The first image that came up when I searched for “British American flags” on Pixabay!
Over the past 6-7 years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend numerous LIS conferences. In the early days this was largely due to my policy of applying for every student/new professional conference award in sight – I would highly recommend this approach!
In addition to various UK-based conferences (such as CILIP, UKSG, BIALL, and more recently, LILAC), I’ve also managed to attend the SLA (Special Libraries Association) conference in the USA on a few occasions.
Attending an international conference is undoubtedly a different experience to a domestic conference. You’re likely to be travelling longer distances for a start, and potentially visiting a place where the language and culture may be very different to what you’re used to. Thinking about the conferences I’ve attended, there are some notable differences between the UK-based and US-based ones.
With the large caveat that the only US conference I’ve attended is SLA (so I don’t know how many of my observations apply to other US conferences such as ALA), I thought it might be interesting to reflect on some of the differences I’ve observed between conferences in the two countries, and what that might tell us about the professions in these countries.
Size and scale
While I still had this post in draft, I asked on Twitter what people who’d attended both thought were the main differences between US and UK conferences. Unsurprisingly, the first few replies I got mentioned the sheer size of US conferences!
This is probably unsurprising given it’s such a huge country, but conferences in the US are on a scale unheard of in the UK. I’d be interested to know how other international conferences around the world, such as IFLA, compare for scale.
The size of the SLA conference means that there are a huge amount of sessions, meetings and social events all going on at the same time. And the venues are enormous, so when planning what sessions to attend you may need to factor in a 20 minute walk between rooms! This all feels very different to a UK conference, where there may only be two or three parallel sessions in adjacent rooms.
Attitude – optimism, networking, celebration
Another big difference I’ve noticed is in attitude and atmosphere. The SLA conferences I’ve attended have been bubbling over with optimism and celebration. The opening session, at which awards and honours are presented, feels like being at the library Oscars! It’s hard to describe this without sounding like I’m criticising UK librarians and conferences, which is very much not my intention. But I think while we do celebrate the profession and our colleagues at UK library conferences, it’s nowhere near the kind of full-throated roar of enthusiasm that you get at SLA – and, so I understand, other US conferences.
I’m certain this isn’t all in my mind: others on Twitter mentioned the “sense of occasion” that SLA has, and I clearly remember exchanging astonished, delighted glances with my fellow ECCAs at the completely unselfconscious glee of the award presenters and recipients, and audience, at my first SLA in 2009. I also remember assuring other ECCAs in later years that yes, it was always like that, and yes, that enthusiasm would be sustained throughout the conference!
I’m probably just exposing my own British repression here, but there is something incredibly refreshing about being at a place where everyone is celebrating their shared goals and achievements, and no one feels the need to apologise for their own enthusiasm. I think we do aim for this at UK conferences, and I’ve certainly come away from some just as inspired as I was at SLA (LILAC springs to mind as being the closest in atmosphere that I’ve found this side of the Atlantic), but I always feel like there’s this undertow of not wanting to get too full of ourselves, not wanting to stand up and say “Yes, I did this and it was BRILLIANT!”.
There’s also less general moaning at SLA: I feel like the American default is optimism, whereas the British default is cynicism, which does lend itself to a lot of slightly world-weary conversations at UK conferences. I don’t actually think this is a bad thing – boundless optimism can be exhausting to be around, and I think it’s good to be realistic about the problems we face. But it’s notable what a difference that change in focus makes to the overall atmosphere at something like a conference.
America is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is… (with apologies to Douglas Adams!). So although coming from the UK to the US feels like a really long journey, depending on where exactly in that vast country you’re visiting, there may be people there who’ve travelled further than you within the same country to be there.
Because the distances are so vast, an annual conference like SLA is often the only time that many people there, who may have known and worked with each other remotely for years, actually get to see each other and interact face-to-face. This can sometimes give SLA a bit of the feeling of a big family reunion – which is no bad thing!
I assume for similar reasons, SLA’s divisions and chapters usually have their business meetings at the conference, as well as things like awards presentations. Which makes total sense given the difficulty otherwise of getting enough of the Board and membership of each division together, but feels rather strange to an outsider to see that many committee meetings etc. on the conference schedule. It also means that if you’re volunteering with a couple of divisions, you could easily spend most of your conference at meetings and miss a lot of the actual conference programming.
