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Why don’t English conferences make you feel like this?

16 Dec
Library badges

Creative Commons image by Michael Porter (aka Libraryman!) – click to view the original on Flickr.

 

Back in 2006 when I got my first position in a library, in a job-emergency and with no intention of staying in the profession, one of the many many things I didn’t expect librarianship to involve was exciting foreign travel. But so far it’s taken me to Philly, to Latvia, to South Africa, and next year to Vancouver.

In part 3 of my posts about Cape Town (part 1, including a presentation on professional brand, can be read here; part 2 about the trip itself can be read here) I wanted to discuss something that the LIASA 2013 conference made me think about: English conferences have something missing. They don’t seem to make people feel inspired and uplifted like other conferences do. Why is that?

NB: I originally, erronously, entitled this post ‘Why don’t UK conferences make you feel like this?’ – but one thing which came out of the Twitter discussion I had about this subject while in SA is that there are plenty of people who’ve been inspired by conferences in Ireland, Wales and Scotland; this is borne out by the Storify embedded below. Apologies, rest of the UK…

English reserve

LIASA in Cape Town was on a pretty large scale – several hundred librarians from several countries. Here’s how it made me feel: excited, uplifted and optimistic. This is exactly what I want from a conference: you come together with your peers, you share ideas, you go away not just with practical ideas to apply to your job, but feeling inspired about librarianship. This is how I felt after SLA2011 in the USA, too. Interestingly, this is how I felt after the New Professionals Conferences I’ve been to, and this is how, judging from the Twitter reaction to them, people feel after attending LibCamps. But this is not how I’ve felt after, for example, Umbrella, or LILAC, or various JISC-related things I attended as part of a previous job, or smaller events I’ve been to organised by ARLG or CDG. That’s not to say these events weren’t good events, or weren’t useful to me – they were mostly both of those things (LILAC particularly). They just didn’t send me home beaming on the train / plane with optimism and uplift.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that English reserve and cynicism is what stops some events reaching the heights I’m describing. The events I’ve been inspired by have either been on foreign shores where English reserve and cynicism aren’t applicable, or for New Professionals conferences where the delegates haven’t been around long enough to become cynical or reserved. People seem to get very inspired by unconferences such as Mashlib and Libcamp, and Radical Libcamp – and by definition unconferences should be populated by a self-selecting group of engaged and non-cynical (about the profession, at least) delegates. So basically in situations where the English reserve and cynicism can’t get a proper foothold, the conference can flourish and leave everyone feeling reinvigorated – is it that simple?

Now, I’m aware not everyone agrees with me on this. Colleagues of mine, my boss for example, have been to English conferences and come away inspired, so maybe I’m either a: going to the wrong conferences, or b: approaching them in the wrong way? If you have time to leave a comment, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

What’s the most inspiring library event you’ve ever been to? Storify time

Finally, I conducted a brief and unscientific poll on Twitter this morning, so you can get some other perspectives on peoples’ most inspiring library events. Thank you to all who took part and RT’d my request for input. I was going to total up the ‘traditional UK conferences versus other types’ votes, but the waters are murky there as there’s plenty of responses from people not in the UK in the first place. So I’ve attempted to categorise the answers but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. If nothing else, make a note of these as events to try and attend in the future (be sure to press the ‘read next page’ button at the bottom – there’s loads of good stuff here)…

 

This will automatically update here as I add things to the Storify. (Storify is great, by the way.)

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The Trip. Library adventures in Cape Town part 2

13 Dec
water, sky, boat

From the boat to Robben Island

This is the second in a mini-series of posts about my attendance at the LIASA 2013 conference in Cape Town. Part 1 is here, with slides and audio from one of my presentations. I’ll put more about the conference itself in Part 3 of this post, but it seems remiss to blog about giving a talk in South Africa without talking a little bit about what going to South Africa was like.

This conference happened in Week 2 of the academic year. As anyone who works in academic libraries knows, this is a BONKERS time, incredibly busy, possibly the busiest week out of the entire 52. So when I was first invited over I’d actually written the entire email saying that, although it killed me turn down such an amazing opportunity, I was going to have to say ‘no’. But then three things happened – firstly I expressed my anguish out loud and my fabulous colleagues all said ‘Go! Go! You have to go! We’ll cover your teaching, anything, you can’t not do this!’, secondly I checked the dates and by a series of coincidences and happenstance, I actually didn’t have any teaching in Week 2 (just hours of it in Weeks 1 and 3). The third thing that happened is I Google Image searched Cape Town. This was a mistake. It is SO beautiful – I love anything near Water anyway, but how many Cities have a mountain right in the middle? Not at the edge – in the actual middle! I also know several people who’ve been there who say it’s incredible, and I have the painting of it done by my Great-Grandfather you can see in the presentation video in Part 1 so feel like I have a small connection with it.

In any case, I deleted the draft email, and sent another one saying, essentially, ‘OMG yes’.

