SLA 2015: key learning points

View of Boston from the aeroplane

Boston from above

The week before last I headed off to Boston, MA, USA for the Special Libraries Association conference. I’m lucky enough to have been able to attend in previous years, so this was my third conference (thanks to the Bonnie Hilditch International Librarian Award, from the Engineering and SciTech divisions).

I really got a lot out of it this year, I would say probably even more so than the previous SLA conferences I’ve attended. I think because I’m a little more developed in my own career, and have experienced a few different roles and sectors, I know a bit more about what I want to get out of conferences like this.

It was a fantastic few days. I was hugely impressed by the programme – there were some really good, meaty topics covered, and a good variety of topics and session styles.

Boston was also fantastic to visit! I stayed on for a couple of days afterwards and did some sightseeing, including of course the wonderful Boston Public Library, which is stunningly beautiful and exactly what all libraries should look like!

Boston Public Library lion

Boston Public Library lion

I live-tweeted my way through most of the conference, and have created a Storify for each day, if anyone wants to see details of what was covered: Day One, Day Two and Day Three. Rather than rehash all of that, I thought I’d just do a brief post covering my main learning points/takeaways from some of my favourite sessions.

Keynote: Leigh Gallagher

Leigh Gallagher is Assistant Managing Editor at Fortune magazine, and gave an impassioned speech about the value of skilled information professionals in the world of journalism. It was very inspiring and engaging, although I did have a slight moment of skepticism at how valued librarians really are in the media world, given that in the UK the media librarians association AUKML had to close a number of years ago due to lack of members, as so many media librarians had lost their jobs. This was confirmed later when Leigh, after waxing lyrical about how great the librarian at Fortune is, noted that his job is now the only info pro role at the organisation, where a few years ago they had half a dozen.

That was the only slightly sour note for me though, and otherwise it was an excellent keynote. Leigh gave the usual advice (which I’m a little sad to see still needs to be stated, but I think it does!) that librarians need to get better at shouting about our value, get out of the library and embed ourselves in organisations to become indispensable.

One point she made that I found very interesting, was about branding information services as a high-value, artisanal product. Leigh noted that when writing her book, she’d hired Fortune’s librarian to work for her personally as a researcher and fact-checker. This is a hugely valuable service that many people would pay a premium for – so why don’t librarians exploit this!

I thought this was a really good point, and it is one I haven’t heard made in this way before. I think it’s difficult because many of us work in non-profit sectors, and even those of us who don’t perhaps still have the same mindset. The history of librarianship is very much that of a social purpose public service, which could inhibit us from seeing opportunities like this.

Of course, this is all a very neoliberal way of looking at it, which I’m sure wouldn’t go down to well at the Radical Librarians Collective I’m due to attend next week, so maybe I should leave this one for now!

Revolutionary Learning Organisations

This was one of my favourite sessions from the conference! It was a really interesting, case study-based and audience participatory session about successful strategies from and for revolutionary learning organisations. These were defined as organisations that:

  1. Are focused on advancing knowledge (e.g. all the case studies were from higher education institutions)
  2. Have a culture focused on people
  3. Are focused on continuing education (i.e. of staff) and change, and are supportive of both risk and failure.

There were some really interesting examples used in the case studies. One in particular I think horrified many of us in the room (and certainly many on Twitter, if responses to my tweet were anything to go by!): an organisation that shut down its library on a Friday afternoon every so often (I think they said about once a month?) for a four-hour “mega meeting”. Not only this, but the meetings are held at each team members’ house on a rotating basis, and the team members all cook things to bring to the meeting.

Just the idea of a four-hour meeting fills me with horror, not to mention the hostess anxiety I would get from having to invite my co-workers into my home and provide food! The presenters made a couple of good points though. The first was that they were aware this set-up wouldn’t work everywhere, and they wouldn’t expect us all to go off and try it – to which we all breathed a sigh of relief!

They then noted that the main point of the case study wasn’t about the mega-meeting itself: it was about getting away from the office, having an open forum where anyone could share ideas or concerns, and getting to know each other and bonding as a team. One staff member was quoted as saying that you couldn’t help but work with each other differently once you’d all met each others’ cats and dogs! The presenters suggested that many workplaces could aim for these goals in another way, e.g. by launching a workplace book group, or a sports team, or just meeting outside the workplace.

