A First Timer at SLA Annual 2015: An Academic Librarian’s Perspective

By Raymond Pun

Wendy Davis from the USDA discusses Taking the Library to the World

Wendy Davis from the USDA discusses Taking the Library to the World

This year I was able to attend the SLA conference held in Boston, Massachusetts. It was an exciting opportunity because it was also my first time attending an SLA conference. In my library career, I’ve only attended ALA conferences and they were often overwhelming. In this reflection piece, I’ll share my thoughts about SLA and ALA and some of the highlights of SLA conference for me.

I was definitely looking forward to attending the SLA conference for a few reasons:

  1. I was accepted to give a poster presentation for the Business & Finance (B&F) Poster Session. My poster focused on building embedded librarianship for non-academic groups. I presented how I work closely with administrative departments such as HR, Career Center and Public Affairs to support their research needs such as leading library workshops for staff, providing consultations or simply adding collections in their interests. I am generally not a big fan of poster presentations, but I thought I would present one since I was attending SLA and I’ve never been to an SLA conference before.To my surprise, I met a lot of interesting people in my poster session that gave me fresh ideas. I met librarians from philanthropic institutions, medical schools, private companies, and government, public and academic libraries. They were impressed with the idea of “connecting the dots” to bring library resources to central administrators like human resources or public affairs departments. The chance to interact with so many professionals from different backgrounds made this session a lively one for me.
  2. I was the recipient of the “Achievement in Academic Business Librarianship” award by the B&F Section. It was a surprise and an honor to receive this award and meet so many talented and knowledgeable business librarians at SLA as well.

It was a great opportunity to attend SLA Boston for these reasons, but I also had a chance to go to many thought-provoking sessions. The conference was quite an innovative one. I picked up new ideas from various sessions and connected with many special librarians and librarians in transition. Of course this conference is smaller compared to ALA, but the sessions were definitely unique and the meetings centralized in one location unlike ALA. The meetings at ALA Annual tend to cluster around the same time and be scattered in different buildings in a large city like Chicago, San Francisco or Washington D.C. ALA Annual is typically five days long, while this SLA conference was three days. ALA felt more overwhelming by the selection of workshops, vendors, speakers, events and programs that tend to occur simultaneously.

At SLA, there were more open meetings for networking and I felt that I was able to connect with people quicker than in ALA conferences. SLA held workshops about legal research, grant writing, e-sciences, digital and nanotechnologies, and data management. ALA is a mixed bag of programs for public, school and academic libraries with a rare program/workshop that is interdisciplinary and technology-based like SLA. You can learn a lot at the ALA Annual, but you really have to spend time planning ahead to maximize your learning opportunities.

In this SLA conference, I noticed that there were more special librarians in corporate, legal, government, medical, and research-based companies attending this conference than ALA for obvious reasons – it was great to get to hear how most of them they were once academic and public librarians before making the move to special librarianship such as consulting or corporate libraries or vice versa. For example, in the B&F Section, there have been librarians who once worked in academic libraries and now have switched over to private research institutions; I have met those who have worked in the corporate setting and now work in academic business libraries in different regions of the U.S.

Some of the workshops I attended gave me ideas to develop further or test out in my own position as a reference librarian. I thought I would share a few notes I have taken from selected sessions I visited and how I plan to develop these ideas for my own career as an academic librarian:

  • Careers in Prospect Research: The Basics – I learned how to conduct basic prospect research; I never knew that so many information consultants gather data or public records of potential donors using resources freely available on the web or subscribed by public libraries. In general, prospect research requires patience, persistence, strong research skills, and an interest in finding information. It is not easy! I work with data often, and finding appropriate datasets can be tricky at times. This workshop taught me to see data differently and think how important it is for researchers to treat personal data with care.
  • Academic Division Roundtable, New Member Welcome & Awards Reception – It was nice to attend an academic division and meet with academic librarians in an SLA conference. Attendees were broken into groups and had to discuss various topics concerning academic librarianship. My group’s topic was “challenges of being a manager.” We discussed the issues and challenges facing a library leader, and it was helpful to hear how many of my colleagues do not want to be managers or department heads. They simply want to be specialists or experts in their areas without having to manage people, since it is a very difficult role. One highlight from this workshop was connecting with one of the conveners, an associate dean at a major university library. We spent time talking about the challenges and opportunities working in different settings and she really provided excellent advice and guidance.
  • Taking the Library to the World: Innovative Outreach and Services beyond Borders – This was by far the most interesting session I attended. I learned how librarians from the U.S Department of Agriculture, University of Florida and Cornell University collaborate with various groups to provide outreach services. For example, the librarian from the University of Florida is embedded in many master gardener training classes in the university. The librarian provides digital resources, creates research guides and offers consultations frequently to students. Hearing a panel made up of government and academic librarians on similar trends was a new experience for me. It was an opportunity to “think outside of the box” in providing outreach and research services to faculty in different areas. I could attend fieldtrips or fieldwork with some classes and support faculty as an “embedded librarian” as well.

Overall, attending the SLA conference was worth it because it expanded my connections and taught me to think about information and information services in a way I hadn’t before. In my current job, I support the academic community in my school through reference, research and instructional services. It could be a typical academic position – scheduling appointments for meetings, sending emails or creating research workshops – but attending the SLA conference opened up my “creative” mind a bit more to additional potential.

The conference provided a lot of new food for thought and I hope to attend next year’s conference in Philly!

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