Ingrid Thompson, from HELIG, had invited me over. We follow each other on Twitter (hence my comment in the branding presentation that ‘without Twitter I wouldn’t be here’  in South Africa) and, like everyone else at LIASA, she was incredibly helpful, generous, and welcoming. After a journey which was REALLY long (24hrs each way from door-to-door – I got about an hour’s sleep in total, woo!) I was kindly picked up from the airport by Nikki Crowster who told me a bit about the City and the conference. They put me up in a much nicer hotel than the kind I’m used to staying in, and after a quick trip to the waterfront to explore a little, I had some food in the hotel and went to bed very early indeed.

My second day there was a Sunday, which I had to myself. I went to Robben Island and it was pretty moving – you’re shown round by a former inmate. This was a fantastic initiative – the guy said it was like therapy for him, reclaiming a space which had previously only been associated with suffering. For us, it took a prison which had become iconic and part of a worldwide narrative regarding a cultural hero in Nelson Mandela, and took it out of that rarefied realm and into a much more immediate reality.

I explored the Waterfront, which is a hive of activity – on my last night I bagged an outdoor table in a steak restaurant and watched the sun go down behind Table Mountain, while the fishing boats came in from their day’s work in a steady stream. It was pretty epic. I can’t wait to go back with my wife.

The waterfront

 

As well as the Conference itself, I was also given a tour of the University of Cape Town by Ingrid (she works there); what a ridiculously beautiful campus that is. It reminds me of Verona – beautiful old stone buildings crawling with ivy. Here’s the view from near the main Library:

View

University of Cape Town

On my final night there we went to the President’s Dinner, at Gold Restaurant – watch this video for an idea of the experience. This was amazing too. You didn’t choose from a menu, you were just brought food. Your wine glass was refilled with alarming frequency. There was singing, dancing, face-painting, drumming, scarily tall sort of dancing puppet-costume things, great conversations. I sat next to a lady who knew the language so she translated the songs for me as they were sung – it felt like a completely unique experience that I couldn’t have had anywhere else. The whole thing was just heady, an assault on the senses. I don’t know how authentic it truly was, but I completely loved it.

For all sorts of reasons I very nearly ended up not going to Cape Town, but I’m so glad I did. It was an incredible trip, and incredible conference, more on which in part 3.

 

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Building your professional reputation. Library adventures in Cape Town part 1

11 Dec

In October I was invited to South Africa to speak at LIASA 2013, the 15th annual Library and Information Association of South Africa conference. It was in the fabulous City of Cape Town and it was incredible; I just haven’t had a chance to put my thoughts down in a blogpost until now. But I know not everyone is particularly interested in a ‘here’s what I did’ type post so I’ve put that separately in Part 2. There’s also a Part 3 to follow about the differences between UK conferences and international ones.

I was asked to do three things at the conference – a marketing workshop (half a day on strategic marketing and half a day on emerging technologies), a session for the Higher Education Library Interest Group on induction / orientation here at the University of York Library (the presentation is here, although it doesn’t make much sense without me talking over the top, I’m afraid), and a talk aimed primarily at new professionals on building your reputation and professional brand. It’s a tiresomely controversial subject, this; what it comes down to for me is that people fairly new to the profession can sometimes worry about being some sort of super librarian and DOING ALL THE THINGS, but actually you don’t have to be like this at all. You just have to get involved with the areas of librarianship which correspond to your goals in the profession. So the talk was about that, and about different ways to be part of the wider community.

Below is the talk: it consists of my slides, the audio of the talk (recorded from my iphone in my jacket pocket!) and a couple of pictures to look at while I talk about some things I wasn’t intending to talk about, at the very start.

It was fun doing this talk, it was different to the normal things I do. The room was bigger – this is the first time, outside of the webinar environment, that I’d talked to several hundred people at once. Speaking to a room that size is very different to speaking to 30 people – my usual very conversational presentation style wouldn’t have worked. Presenting is a bit like drawing a picture in that the further away the audience, the broader the strokes needed for the picture; the detail gets lost.

The atmosphere was different in SA that from conferences I’ve presented at in the UK, too – people were laid back, ready to laugh. I was one of only three international speakers so everyone was very welcoming. And also, this talk is a version of something I’d originally delivered at a New Professionals Day back in 2012 which was designed primarily to address an anxiety about branding I’d heard many new professionals express – an anxiety which, having arrived in South Africa and been at the conference for a couple of days already, I’d found to be largely absent! So I felt a bit like my talk didn’t match my slides – certainly I was trying to manipulate the slides to tell a slightly different, more widely applicable story, as I went along. But anyway I really enjoyed it and I’ve had some genuinely touching feedback about people feeling inspired.

Parts 2 and 3 to follow!

 

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10 reasons why YOU specifically should apply for the SLA ECCA prize

10 Dec

Hey you, yes you! You may not think you are eligible for the Special Library Assocation’s Early Career Conference Award, but there’s a good chance you are. You may not think the SLA is relevant to you because you don’t work in a ‘special’ library, but it IS, trust me.

