03 October 2007

Connecting People and Information: Lessons from the 2007 SLA World Conference

by Nancy Bronte Matheny

With the wide eyes of Dorothy Gale from Kansas upon landing in Munchkinland, I entered the Denver Convention Center armed with a pre-registration packet and an unbridled hope and anticipation for good things to come at the 2007 Special Libraries Association (SLA) Conference. I was not to be disappointed. No Lollipop Guild or Enchanted Forest, but the experience was just as sweet and just as enchanting.

As a student of the School of Information Resources and Library Science(SIRLS) Master’s program, I came to Denver June 3rd, due to the generosity of the Information Technology (IT) Division of the SLA, and partly out of curiosity about life in the Major League. I was in Denver to accept the 2007 Jo Ann Clifton Student Award from the IT Division for my paper “Forging cultural heritage collections online: The story of An American Tale,” developed in Dr. Peter Botticelli’s amazing course Digital Libraries. Through the four-day roller-coaster ride, I picked up a few lessons I wish to share with you as future conference attendees, fellow library students extraordinaire, and future colleagues.

Lesson 1: Network, network, network
As any business coach worth his lapel pins will tell you at a professional function, network, network, network. Trite to some, and overwhelming to others, the act of cultivating people who can be helpful to one professionally is the crux of any conference. And somewhat accidentally, it was the highlight of the gathering for me. I didn’t go intending on networking, but it just happened.

Entitled “From wallflower to active networker,” Dr. Renee Gilbert’s workshop, amusing and informative, accentuated the interest among information professionals in how to do it right. The modest conference room bulged with over 200 people. Attendees were practically up on their chairs begging for more. Networking, or socializing in general appeared to be a raw nerve for many in attendance. Not surprising considering many may typically find themselves lost behind book stacks or behind a flat screen, as I am quite often found in doing my schoolwork. My friends would decidedly not consider me the wallflower variety, but the tips from a self-described “reforming shy person” were invaluable. For example, her suggestion to always be the ‘host’ instead of a ‘guest’ of any three-way conversation at a cocktail party or other mixer was helpful.

As a distance student from cyberia, it was also quite a shock meeting real human beings, and American ones at that. They’re so friendly. I am able to get over to the U.S. from time-to-time but am not really used to socializing with them. An American myself, living in the Middle East country of Oman, it was a strange but wonderful feeling. To reconnect with fellow SIRLS student and UA-SLA student president Cindy Elliott was, indeed, magical.

But what awed me the most, was the fact that, people at the top of their profession were so easily accessible and easy to talk to. It was, indeed, humbling and inspiring to chat with SLA President-elect Stephen Abram. And a privilege to speak with Jane Kenney Meyers founder of the Lubuto Library Project, to learn how she started a modest school library for HIV/AIDS orphans in a shipping container in Zambia, made me really reflect about what I might do here in Oman to help facilitate literacy in the country.

And to meet Mohammed Rashid, Arabian Gulf University Librarian and SLA Board Member for the Arabian Gulf, and Dr. Saif Al Jabri, Director of Information, Sultan Qaboos University from right here in Muscat, but right there in Denver. My intent is not to impress you, but to impress upon you how networking was made simpler by showing up at an annual conference. Network, network, network.


Lesson 2: Be prepared to be surprised
The image of a bun-sporting spinster in a polyester leisure suit was something I did not witness at the conference (okay, maybe once or twice), but rather some very hip, and very savvy well-dressed professional men and women. That was just one of several surprises I experienced at the convention.

The convention center floor itself was like a huge organism gushing with light, sound, and energy you could cut with a knife. The world’s information – where it was going, what was new, what would change lives, was right there on the convention center floor, a true adrenalin rush. “Quiz shows,” demonstrations, handouts, samplers from state-of-the-art print and multimedia sources from the Big 5 and other top global vendors was electrifying.

I was surprised to learn that Pakistan, right next door, has launched a national Digital Library (Pakistan higher Education Commission), which further promotes research in the country. Sheesh, seems we only hear about civil discontent in the news from Pakistan, not the use of cutting-edge technology to advance research in the sciences. Mr. Muhammad Shahid Soroya, librarian at the School of Mathematical Sciences at Government College University in Lahore, delivered a thoroughly informative lecture with slides about the achievements of his team, in the “Global Librarianship” workshop. Be prepared to be surprised.


Lesson 3: Keep an open mind
Going into the conference with an open mind can make for a more enriching conference experience. I learned at “Leading meetings: Getting things done and having fun” that I really can learn to work with “free-spirits.” I learned that you don’t actually have to be wearing an evening gown to attend the SLA IT Division Gold Diggers’ Ball. I learned that you can think outside the scheduled program, and crash a mixer/reception with which you have no business to meet some fascinating people. I learned that former Vice President Al Gore has real insights into the pivotal role information professionals will play in the future of our global knowledge society. Keep an open mind.


Conclusion
The Special Libraries Association (SLA) Conference was not the first library powwow that I had ever attended, but the first international one, and it was a doozy. Overall, the conference helped me bring into better focus future plans in the biz, while of course confusing the process further by opening up so many more possibilities. The conference made me glad that I had chosen this profession. So remember, when you head next year to Seattle for SLA 2008, be prepared to network, network, network, be surprised, and keep an open mind.

Nancy is a graduate student in the School of Information Resources and Library Science program. She lives in Muscat, Oman.

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