ECCA Winner Amy O’ Donohoe reflects on SLA Annual Conference 2017
The SLA Early Career Conference Award was one of those things I planned to apply for every year since starting my graduate traineeship, but never really gave myself the time to do. When I actually did begin writing my application early this year, my biggest hopes for the process were to get something resembling a half way coherent (and not too desperate) application with perhaps some experience and feedback gained for my applications for the next few years. Needless to say, it was with great surprise, delight, and just a touch of hyperventilating that I received the e-mail confirming that I had in fact won the ECCA for the Academic Division for 2017.
The three months between finding out I had won to actually attending the conference were crammed with pre conference preparatory phone calls (thanks John and Tracy!), SLA webinars on getting the most from the conference and dealing with Arizona (helpful tip guys – don’t get bitten by snakes), reading up on SLA, and planning my agenda on the handy conference app. Of course one of the beautiful things about the ECCA is the opportunity to explore and travel around the conference, so my free evenings quickly became absorbed in equal parts by Phoenix travel and food blogs. Just kidding – it was all food.
Before I knew it I was checking in at Heathrow, desperately trying to quell the excited bounce in my step as I walked to my terminal down to a more acceptable spring. 4 films, 3 meals, 1 ‘hard’ sudoku puzzle, and about fifty glasses of apple juice later (it was an 11 hour flight) and I touched down feeling tired but raring to go. Customs took no time at all, and a handy train takes you to the tram without you ever having to go outside. By this point I was desperate to get out and feel the warmth on my skin, so I dabbed on some sun cream, donned my sunglasses, and skipped unwittingly onto the surface of the sun. No seriously, it reached 50 degrees during the week. I actually scalded my foot on a piece of metal on my bag while out one morning. Post-boxes melted. Flights were cancelled. The world may have stopped turning.
At this point in my tale I shall leave you with this accurate King of the Hill sketch:
Before the conference I had a few days free to explore Phoenix, enjoy (endure, depending on your outlook) the heat, and thankfully get over the jetlag. Phoenix is like nowhere I’ve ever been; vast, sparse and truly beautiful. In the mornings I went for hikes into the suburbs, and as the temperatures continued to rise through the day I found respite in iced coffee and the hotel rooftop pool. And I ate. A lot.
The day before the conference officially started, I headed over to the conference centre to find my bearings, register and choose my ribbons (can’t express how exciting I found this part), and attend the first timers orientation. Now, before I won the ECCA I knew that SLA was a big deal, I have friends who are previous ECCAs, I’ve read the blog posts, I’d watched the webinars, but my first real glimpse into what a big deal SLA actually is was in the masses of purple SLA signs posted all around downtown Phoenix as I headed to the conference centre. I think the initial awe I felt in being part of something that big perfectly sums up my conference experience, as the weirdly, wonderfully unexpected details just kept coming.
In no time at all, the conference was in full swing. While I’ve attended a number of fantastic conferences in the UK, SLA quickly proved itself to be in a whole other league. With over 1500 delegates and as many as 15 parallel sessions to choose from in one block, it was definitely a learning curve trying to get the most out of the conference, despite all my planning before. The keynotes in particular were excellent. We were able to listen to an inspiring and surprising talk from journalist Lulu Miller discuss reaching truth (listen to her podcast she’s excellent), and discussions and insights into the work of librarians from the Hershey’s company, Uber, and the National Fashion Institute. My personal favourite was the final keynote from Astro-Physicist Moriba Jah on classifying space junk (we’ve been in e-mail correspondence where the poor man has faced some rather basics questions regarding space and orbits). The breadth of topics and their ability to hold interest for people from across the information profession at all levels displayed solely in the keynotes is exactly what the SLA conference is about. The vastness of topics, areas, and levels present in the SLA conference could easily make for a conference with little opportunity for direct takeaways and developments, but instead SLA plays to its diversity, creating a conference where you can both focus on your specific area of interest and expand your knowledge through interdisciplinary discussions and transferable skills.
While the keynote sessions had some of the most memorable parts of the conference (did I mention they all had walk on songs?), the parallel sessions were as varied in content and value as one might expect, and really had some of the most valuable moments of the conference for me. The most difficult thing with the parallel sessions was choosing the best/most relevant session in a slot. There were some hours where I had five I desperately wanted to attend, so being able to leave during a session (cannot express how uncomfortable that made me to start with) definitely helped me move from some duds to gems. One major highlight was disaster planning 101 which made me realise how lucky we are to live in England, where deer don’t jump through windows and destroy stock (this had happened to TWO people from the thirty delegates watching the talk) and rivers don’t break their banks and carry stock and people out of windows. However, the weirdest thing was not all the ridiculous disasters everyone deals with all the time, it’s that the disasters are part of normal life. Other amazing talks included an incredibly moving and feminist talk by the military division from one of the first women admitted into the army. This was one of those talks I stumbled in because my first choice wasn’t what I expected, and oh my goodness it was amazing. I found her so inspirational that I genuinely almost cried (she’d actually told us that chewing stops you from crying earlier in the talk which I used to great affect), and I’ve already bought her book. More generally I attended a number of talks on data and ROIs. I mean, I love some facts and demonstrable outcomes, but these talks were amazing, with many of the ideas and concepts having already been used in my day to day work.
Of course, SLA isn’t just about the sessions you attend – it’s also about the people you get to meet. During the variety of socials, networking events, lunches and dinners I met some genuinely fantastic people from all over the shop, all of whom expanded my understanding of the profession, and offered genuinely interesting and fun conversation. I was also extremely lucky to have a plethora of SLA veterans keeping an eye out for me, showing me the ropes, and introducing me to other professionals (I’m looking at you guys Christina and Tracy). John (my European Chapter mentor) and Marie (the European Chapter Chair) where truly fantastic for the length of the conference, and such an inspiration to talk to and get to know. John in particular was spectacularly good at dealing with my masses of questions and opinions – indeed, if I was irritating him as much as I think I was he didn’t for a second let on. Add to these guys the most wonderful, caring, and friendly co-winner (the beautiful Ruth who soon became my hiking, exercising, and hooters buddy) anyone could ask for and I’m sure you can get an idea of how fantastic this aspect of the conference really was for me.
So anyway, gushing over… all I can say is how thankful I am to the European and the Academic chapters for this amazing experience, and encourage anyone thinking of applying for the ECCA or interested in joining SLA to just do it.