Range of topics covered
Due to the size and scale of SLA, and the diverse experiences and interests of its members, it has a more varied programme than I’ve seen at any UK conference. This may be partly down to the way the conference is organised: session planning is done by each of the individual chapters and divisions, rather than being managed centrally. (Although there was talk about changing this process at the last SLA I attended, in 2015, so I don’t know if this is still the case.)
The size of the conference and variety of programming means there is always something of interest, regardless of what your job entails. It also means that you can be chatting to another delegate over lunch or at a social event, and have had totally different conference experiences.
One large difference between UK and US conferences is conference etiquette. At SLA (and, I believe, other conferences), it is completely acceptable to get up and walk out of a session you’re in. I would never in a million years do this at a UK conference, and as a speaker I’d probably be distraught if anyone did this in my session! So it took some getting used to at SLA.
It helped me to understand the reasons behind this: SLA is such a huge conference, with such a large variety of sessions going on simultaneously, that it is impossible to make it to everything you might want to hear. So if you’re in a session that isn’t working for you, it is acceptable, and even encouraged, to go somewhere else where you’ll benefit more. Having adjusted to this, I actually find this attitude really refreshing – why should you waste your time in a session that you’re not getting anything out of?
It’s also useful to remember that walking out of a session isn’t necessarily a negative judgment on the speaker. There are many reasons you might want to leave a session, including but not limited to:
- The session isn’t quite what you expected (e.g. doesn’t really match the title/description, or is pitched either to basic or too complex for your needs)
- You’re struggling to hear/see the speaker and/or presentation (poor acoustics, room layout, and crimes against PowerPoint are all sadly still common everywhere!)
- It’s a session with multiple speakers and you were most interested in hearing one of them
- It overlaps with another session you’re interested in, so you’re timing your attendance to try to make both
- You’ve been following another session that looks more relevant to you via Twitter – this is one of the reasons I love live-tweeting conference sessions!
All conferences are a chance not just to learn, but to network and have fun! I’ve never been to a conference on either side of the Atlantic where the social events weren’t just as much part of the event as the daytime conference sessions.
The main difference is that because UK conferences are smaller, there tends to be just one main conference event (usually something like a gala dinner), or maybe two (one each evening) if it’s a multi-day conference. At SLA, rather than one main social event for the whole conference, there are multiple smaller events run by the different divisions and chapters, and sometimes by sponsors and exhibitors. These include breakfasts, lunches, “open houses” (evening networking events), no-host dinners (informal get-togethers at local restaurants, where everyone pays for their own food), karaoke nights, and of course the infamous IT Division dance party!
This means that there isn’t generally one event where everyone is in attendance, which can feel a little fragmented and make it feel a bit difficult to just turn up if you don’t know many people there.
I have to say that personally, I’ve always found SLA really friendly and welcoming – they have dedicated events for first-timers, and have been running a buddy system for newcomers for the past few years. But I get that with the scale of an event like this, it can feel daunting as a newcomer.
Overall, I think there are more similarities than differences between UK and US LIS conferences. Wherever the conference happens to be, you will find dedicated information professionals, passionate about their work and eager to meet, work with and learn from others in the field. Being aware of some of the structural and cultural differences in attending conferences in different parts of the world will help you know what to expect, and make the most out of being there.
As was pointed out on Twitter, the fall in value of the pound may mean that there are fewer opportunities for UK delegates to attend US conferences. And of course, the actions of the current US administration will undoubtedly have an impact on the number of overseas delegates able or willing to travel to the US for such events.
I started drafting this blog post before the election of the current President, and long before the attempts were made to block people from Muslim-majority nations from travelling to the US. I was therefore in two minds about whether to publish this post: I have decided to do so, but with this note added.
There is a call for international researchers, academics and librarians to boycott conferences held in the US, in solidarity with those who are prevented from attending on the basis of the crude and discriminatory measures attempted by the current administration: I believe it’s a matter of conscience whether or not you choose to participate in such a boycott, and I would not judge a fellow professional for deciding to travel to the US regardless of this, but I think it’s important for us all to examine our privilege and our consciences on this matter.privilege and our consciences on this matter.