Conference award winner Tsveta Rafaylova reflects on the 1st SLA Europe Conference

At the beginning of September, I got the great opportunity to attend the inaugural SLA Europe conference in Cambridge, thanks to the current student and early professional award. It was a positive experience for me because it involved a small transformation – I moved from being nervous about attending my first conference to feeling welcomed by the friendly team on site to being confident about engaging with the profession and my colleagues.

There were talks from people sharing their professional experience in settings as diverse as the Scottish Courts, the archives of Chatham House and research institutes such as the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre. Alongside this, hearing from Xuemei Li, at York University, who shared how mindfulness helped her in a period of transition and restructuring at work was very encouraging and welcoming. As was hearing the thoughts of Seema Rampersad, from the British Library and SLA Europe president-elect, regarding how we can make our profession more open and promote diversity and equality.

But I am getting ahead of myself! And I can’t just list the entire conference programme, that’d be cheating! So let’s go back to the beginning…

Alongside a colleague from work, after a couple of early train journeys and a cab ride, we made it to the beautiful Newnham College. Following a greeting from the friendly SLA team, all excited for the inaugural conference, we set off on a tour of the college gardens. This served as a lovely introduction to the history of the place that hosted us for the next two days. The head gardener had some interesting stories to tell of the college and was explaining the preparations needed to be made before the new students started in a few weeks. Personally, I was impressed by the fact that, due to the late introduction of allowing female students to attend the university, the college had to build a lot of its own buildings, including its own laboratories and observatory. Although they now serve different purposes, walking around the beautiful gardens and gorgeous red-brick buildings certainly made me wish I was one of Newnham College’s students. Fortunately, I could pretend to be one for a few days and soak up the warm and inviting atmosphere.

Newnham College gardens

After an hour’s walk around the garden to wake us up, we reconvened for the formal opening. With the motto of the conference being “future ready”, it was appropriate that the opening keynote speaker Cerys Hearsey, from Post*Shift, discussed different ways that digital technologies can be used to change our existing understanding and structures of leadership. She emphasised that being a leader is about how you relate to the people around you and how you enable the sharing of power among employees.

This focus on interpersonal interactions was a common motif throughout the two days, with multiple discussions around the role and service provided by the information professionals in their relevant institutions. Even in the roundtable discussion at the end of the day that focused on the digital space and the future of libraries, we found ourselves always returning to the human connection. As a young professional, I have to admit I find it hard to accurately assess in what direction the profession is heading. Is it down a digital route, with increased use of AI technology? Or is it outsourced or virtual working? Curiously, most people around the table considered AI technology to be, at this stage, simply overrated. Most librarians highlighted the need for a professional approach to how data is handled and curated in the first place, before we are even able to transfer that data to autonomous processing. What was reassuring is that the roundtable discussion focused more on how we engage with users, on how important the interpersonal relationships will always be, despite or even because of the technologies that claim to assist human interaction.

Good food, good company

From what I found out, conferences are not just about attending seminars and cataloguing workshops, stopping by the conference sponsor stalls and partaking in roundtable discussions. They also involve some fun informal moments. After the day one sessions were finished, we were able to enjoy some complimentary drinks in the lovely college gardens. We were very fortunate with the weather, as it was a fairly warm September evening. The relaxed setting provided a good opportunity to meet other professionals and reflect back on the day and served as an entrée for the delicious food served for dinner at the college!

Newnham College gardens

The international approach

One aspect of the conference that I haven’t addressed yet but I thoroughly enjoyed was the opportunity to hear not only from a variety of different libraries and roles, but also from a number of different cultures and nations. Although I am Bulgarian, I feel like a large chunk of my perception of libraries is based on British institutions, so it was interesting to hear about how professionals from across the globe approach their roles.

The first international speaker at the conference was María de la Peña, from IE Business School Library in Madrid. With a cute-looking robot as her opening slide, María discussed how AI technology could potentially be used in libraries to develop personalised search systems that are based on the users’ pervious search criteria. Her out-going message to us was that if we embrace the use of new technologies, we will be able to develop and promote added-value for our services and users. In what is my favourite quote from the conference, María emphasised that we are in “the profession of selling the invisible”, since so much of our role is about demonstrating and proving the value of our services and products.

Related to that theme of the invisible and the intangible, Matthew Platt from the Qatar Foundation discussed how in order to successfully introduce a new record-keeping system, he matched the information governance principles to the Qatar Foundation behaviour. He focused on the tradition of story telling and family values, which are both key aspects of Middle Eastern culture, to get users to embrace and begin using the new information governance model.

The third international speaker was Lara Lopez Boronat who works as an information specialist at Bain & Company. Interestingly, I found this session to be the closest to the type of research work I am involved with, so it was exciting to realise the global applicability of my skillset as an information professional. Lara explained to us how through the use of new digital tools, such as online data analytics, she is able to serve international clients and engage more with the Bain offices based outside of Spain.

Closing thoughts

The closing keynote was delivered by Simon Chaplin from the Wellcome Trust who focused on the relationship between the future and the past. I found the question he presented us with really fascinating : What part of the past should guide our future, so we don’t lose track of who we are and where we are going? Certainly not an easy question and I won’t pretend to know the answer for myself.

While I might still not have a clear idea of what AI in libraries will actually look like or what elements of my past will shape my personal and professional development, I think the conference was a step in the right direction forward. I met some lovely new people I didn’t know before, got to see the beautiful Newnham College library and was introduced to cataloguing principles by using colourful dice and a lot of sticky notes thanks to Anne Welsh! All in all, good times.

Cataloguing (yes, really)!

Finally, I would like to say thank you to the SLA Europe team for providing me with the opportunity to attend the conference and also the team behind organising and running the conference.

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