SLA’s 2014 Annual Conference in Vancouver: Metrics, Media, Museums, and More

By Leigh Hallingby, Head Librarian, Open Society Foundations

Digital OrcaVancouver is a most appealing conference venue, and the Western Canada Chapter of SLA were gracious hosts who made all of us Americans “from abroad” feel really welcome.  In fact, right after I arrived in Vancouver on Saturday, June 7, I took immediate advantage of an SLA-sponsored tour of the University of British Columbia’s famous Museum of Anthropology, which I had signed up for in advance.  It was a gorgeous sunny day in the upper 60’s (basically the same weather we had all week). I was thrilled to hit the ground running and to see the famous totem poles, house posts, and carved figures from several Northwest Coast nations, among many other treasures.

The conference opened on Sunday, June 8, with a chant about “The Right Way” by Elder Shane Pointe of one of Canada’s First Nations. Elder Pointe emphasized that we the attendees are the people who gather all the information and disseminate it.  The introduction from SLA President Kate Arnold included thanks to all the many vendors who sponsored the 2014 conference, especially the biggest sponsors, Springer and Dow Jones.  There were about 2,200 SLA members and vendor partners in attendance.

The SLA-NY Chapter was well represented in both attendees and presenters.  Among the presenters from SLA-NY: Guy St. Clair gave a pre-conference session on knowledge management and knowledge services, as well as a session on Transforming Libraries.  Natalie Brant of MDRC moderated a session entitled “State Government Information and the Copyright Conundrum.”  Cheryl Yanek of Catalyst presented a session entitled “Social Media for Everyone and Every Library.”

The most interesting session I attended (and it was packed to overflowing) was “Finding Those Who Don’t Want to be Found: Using Social Media and Other Cyber Tools,” presented by Julie Clegg of Toddington International.  Julie spoke about using social media tools for investigations for her clients.  She only uses free sites, and they fall into the following categories: collaboration and crowd sourcing, Internet forums, blogs and micro blogs, content communities, wikis, image repositories, social networks, virtual games, and visual worlds such as Second Life (though Julie indicated that this last one is becoming somewhat passé).

Julie gave one example of her work that riveted the audience.  She said that a client told her that he was sure all information about him was securely blocked on the Internet because he checked regularly to make sure that it was.  He challenged Julie to the use the open Web to learn anything significant about him.  A week later Julie returned to her client with his address, the names of his spouse and children, the children’s age and school and the route that is used to drive the children to school, among other bits of personal information.  It turns out that, although his information was secure, his spouse’s was not at all, and thus all the walls he thought he had put up around himself were porous.

Another interesting session was “Staying in the Game: New Roles for Libraries in Research Support.”  Elaine Lasda Bergman of SUNY Albany spoke about issues in using citation counts to measure academic research impact—ie, counting how many times an article is cited in the work of other academics to evaluate its worth.  But does a large number of citations mean a high quality article? Is the article a “one hit wonder”?  Does high journal quality equal high article quality?  Some citations may be more important than others.  Google page ranks have become influential.  Some authors may self cite to boost their “impact.” Another speaker, Mike Buschman of Plum Analytics, a new company which is now part of Ebsco, spoke about the new metrics for measuring the impact of academic research articles. He pointed out that citations are lagging indicators, as it can take years for articles to be published and to have an impact. Researchers have moved online, and thus there are now metrics such as measuring click throughs. How many libraries hold a book in which an academic wrote a chapter? How far away is it held? How many Wikipedia articles cite the work? If a professor is on YouTube giving keynote at conference, how many people watched that? How many people tweeted about someone’s work?  How many people clicked on the link to an article that was sent around via Twitter? These are just a few examples of new metrics.

Cheryl Yaneck, of Catalyst, a New York organization advocating for the advancement of women in the workplace did a terrific job as the sole presenter at “Social Media for Everyone and Every Library.”  Some of Cheryl’s points: The best marketing strategy is to be everywhere. Social Media is a filter to use to send different messages to different subcultures.  You can have different voices on different platforms.  You can jump on an existing conversation rather than starting new one.  You can craft the same message in different ways.  Use a sense of humor.  Take risks, knowing that some will fail.  At least, a failure is a learning opportunity.  It is all right to get some people angry, as anger is form of engagement, and you always want people to engage with you.  Always look at demographics of an app.  For instance, Snapchat is for quick items and has a young demographic and thus might be used to recruit interns.  Cheryl enumerated other social media tools including BuzzFeed, Foursquare, Google Hangouts, Google+, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, and Upworthy.  As someone who pretty much limits her social media use to Facebook, I was dazzled by, in effect, how many social media balls Cheryl keeps in the air at the same time.

