Adventures in Librarianship During SLA at Philadelphia 2016

By Coral Salomón

I started library school in the fall of 2014 and subsequently joined the student chapter of SLA at Pratt Institute during the Spring semester. I was fortunate to attend the 2015 SLA Conference in Boston where I met a lot of wonderful people and attended very interesting sessions. I wanted to repeat the experience this year and registered for the 2016 SLA Conference in Philadelphia.

I have always enjoyed visiting Philadelphia and throughout the conference I also realized that it’s an excellent location for librarians and archivists to meet given its rich history.

During the annual meeting of the Archival and Preservation Caucus, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania presented on its Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories. This project aims to assist and increase access to important archival collections held at Philadelphia’s many small, primarily volunteer-run, museums and historical sites/societies. The organization discussed a few of the exciting collections they had identified during the course of this project, from big names like the Civil War naval engineer John Ericsson to nearly unknown individuals like Dr. Hiram Corson, an abolitionist and prominent advocate for women physicians. The group dispensed useful advice for archivists in small organizations, from posting Finding Aids online to creating a donation scope in order to outline what material can be accepted from donors. As a library reference and archives research assistant, I found their advice very helpful and illuminating, especially when they discussed the importance of not getting bogged down by item-level descriptions and focusing on the big picture. More information about this initiative and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s guide on how to create archives for small institutions can be found their website.

I had the opportunity to take a class with the New York Public Library: Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division’s Matt Knutzen which inspired me to attend a panel titled “Map Librarian’s 75th Anniversary: Surveying the Past & Charting the Future.” I learned a lot while celebrating the SLA Geography and Maps Division’s 75th birthday.

The need for this division stemmed from World War II, when the military lacked adequate maps and reached out to librarians. SLA first denied the formation of the Geography and Map Division because the request came from non-librarians, such as gas station owners, tourism companies, and other industries that dispensed maps as a byproduct of their business. NYPL and the American Geographic Society were important proponents of the division and were influential in its creation. The panel also touched on evolving map cataloguing standards and even gave a shout-out to David Rumsey’s map collection. The panel ended on an interesting note, with the speaker stating that as mapping becomes increasingly digital and susceptible to hacking, among other cyber vulnerabilities, the U.S. Navy is exploring the idea of returning to old-school sextants.

One of the reasons that I enjoy attending SLA’s conferences is that it offers a window into new skillsets and specialities that I am not familiar with. I attended the “Ethnographic Research Methods” panel where experts in libraries, marketing, and academia gathered to discuss different perspectives and applications of this methodology. Michael Khoo, Assistant Teaching Faculty from The iSchool at Drexel University, gave a good introduction on ethnographic research in the social science. He explained how field research can be classified as either emic, world as constructed by “subjects”, or etic, world as interpreted by researcher. Ethnographic research falls under the former field. However, my favorite part of this panel was the presentation by Carolyn Marconi, President of Catapult Marketing Group.

Ms. Marconi explained how, in marketing, ethnographic research meant qualitative research done in “the field.” Other qualitative methods include focus groups, in-depth interviews, telephone interview and on-line bulletin boards. However, ethnographies are observational and user-led, even though they can also include questions/probes from the researcher.

Technology has permitted ethnographies to become easier to conduct and more prolific in her field. Ms. Marconi showed us an example of a tech-enabled ethnographic study she conducted while performing research for a lip balm.  Self-described “heavy users” of lip balm submitted cell phone recorded video of where they stored their lip balms. Participants recorded copious stashes of lip balms stored everywhere from their night stands to their purses to their cars. Ms. Marconi and her client were able to obtain information that would not have been possible from mere phone interviews. The level of understanding of the client became much more profound after researching their viewer-submitted recordings. Her examples demonstrated that there was a difference between what people say they do during interviews and what people actually do.

I thought Ms. Marconi’s presentation was very interesting and could apply to other fields beyond marketing. I appreciated the multi-disciplinary and collaborative approach to this panel.

I had the chance to talk with fellow students and recent graduates of other library schools during the Eastern Chapter reception. I had a very rewarding conversation with a fellow SLA-er about how education can engender a culturally literate society, as well as the correlations between knowledge acquisition and empathy. Meeting cohorts at SLA conferences is always a joy and I gained a lot from talking to new colleagues and celebrating their personal and professional victories.

I feel very fortunate and grateful that SLANY made it possible for me to attend this year’s SLA Conference. I furthered my understanding of skills that I enact on a daily basis and learned of new practices. I left the conference on a high note after listening to Marylina Johnson’s closing remarks: “Librarians make the categories, they don’t let the categories define them.”