Report from San Diego: Special Libraries Association (SLA) Annual Conference

By Leigh Hallingby, Head Librarian, Open Society Foundations

SDConventionCtrViewIt was thrilling for members of the Special Libraries Association New York chapter (SLA NY) to begin the SLA 2013 Annual Conference by watching some of our esteemed members being honored by the global association.  Agnes Mattis was inducted into the SLA Hall of Fame to recognize service to the organization or one of its divisions or chapters.  Pam Rollo won the Rose L. Vormelker Award, which is presented to a mid-career member who actively teaches and/or mentors students or working professionals.  Amy Sarola was designated a SLA Rising Star, which recognizes the exceptional promise she has shown as a leader and her contribution to the association and profession.

I wish I could express as much enthusiasm for the keynote speaker as for the awardees.  Mike Walsh came across to me as a slick, polished performer with so little to say that was memorable that I am not even going to summarize his talk.  I long for the day when SLA will bring back keynoters of substance such as David McCullough, Madeleine Albright, and Tom Friedman—professionals who are well known for their long lists of accomplishments.  After the keynote, it was time to move on to the smaller sessions.  For the most part, I went to ones sponsored by the Social Science Division, of which I am a member.

At “Public Libraries Are Special Libraries Too,” I enjoyed hearing from Terry Hill from North Carolina’s Durham County Library about programs for two very different populations that the various branches serve.  One is the “creative class” of people from the seventy start-ups in the city, whom the library staff decided to reach out to in (appropriately) creative ways.  For example, an adult services librarian started a book club that meets in a bar, and a children’s librarian started a comics program for adults, “Draw and Drink,” that also meets in a bar.  Some Durham branch libraries serve homeless people to whom staff members teach basic computer skills, as well as how to search for jobs online.  Increasingly, citizens must apply for health and social service benefits online, and so the library helps in this regard too.

“Organizing Disney: The Challenges of Unionizing the Happiest Place on Earth” intrigued me, though the topic has no apparent relationship to the information profession. Steve Bolinger, an attorney, was the presenter.  He is a former part-time security officer (for seventeen years) at Disneyland. Originally an outside security firm was hired, but Disney later formed its own security force. Eventually, the Disney security guards got together and decertified their original union, the American Federation of Guards, and formed their own union. They filed paperwork and had an election, which they won by 98 percent. Disney sued later to decertify the new union, but the union survived and today has 850 members, up from 200 originally.

Speaking of supposedly happy places to work, I caught the last speaker in a simultaneous session on “dream jobs,” a wine librarian from Sonoma County, California.  Even dream jobs have their challenges: dwindling library resources, downsizing of the staff, a friends group that is aging, an out-of-date website, and a mission that needs to be rethought.  Two good pieces of career advice came out of the session:

•             Work for an employer who wants you to learn and grow, not one that treats employees as nothing more than workhorses.

•             Even if a job is scary, jump in and look for the help you need along the way.

I am always fascinated by the programs offered by (mostly public) libraries that veer into the social services arena. Perhaps this is because I hold both M.S.W. and M.L.S. degrees and worked as a social worker for five years before becoming a librarian. I attended a session entitled “Border and Immigration Issues: How They Affect Libraries, Information Centers and Community Outreach Centers.”  At this session I was exposed to one of the most interesting ideas I came across at the conference; in the San Diego Public Library system, a book requested by a patron remains at the branch library where the patron returned it rather than going back to the branch library from which it was requested.  I assume that the guiding principle is to let the patron preference determine where the books are most needed.  I found out when I returned home that the New York Public Library follows this practice.  I also learned that the San Diego Public Library has 5,000 volunteers who teach many classes, make themselves available to talk to new English speakers in “conversation cafes,” and even do pet therapy! An innovative and intensive program helps immigrants who are professionals to get relicensed in the U.S. Other services include peer support for entrepreneurs, book giveaways to homeless children, and nurses in bookmobiles to help workers in the fields.

Also at this session, speakers from the San Diego County Law Library spoke about services it offers to the public. There is a seemingly enlightened California statute that every county must have a law library open to everyone. Since Legal Aid lawyers are overwhelmed with cases, access to legal materials is a way to empower some citizens to work on their own on problems such as automobile repossession, bill collection, eviction, immigration, job loss, etc. Unfortunately, there is no state funding to go with this mandate, so the counties must assume the expenses.  The law library program is not well known and needs more publicity as well as more materials in Spanish.

I unwound from this rather intense session by engaging in a slightly guilty pleasure, which was attending the annual Baseball Caucus meeting. Former New York Yankee catcher Matt Nokes regaled us with tales of major league ball and life after the majors.  From there I moved on to a delightful evening, sponsored by one of the vendors I use, at the San Diego Padres versus Atlanta Braves game in Petco Park (within easy walking distance of the convention center).

SLA NY’s own Tom Nielsen hosted an excellent session the next day entitled “The Resilient Solo.” Some of the takeaways for me were:

•             Be resilient within your job.  Most jobs evolve over time, so you have to adjust. Maybe you will have to switch your focus from librarianship to, say, records management. If you are an expert on one topic (e.g., air traffic management) and your employer loses a contract related to that area of specialization, become an expert in another relevant subject (e.g., security).

•             Make sure you get proper credit and recognition from management. This might make the difference between staying with an employer and leaving when the job you are doing now no longer needs to be done.  Your skill set by another name can work in another area if management knows that you are a good performer.  For instance, your position managing external information can lead to a knowledge management role.

•             Network within your company.  One speaker decided that that she was going to have a ten-minute conversation with everyone in company. She did research online to find ice breakers such as “I want to congratulate on the award that you won.” Now that she has her own business, her clients are people she used to work with and got to know through her internal networking.

While chatting with other attendees in the food court at the INFO-EXPO, I was interested to learn that the SLA name change issue is still active.  Some SLA members are attempting to alter the bylaws so that the SLA board, rather than the membership, has the authority to change the name of the association.  As a strong proponent of a 21st-century name for SLA, I was glad to hear that the issue remains alive.

As for San Diego, I was amazed to learn that it is actually the ninth largest city in the US by population size (1.3 million).  Nonetheless, even people like me with little sense of direction can easily find their way around downtown.  SLA sponsored great opportunities to get acquainted with this attractive city via a three-hour bus tour Saturday evening and a two-hour hike around the city Sunday evening.  Two new phrases came into my vocabulary in San Diego: “May gray” and “June gloom.”  These refer to the two months per year when the sun sometimes dares not to come out every day.  Obviously San Diegans hold the sun to a much higher standard than we New Yorkers do!  It was great to spend a few days in their most appealing city.