This year’s Special Library Association conference was held from 11 – 13 June 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. The theme of this year’s conference was “B’More” and there were ample opportunities for an information professional to gain the tools to truly Be More, from the educational sessions to the products on display in the exhibition hall.
I was most struck by the great egalitarian spirit that permeated the educational sessions. Time and again, I saw information professionals huddled together discussing what they had seen and heard, and making plans to see and hear even more. It was a great opportunity for me to meet other professionals of widely varied experiences: where else could you meet professionals from The Hershey Company and a design firm in upstate New York. The hardest part of the conference was selecting which sessions to attend. Through the use of the conference app, I was able to plan my days but the decisions on which sessions to attend were often difficult to make. The decisions were never between a good or bad session but rather choosing between better and best.
Each day of the conference had a keynote speaker and I was able to attend two out of the three keynotes; every speaker gave me additional food for thought. In addition, I attended many sessions, and below are my impressions of the three most influential.
In a round table discussion on Reference Requests: Time Management and Expectation Setting (moderated by Holly Lakatos and Heather Gamberg), the session attendees were seated at round tables and given a number of scenarios that are common when dealing with reference request, such as the client who wants “everything” on a particular subject or the difficult client who speaks ill of the research team. We discussed each scenario and came up with approaches to effectively deal with the situations. While each of the scenarios was different, the approaches to dealing with them were often markedly similar.
One of the key takeaways of this session was that in all situations, a robust reference interview is needed to help set boundaries and negotiate what is possible and what is not possible given the various constraints on the project. It was suggested that each request for research services can be looked upon as a mini-project. Each project has three fundamental components: time, resources, and scope. For a project to deliver true value each of these components must remain interdependent. For example, if on a particular project, the resources are in short supply, then the scope and the time for the project must be adjusted accordingly if the project is to deliver value. In addition to the reference interview, it was stressed that information professionals need to exercise self-care during the day, which means we should not be working through a lunch hour or foregoing some sort of exercise be it vigorous or something more meditative such as yoga. Training and the onboarding process of new staff was also highlighted. We, as information professionals must not be seen as the gatekeepers of materials but must strive to work in a collaborative fashion with our various constituencies so that we can provide true value to those constituencies.
It was a great pleasure to hear Dr. Carla Hayden at her keynote address. One of the stories that she told which impressed me was about a photograph of Harriet Tubman that the Library of Congress had acquired. She was showing it to somebody and this person asked how did Dr. Hayden know this was a genuine picture of Harriet Tubman. This question is all the more vital now in this era of misinformation. Dr. Hayden was able to give the assembled information professionals some hope because she said that we, as information professionals are trusted both in what we say and our ability to discriminate the true from the false. Dr. Hayden discussed a number of issues facing the profession today, namely that we need to attract younger people to the profession. This is in keeping with my personal beliefs that we are the trustees of this profession and owe it to future information professionals to pass on to them a strong profession.
Dr. Hayden also discussed the need for greater diversity in the profession, but she had a unique spin on the subject of diversity, in that, she was advocating for bringing people into the profession who may not have come into it via the traditional MLIS degree route. She was advocating inviting into the profession those individuals who have special skills that would make them good information professionals. She also challenged the assembled professionals to try and seek out ways to connect different types of libraries and to place service at the top of the professional agenda because in the final analysis, all information professionals work in the public sphere. It’s just that the definition of “public” differs from one professional to another given the circumstances of their work. The fact that we all have a public of some sort to respond to is all the more reason why we should continue to find linkages between information professionals of different disciplines. During the question and answer portion of the Dr. Hayden’s talk, she announced that all non-confidential Congressional Research Services reports will soon be available on Congress.gov.
Regulation and Legislation: The Impact of Government on Intelligence, led by Katie Cuyler, Craig Fleisher, and Jim Miller, was an extremely interesting presentation because I had never considered information provided by the government to be used in the competitive intelligence context. Government information can be used as an input to an organization’s STEEP Analysis. For example, legislative and regulatory information can be used to help guide the government’s purchasing plans. Another example is demographic data maintained by the government can help a company better understand where markets might be emerging or declining.
One of the challenges in trying to use government data is that it is not intended to be easily found, and so the ability to find and navigate government provided databases is an excellent skill to develop. In addition to being able to navigate government data sets, it is good for an organization to understand who has worked on similar projects, where the government is a significant stakeholder. Consequently, request for proposals (RFP’s) that the government may issue are a great resource may only be available through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Being able to craft an effective FOIA request is also a useful skill as a FOIA request may help unearth policy approaches which could be impactful on a project. To that end, when putting together a FOIA request, one should always start with the “why” of the request.
This conference helped me by making me think in broader terms of who I am as an information professional and the fact that I am not bound in my career to what I have done in the past. It was clearly demonstrated to me that my career options are bound only by limits of my own imagination. I plan to make attending SLA conferences in the future a priority for my professional development.