The other really great idea I picked up from this session was the 15five tool. This involves everyone spending fifteen minutes every Friday afternoon to answer five simple questions about their week. These answers are then shared with the management team, who use them to keep in touch with their team, identify any upcoming problems, or new great ideas, and set goals for development. The presenters gave an example set of questions:

  1. What challenges are you facing?
  2. How are you going to address these, and what help/support will you need?
  3. How are you feeling, and what are you doing in your area/team to build morale?
  4. What one thing would make the biggest improvement in your team or organisation? (This could be as big or small as you wanted)
  5. What is going well for you, and did you have any big wins this week?

I really like this idea, and I love the reflexive questions! I particularly like that it ends on a positive. There is a paid-for tool that organisations could use to implement this, but I think it could just as easily be done just via email, or even just as personal reflexion. I am going to start doing this myself at the end of each week, and will suggest it to my colleagues to see if anyone else has an interest.

Success in Knowledge Management: the anti-revolutionary approach

Katherine Schopflin’s session on KM was a real eye-opener. I’ve sort of stopped reading about KM since I left the law firm world – KM is a huge deal in commercial law firms, but I get the impression it’s not really on the radar in academic libraries. What this session made me realise is that it really should be! Knowledge needs managing everywhere, but particularly in large organisations with lots of separate departments with a tendency to keep everything in discrete silos.

I won’t go into masses of detail here – I would urge anyone with an interest to read Katherine’s paper, as I don’t think I could really do it justice with a summary! One of her main themes was the idea that KM has to come from the bottom and be internally-led and driven, rather than being imposed externally as is often the case. That really struck a chord with me, and  I’ll be giving some thought as to how this applies to the academic world.

Trends in Open Education and Open Access

This session, on an Open Education Resources (OER) initiative at the University of Massachusetts, gave me some good food for thought. I don’t actually know to what extent OERs have been explored at Huddersfield, but the speaker, Marilyn Billings, gave some compelling arguments in their favour, including:

  • Saving money for students (and the library?) on textbooks
  • More engaging resources created
  • Improved student engagement and performance (grades went up!)
  • Aiding innovative teaching methods e.g. flipped classroom
  • Opportunity for lecturers to raise their profile within and outside of the institution
  • Opportunity for librarians to raise awareness of topics like Open Access, copyright, Creative Commons, etc.

The programme at UMass was very ambitious, but had some impressive results. I’d love to know how much this sort of thing is being explored in the UK.

How to select the best databases for your community

Speaker Giovanna Badia gave a great, engaging and practical presentation on methods for comparing subscriptions databases. This was probably the most practically useful session I attended, and was also very entertaining – no mean feat given the potentially very dry topic! I’m actually writing up this session for the Engineering Division, so I won’t go into detail here. If you’re interested though, Giovanna has made a short YouTube video summarising her key points:

Those were all the main learning points I wanted to share, although I attended many other great sessions! My not having mentioned a session here shouldn’t be taken as indicating I didn’t get as much out of it, I just wanted to pick out a few highlights and the ideas that I am going to act on here.

I was a bit overwhelmed by the end of the conference to be honest, hence taking this long to write it up! I had an absolutely brilliant time though, met some fantastic people and got some great ideas to take back to work – which I understand is the purpose of these things 🙂


5 comments on “SLA 2015: key learning points

  1. Laura, what a brilliant post. You have a gift for writing. Thanks for sharing these insights.

  2. hello – enjoyed your post as well. I think that because you went to different sessions (except keynote) than me, it really brings home how much there is to do/learn at conferences. Thanks

  3. Really interesting summaries here – definitely need to go away and investigate things further. The KM stuff particularly, something I’d love to see develop where I am working, after conversations with researchers recently. Might steal the idea about those questions about the week too. Sounds like a great conference overall.

  4. […] for next year’s Bonnie Hilditch Award. This was the award that enabled me to attend the SLA conference in Boston in June this […]

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