Winning the ECCA award could change your whole outlook. It could be incredibly beneficial. Here are 10 reasons to apply:

  1. You don’t have to be THAT early in your career – it’s within 5 years of obtaining your Masters. So in other words, I could apply! (Former winners can’t actually apply but the point being, I qualified in 2009 so I am eligible in that sense.)
  2. It’s probably the best single prize it is possible to win in librarianship. To quote SLA-Europe’s website: “Each Award is worth about $4000. It covers the full cost of Conference registration, hotel lodging, economy return airfare to Vancouver, and meals and appropriate incidental expenses.” I mean, come on! I should just copy and paste that for the remaining 8 things. It’s a ludicrously good prize by any measure.
  3. Whatever your sector, the SLA has relevance to you. The SLA isn’t all about special libraries. There is, of course, a lot of good content (both in the conference and the organisation more generally) if you’re a legal, health, business or pharma librarian – but a huge percentage of members are from the academic library world, for example. There’s public librarians too. But the information you can glean from the talks will apply to any sector – it’s just really high quality speakers talking about really relevant things.
  4. The SLA Conference is completely and utterly brilliant. It is SUCH a good event. I have only been once, but by all accounts it’s amazing every year. I am going in 2014, I have FORCED myself to find a way back* because it was the single greatest experience of my professional career. It’s on an epic scale but it’s focused – you come away inspired, no longer gripped by whatever existential crisis is wasting our time in the profession, buzzing with ideas, and equipped to be a better information professional.
  5. The SLA Conference is made more brilliant by experiencing it with the other ECCA winners. There will be 3 winners this year, from different divisions. The three of you will form a little gang and roam around Vancouver together and it is SO much richer for that. I won’t labour this point because people told me about it before I went and I didn’t really appreciate what they were going on about until it happened – but basically you make friendships and you have this great communal experience in a sort of ECCA bubble and it’s ace. Also, everyone is incredibly friendly and welcoming to the ECCAs.
  6. There is a very flat hierarchy at the conference. There aren’t cliques of senior people and junior people. Everyone mixes with everyone, everyone has time for everyone else. It’s a great opportunity to actually exchange ideas with very high-up people and be treated as an equal. You are, as Penny Andrews put it, valued. She also points out something I’ve mentioned a lot – the LMD (Leadership and Management Division) is NOT just for senior people, it’s for people who want to become or learn from leaders and managers.
  7. You get to travel and interact with the international community. Every time I’ve had the chance to go abroad I’ve found the international perspective on libraries and our profession invaluable. And you get to hear amazing speakers like Stephen Abrams and Mary Ellen Bates who rarely come to England (and then chat with them afterwards – see number 6, above).
  8. You will become an SLA member if you aren’t already. Becoming part of SLA is awesome. Everyone I know who is a member values it enormously. I’ve written before about how being part of the SLA gives you confidence. There are plenty of relevant events in the UK too. Also, you tend to go on to get involved with the SLA in some capacity or other – for example Sam Wiggins who won an ECCA the same year as me is the Chair of SLA-Europe next year, I’ve served on the main SLA Online Advisory Council and as an ECCA judge – the list is endless really. The ECCA is just the beginning.
  9. There is a serious emphasis on fun. The SLA take the profession seriously but they take their fun seriously too. There are events and parties every night, there is a ludicrous amount of booze, and you have to really go out of your way to actually pay for anything. The conference never really stops the whole time you’re there. It’s intense, overwhelming, but, as Simon said, you still feel like you’re buzzing a month later.
  10. If you win the ECCA, then on June 11th 2014, you’ll be on a plane back home, a more knowledgeable, creative, inspired, happy, confident and future-ready information professional.  It really is that good.
    .

Notice that none of the above are ‘it’s good for your CV’. Of course, it IS good for your CV, to win a prestigious international prize. But it’s really not the winning itself which matters, it’s what you get from it – and you get so much from it, that the CV is just an afterthought.

Finally a couple of quick tips for your application (speaking as a former judge):

  • You will be representing SLA-Europe as an award winner. Remember that – it’s not just about all the amazing things you’ve done in your career so far, it’s about actually being in Vancouver as a sort of ambassador for the division.
  • On a related note, your letter of recommendation matters too. The judges want to know what your referee things about you – they also want to know what they think about you winning this prize and going to Vancouver, interacting, networking, learning and so on.
  • Part 2 of the application – “What specific benefits and knowledge do you hope to gain from attending the 2014 SLA Conference and working with SLA Europe and your chosen SLA Division in the future?” – is important. There are a LOT of very good applications for these awards, so it’s really nice for the judges to be able to filter out a whole bunch and put them on the pile marked ‘apparently just fancies winning an award / going on a free trip abroad’. You need to talk about the relationship you are entering into with the SLA and how that will develop over time.
  • If you’ve applied before and not won, don’t let that put you off. I didn’t get it the first time I tried, I know other winners who were second time lucky.
    .

If you have any questions, leave them in a comment and I’ll endeavour to answer them. Basically I can’t recommend applying for this highly enough – it will make your life awesome if you win.

Finally, you can read my own reflections on the 2011 ECCA experience on SLA-Europe’s blog, and embedded below is the video I made at the conference. GOOD LUCK!

 

(Here’s that application link, one more time.)

 

*It’s amazing how many ECCA’s find a way back. Many have gone most years since they won. Despite the massive logistical effort it constitutes, and having to find ways of paying for it, it’s so completely amazing that you find a way back.

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