Like many people who apply for the Early Career Conference Award, I sent in my application with a lot of hope but very little expectation that I would be one of the lucky winners plucked from a very competitive field. When I received the email to say that I was going to Vancouver I was completely bowled over, and that feeling of stunned amazement continued all the way through the conference and its aftermath, when I started to reflect on the experience. I’m still not sure I completely believe it happened.
However, thanks to plenty of advice from previous winners, my mentors Sam Wiggins, Marie Cannon, and Lauren Lawler, and the inestimable Tracy Maleeff, I arrived in Vancouver as prepared as I could possibly be, but the scale of the conference was still astonishing. As I later learned nearly 2500 information professionals and exhibitors attended, making this several times larger than any conference I had attended in the UK. But apart from the size and slick organisation of the conference, the thing that impressed me most was the obvious affection and dedication SLA members have for their organisation. This was exemplified in the opening session, in which members were recognised for their service to SLA and the profession, in some cases spanning decades and entire careers. To see how much members have achieved through their working lives, and the degree to which they credit this to being involved with SLA, was a very inspiring way to start the conference.
It was great to meet so many members of SLA Europe, most of whom I only knew from email and Twitter exchanges. Through chatting to them, and attending the Legal Division Board Meeting, and Bloomberg BNA Breakfast & Business Meeting, I got a great insight into how the SLA works at chapter and division level, and again, how invested many SLA members are in their organisation. I was made welcome at every turn and, true to advice I received before the conference, the First Timer ribbon on my conference badge really did prove a great icebreaker at social and networking events. And as Lauren mentioned in her blog post about SLA 2013, the Legal Division ECCA winners have come to be nicknamed ‘Paddington’, and I too received a little bear to take around Vancouver with me.
The schedule was jam-packed with interesting sessions, so choosing which ones to attend was very difficult, though keeping up with the #sla2014 hashtag on Twitter helped alleviate my fear of missing out. I also took full advantage of the freedom to leave sessions partway through – utterly frowned upon in the UK, but an accepted part of conference-going in North America – and hopped from room to room until I found something of interest. I will talk more about a presentation I particularly enjoyed below, but I wanted to mention the program of ‘Quick Take’ sessions which were new for the 2014 conference, and were a fantastic idea. With a simple screen, lectern, and group of chairs set up in the space outside the main ballroom, speakers had 15 minutes to give a quick talk on a particular subject (examples include altmetrics, Big Data, and how to create a great LinkedIn profile). I thought this was a fantastic idea, perfect for filling a small gap in your conference schedule, and the punchy format always left me feeling inspired to investigate the topic further. Lots of attendees must have shared this view, as the Quick Takes will be running again at the Boston conference in 2015.
As for the longer sessions I attended, it’s difficult to choose which to write about! I really enjoyed ‘Social Media For Everyone and Every Library: Hot to Use New Apps and Tools in Innovative Ways’, given by Cheryl Yanek. It was in many ways an extremely practical talk, discussing the pros, cons and uses of various tools, and giving advice on developing a social media strategy. Some of Cheryl’s advice really stuck with me, in particular her encouragement to ‘plan to fail’ because being personal, authentic and engaging with a social media audience (which is, she said, crucial to a successful strategy) involves a certain amount of risk that some within that audience will dislike some of your posts. This is not to say that criticism shouldn’t be taken seriously, but that instead of playing it completely safe and thereby boring our audience, we should accept that some missteps will occur. From my own use of social media, and particularly Twitter, I know that the institutional and corporate accounts I continue to follow are those which appear to show something of the person behind it, rather than an anodyne account auto-tweeting the company’s press releases. As people who deal with disseminating information, I think it’s easy for librarians to see this as the sole use of social media platforms, when perhaps a more informal, personal approach would help us reach our users better.
I mentioned it briefly before, but I can’t overstate the importance of the plentiful social and networking events which were available every night. As a rather reserved introvert I was hesitant about this aspect of the conference, but armed with my business cards and under strict instructions to hand out as many as possible, I found it much easier than expected. The Fellows & First Timers Meet was held on the night before the conference opened, and was a great opportunity to meet (as the conference planner put it) ‘the makers and shakers of SLA’. The following night I watched fellow ECCA winner and secret superstar Rosie Hare bring the house down at the karaoke party, and on Monday night I had three events in a row to attend! These receptions and open houses brought me into contact with people from all over the world, and from very different types of information work, and were a huge part of making the conference so valuable and enjoyable for me.
SLA 2014 in Vancouver was a phenomenal experience which has already benefited me enormously, and will continue to do so as I reflect further on the things I learned, and become more involved with SLA. I would like to thank SLA Europe and the Legal Division for giving me this great opportunity, and everyone who gave their time, help and advice to make my first SLA conference so unforgettable.