ECCA winner Catherine Jenkins reflects on SLA Annual Conference 2019

I was fortunate to gain an insight into developments in information services across the pond through an Early Career Conference Award sponsored by the SLA Europe chapter and the Legal Division. This award enabled me to travel to the SLA Annual Conference 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio in June.

On arrival in Cleveland, my first stop was of course the fantastic Cleveland Public Library (CPL) on Superior Avenue – and its Reading Garden! Throughout the conference, I was impressed by how many of the events encouraged us to appreciate the local region that was hosting us. I spent my first few dollars on a Friends of CPL t-shirt from the library gift shop, emblazoned with ‘The People’s University’ across the front – which is what every public library really is.

I am passionate about open access and information literacy, so I was particularly interested to find that CPL offers public information drop-in sessions similar to those I currently run in partnership with the public in the London borough of Redbridge. They also had an intriguing exhibition focused on CPL staff past and present when I went, with a library staff cookbook of recipes compiled from literature, theatre bills from shows performed by The Library Players, and documentation from the Ohio Center for the Book all on display.

Keen to find out more about the locality, I attended an eye-opening session on environmental justice in Cleveland, which discussed the role of libraries in educating their patrons on race as a variable in locations of toxic waste sites. The convenors signposted attendees to legal resources to equip and empower communities around civic engagement on this issue. Recommended reading included executive orders, federal statutes, rheoliadau, state laws, tribal laws, government memos and investigative journalism (specifically Marianne Lavelle’s ground-breaking piece ‘Unequal Protection: The Racial Divide in Environmental Law’ for The National Law Journal, excerpted yma).

The event ‘Social Justice in Cleveland: The Urban Economy’ – the inaugural session in a proposed social justice series for future conferences – also provided food for thought, particularly around the following questions:

  • Do you use your skills as an information professional in the service of social justice?
  • What social justice issues are particularly pertinent to our profession?
  • What social justice issues should SLA be concerned about?

The social justice theme carried through to the keynotes, with Safiya Umoja Noble’s address providing an inspirational call-to-arms for critical librarianship and the interrogation of curatorial and algorithmic logics. Her book is now top of my reading list, and there’s an excellent discussion of it from the Goodreads ‘Open As In Book’ discussion group earlier this year in a Google Doc yma.

The conference was excellent in its coverage of knowledge management within legal organisations. ‘Demystifying the Complexities of KM and Librarianship in a High-Tech Environment’, featuring panelists from companies like Facebook and Springer Nature, imparted good advice and shared best business practices that could be adapted to less sizable settings; and ‘The Secret Sauce: Where You’re Probably NOT Looking to Find Your Client Intelligence’ – chaired by one of my (two!) very kind mentors, Amy Noll – had me wishing I’d learnt shorthand so that I could get down all the pearls of wisdom into my notebook. Defining ‘secret sauce’ as ‘distinctive’ – like the Heinz 52 varieties, for this Brit! – the panel advocated talking to people as a key ingredient, beyond technical hacks like reverse image search and mining LinkedIn. Human intelligence gathering can help promote a proactive culture, enrich relationships (gan, for example, the inclusion of icebreaker or personalised conversation starters in lawyers’ briefing notes), and build bridges (with the library as the link). From onboarding through to tapping into the legal librarians network, situating the library as the nexus and silo-breaker was demonstrated to be the ‘secret recipe’ behind supporting people to develop their own taste as independent information gatherers.  

As with most conferences, much learning took place in-between the breakfast meetings and formal sessions. The evening receptions and INFO-EXPO not only provided (very delicious) foodstuffs: they were also opportunities for me to practise networking and making connections (aided by my conference ribbons – something that I think we need to start adding to delegate badges at UK conferences, yn rhy!). I met and talked with so many people, both in-person and on the Twitter backchannels when I was live-Tweeting (@CathLynneJ), and it was a pleasure and a privilege to share experiences and tips. As a first-timer, I was also incredibly lucky to have my business card picked out by SLA veteran Tony Stankus, leading to an invitation for me and other SLAers to join him over dinner. The culinary treats on offer, combined with conversation ranging from journal publishing models to Brexit, combined to make this the best dinner I’ve ever had, and I hope to stay in touch with everyone who was around the table that night.

One of the last parallel sessions I attended – and there were so many to choose from, so I’ve also been enjoying poring over the slides of others! – was a highlight for me (with the honourable exception of the IT Dance Party). ‘Librarians: The Key to Powerful Systematic Reviews’ summarised the outcomes of a project partnering librarians with research teams to support the systematic review process, and considered how a systematic review service might be incorporated into disciplines outside of the health sciences. Qualitative feedback from the pilot was positive and optimistic for library teams seeking to offer systematic review partnerships as a service. Comments from researchers included ‘Once you get hooked on having a librarian in the research team, you stick with it!', and my absolute favourite – and a good one to end on – ‘Librarians: Don’t leave home without one!’ The conference certainly convinced me of the truth of this statement: if I weren’t training to be one myself, I would certainly want to take a librarian with me everywhere, yn rhy.

I am so grateful to SLA Europe and the Legal Division for giving me this opportunity, and I am looking forward to getting involved in the organisation’s other events going forward.

Dress code for CPL staff
A beautiful sight!
CPL’s drive-up book drop
My ribbon collection (nowhere near as impressive as Hal Kirkwood’s!