know about.

And seeing as Blockchain is the thing I’m most often asked about when I tell people my masters is in Information Science, I figured I’d take the opportunity to learn what it actually is.

On Monday night, I went to 3 receptions (Academic, International, and Fellows & First-Timers), a vendor open-bar, and the famed I.T. Dance Party & Karaoke.

I didn’t take any photos. And I can confirm the I.T. Dance Party was everything I had hoped it would be.

On Tuesday, I headed back to the conference at a much more sensible time in the morning (9am).

Attending sessions on Data Management, Data Analysis, and Visualization using Excel, and Adding Web Archiving To Your Skill Set: What You Need To Know. Again, neither of these were particularly relevant to my current role, although the second session was hugely interesting!

Tuesday was also the day I learnt the true value of a life-skill much used at SLA but not at all used at UK conferences. At SLA if you’re in a session and the session turns out to be not-relevant, YOU LEAVE. You pick up your backpack and you walk out of the door. No one apologises. No stays and scrolls aimlessly though Twitter. At SLA you’re not here for time-wasting, you get up and you go to a more useful session (or you get a Starbucks).

Tuesday evening we went to baseball. Which mostly involved lots of enthusiastic yelling but not much idea of what was going on.

It turns out it’s a lot like rounders but with more rules.

Wednesday was the final conference day.

I went to two very different sessions in the morning: Using Taxonomy to Drive Personalization: Aligning User Interests and Content, and Oh, the Places an MLIS Will Take You! Speed Dating with Job Possibilities.

MLIS Speed Dating with Job Possibilities was my favorite session of the conference. It had a very simple premise, with speakers sharing their various career paths and the wisdom earnt along the way. We had a lot of time for questions at the end, and it ended up being a really honest and valuable group discussion about how we move on and up from a LIS degree.

Wednesday afternoon was the last session: A Name By Any Other Name – Persistent Identifier Best Practices, and then the final (with a noticably depleted audience) Closing General Session with a Keynote from Wes Moore, an Army combat veteran and author who was born and grew up in Baltimore.

I also walked 45 minutes across the harbour to go to a Whole Foods because I hadn’t eaten any fruit since England.

After the conference, and a long sleep, I did a bit more tourist-ing, visiting Washington DC again to see the Folger Shakespeare Library, the National Gallery, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the National Portrait Gallery.

On Friday before my flight, I visited Johns Hopkins University, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the painted rowhouses in Charles Village, the Baltimore Cathederal, and the incredible George Peabody Library.

Post-conference reflections

I am SO glad I went! I said in my pre-conference interview that I was excited to have my horizons broadened. And they really were.

I came away with a much greater appreciation for the sheer breadth and variety of information work. I got to talk to people about their careers in legal firms, academic libraries, military libraries, and competitive intelligence.

If you’re on the fence about applying for the ECCA I’d really recommend it. SLA is so different from UK conferences, but still smaller than ALA, and it’s a really good way to see how American information work is also really different.

It was also such a good opportunity to grow in confidence, both personally and professionally. Although, I don’t know if I’d recommend an accidental walking-tour of The Wire filming locations as the best way to learn you can be pushed out of your comfort zone.

Thanks very much to SLA Europe, and the Academic Division, for being so welcoming and generous to new professionals. Thanks also to Niamh Tumelty, my very knowledgeable and kind SLA buddy; Eleanor Matthewson, excellent co-ECCA and enthusiastic baseball-watcher and drinks-reception ticket-finder, and all the other SLA Europe members and SLA fellows who looked out for us during the conference.

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