Posted on July 26, 2012.
Reflections on SLA Chicago 2012: Filling in the Blanks
Now that I have had time to digest the storm of energy that was the SLA Annual Conference in Chicago, I want to put a few words down to remind me, and hopefully others, of why making the trip to Chicago was one of the smartest professional choices I have made. I would also like to add a few lessons I learned as I walked around during the week with a sticker on my name badge that had “First-Timer” prominently displayed across it.
SLA Conferences and Bluegrass Music
One of the first thoughts that comes to mind, unusual though it may be, is an analogy between the conference and a bluegrass album titled “The Fun of Open Discussion.” An irony of that album is that while the title implies a great deal of talk, in actuality many of the songs are strictly instrumental. But therein lies the beauty of the music- it provides a canvas that invites its listeners to converse and fill in the blanks. The analogy I am trying to make is that the SLA conference in Chicago provided such a canvas as well, serving as a setting where impromptu conversations sparked amidst the backdrop of the conference events.
In retrospect, I view the conference as consisting of two main components: the daytime lectures and the evening events. While I gained a great deal of insight from the scheduled lectures, I arguably gained even more from the nighttime outings. It was at these evening events with groups like the Competitive Intelligence Division where I was able to speak personally with others in the field about their work. Beyond work, though, we were also able to share a few laughs that helped balance out the day.
Some of the lessons I learned came from either my newfound conference friends or my own personal observations. I by no means make a prescription of these to everyone; I hope, however, that I am not so much of a statistical outlier that they would not be helpful to someone else thinking of going to the conference! With that hope in mind, I list below a few of the salient points I gathered:
Prior to the conference, a vendor sent an email out to (I am guessing) all the attendees asking if they would schedule a time to personally meet with him at the conference to discuss issues relevant to the vendor’s business. I responded, and though I expressed my concern as to how much use I would be, the vendor still took time to meet. We met on Sunday at 11am- right at the start of the Info-Expo. It was still relatively quiet around the convention center, but it was a great way to get me conversing with someone else about the profession. It turns out I was able to talk a little more than I imagined, and this interaction provided me a burst of energy right at the start of my conference experience. I immediately felt a little more comfortable at one of the largest conferences I have ever been to, and one in which I did not know a soul prior to my arrival.
The SLA was nice enough to make a conference planner app that allowed me to personalize my daily schedule. Prior to each day, I selected the events I wanted to attend the most. Many told me to pace myself throughout the week and be wary of overloading every minute of my day. I learned to respect their wisdom the hard way, but I still recommend pushing just a little bit harder than usual- there was coffee for sale, and in the end there were only 4 days total (5 if you attended the CE courses on Saturday, I suppose). Even when I felt dead to the world at times, I generally still managed to strike up casual conversations that often were quite rejuvenating. And as I’ve been told, “showing up is half the battle.”
If You Don’t Find an Event Catering to Your Interest, Make One
There was no shortage of sessions that interested me. In fact, I found it problematic that I often wanted to see several that were scheduled at the same time. Yet I found that on the off-chance you are interested in something that isn’t covered by a session, there is no one telling you that you can’t make it happen yourself (at least I was not aware of any). For instance, I encountered a mini “unconference” that emerged where people volunteered topics they wanted to discuss. And of course, you can always strike up one of those random conversations in between lectures if you prefer to talk one-on-one. Both of these “events” serve as perfect canvasses for open discussion, offering a casual atmosphere to spark ideas.
Disavow Yourself of Any Circadian Rhythm You Might Have
This may sound extreme, and is not meant for everyone. I will also add that by most accounts, I admit to being a creature of habit that enjoys a good sleep. Yet I found that what I enjoyed the most were the late nights talking with friends about anything and everything- from professional matters to what life is like in Canada, Colorado, the Pacific Northwest and the fast-paced Northeast. Indeed, the after-conference hours were arguably more rewarding for me than the daytime lectures. Not only did I make a great deal of new friends, I am convinced that somewhere in a conversation or two I overheard a few librarians solving the issue of time travel. I sacrificed sleep for late evenings and early mornings, but again I’ll mention that coffee was for sale at the conference. The event planners must have known.
Don’t Forget to Look Away From Your Smartphone Now and Then
For a conference that had several thousand attendees, I was amazed at how frequently I ran into familiar faces in between event sessions (and even walking around the city after conference hours). Usually the sessions ended with enough time to have a decent conversation with someone before the next event started. Those minutes in between provided invaluable interactions for me to talk about something my friends or I had just learned in our respective sessions. I tried to keep my eyes up and looking out so I could find others, which either by luck or fate turned out to be fairly easy. It’s not so easy, though, to strike up a conversation when people are engaged with their smartphones.
The insight I gained from the national conference solidified my belief that the SLA is one of the best organizations for people in our profession to be a member of. So many backgrounds and fields are represented that the opportunities to learn something new are increased 100-fold. Add in to the mix all of the interesting people from other parts of the country and world, and you have a perfect canvas on which to paint an entirely new and amazing picture of what it is we do and why we do it. Most importantly, the conference offers the chance to experience “the fun of open discussion.” Here’s hoping I will be able to see everyone again next year in San Diego!