Speaking of balls, the most fun session I attended was organized by SLA’s Baseball Caucus, and had nothing to do with the information profession (typical of Baseball Caucus sessions). The presenter was Kit Krieger, CEO of Cuban Tours, who has led about 30 baseball-themed trips to Cuba.  Kit’s talk was entitled “Cuban Baseball: A Parallel Universe.”  Baseball arrived in Cuba in 1864.  The first professional league was in 1878 around the time of the War of Independence.  So baseball’s popularity is tied to Cuba’s wars of independence.  In Cuba there is a close relationship between the players and the fans; players are tied in to the communities where they play.  Ball players make almost as little money as everyone else in Cuba, where the average citizen’s salary is $20/month. The ballparks date mostly from 70s, and the seats are not comfortable.  Havana’s stadium seats 55,000, and Santiago de Cuba’s 30,000. The others are much smaller. The fans walk to the ballparks as they do not own automobiles.  They are attentive and knowledgeable and rabid.  The players are working class heroes.  There are no paper programs and mostly no mascots. Concession stands are set up by people from the neighborhood, who sell food that they have cooked.  There is no 7th inning stretch, but there is a 5th inning coffee break.  Appropriately for Cuba, music is incessant.  It was clear from Kit’s wonderful talk that in Cuba, baseball actually is still a game and not a business!

The most important presentation at the conference was probably the Treasurer’s Report by John DiGiulio at the SLA Annual Business Meeting on Tuesday, June 10th. John spoke about multiple challenges which SLA faces: balancing revenue and expenses; dealing with reduced membership numbers; and continuing to offer conferences. SLA has been fighting to balance its budget ever since the recession began in 2008 and is definitely a slimmed down version of its former self. Fortunately membership seems to be holding steady around 8,000, but it has dropped by a third from 12,000 just a few years ago. Membership fees only bring in one quarter of annual revenue. SLA relies on the annual conference for revenue to fund programming throughout the year.  The annual conference needs to do a LOT more than just break even.

The Executive Director, Janice La Chance, followed John and pointed out that there were 360 1st timers in Vancouver—so many that SLA ran out of ribbons for them.  The Asian and Arabian Gulf chapters are fastest growing. From the membership survey, she shared that members outside US are somewhat more satisfied with SLA than US members.  Other points Janice made are that SLA has made budget and staff cuts over the years to survive, but it needs to thrive. Building loyalty at the unit level is essential to SLA’s long-term survival and growth. Competencies for Information Professionals of the 21st Century, which need revising after 11 years, will be the spine that holds SLA together. The SLA HQ building in Alexandria, VA, is for sale.  The current SLA Board President, Kate Arnold, who spoke after Janice, referred to debts that SLA needs to pay off once the building is sold.  She expects the sale to take about a year.  Kate has appointed a Conference Re-envisioning Task Force and a Name Change Task Force, among others.

The word that kept coming into my mind during the business meeting to summarize the current status of SLA is precarious.  One thing that was clear from the Treasurer’s presentation in Vancouver is that the most important step we members can take to help our beloved SLA, besides renewing our memberships, is to attend the annual conference.  SLA conference attendance is the one of the most important investments that any of us members can make in this organization that is so precious to all of us. The 2015 Annual Conference & INFO-EXPO will take place in Boston, MA, from Sunday – Tuesday, June 14-16. Philadelphia will host the 2016 Annual Conference & INFO-EXPO from Sunday – Tuesday, June 12-14.  Happily for us New Yorkers, these are highly accessible venues by bus, train, plane, and automobile. So please mark the dates on your calendars and be there (or be square!).  Actually, in 2015, Be Revolutionary!  That is the clever and compelling theme of the Boston conference, which should be terrific.