SLA Philadelphia: Impressions from a Second Career First Timer

SLA BadgeBy Alexandra Gil

Thanks to the generosity of SLA-NY, I had the opportunity to attend my first SLA Conference this year in Philadelphia. As a recent library school graduate in the process of a major career change, the experience was eye-opening. Everywhere I went, there was someone to meet and something to learn. People were incredibly warm and welcoming, especially to someone wearing a “First Timer” ribbon, and were generous with their time and advice. For me, this began even before I had left New York, at the SLA Happy Hour downtown. I got to meet a lot of people, some of whom I would see again at the conference, and received a lot of helpful tips (including making sure to wear that “First Timer” ribbon!).

Because of my educational and professional background, I am entering the library profession with different experiences and expectations than many of my peers. I spent seven years as a practicing intellectual property attorney, and am currently teaching an undergraduate course on legal issues in the arts and working as short films curator for a film festival. In library school, I had the chance to complete an internship helping to assess and inventory a collection of rare books from the 1600s-1800s, as well as a master’s project exploring how academic institutions address intellectual property issues, with recommendations for cost-effective educational initiatives. More than anything else, I was excited to discover the wide range of topics that fall under the umbrella of SLA. Law, history, science, engineering, medicine… all these topics and more were represented by the speakers, vendors, and attendees. This was a perfect fit for me, given my eclectic background in law, history, engineering, and film.

Over the course of the conference weekend, I attended several interesting sessions, explored the Info-Expo pavilion, made new connections, saw old friends, and went to many events. The parties were plentiful, the drink tickets ubiquitous. Overall, the conference was a great opportunity for me to further my development within the profession through attending workshops and networking events, learning about new research tools and current trends in the field, and meeting future colleagues while exploring career prospects.

The SLA Fellows and First Timers Meet was a wonderful opportunity to meet people like myself who were new to SLA and the conference. They ranged from current library school students and recent graduates to those who had been working in the field for years but not previously attended a conference. In addition, there were a lot of conference regulars on hand to dispense advice to the rest of us. Some of the best advice I got included:

  • talk to everyone, no matter who they are or what they do;
  • go to every event, even if you think you’re not interested in the field, since you never know whom you’ll meet;
  • vendors are mostly looking to make sales, but if you catch them in a lull, they’ll usually be willing to answer your questions and show you their product even if you’re not their target customer; and
  • don’t be afraid to ask questions, people are happy to share their advice and expertise.

Taking this advice to heart, I attended as many networking events as I could, spanning a variety of fields. All the different divisions were very welcoming, and each event had a distinct personality. At the Joint Divisions Open House, a friend from library school was being presented with an award from her division. When the presenters heard that I was attending the conference on a scholarship from SLA-NY, they announced my award to everyone as well, and people came up to congratulate me for the rest of the conference, which was unexpected and very nice.

One of the more surprising sessions I attended was the Baseball Caucus. Though I was not sure what to expect from the conference, I would certainly not have imagined I’d get to hear a former major league baseball player discuss his experiences. It was a fun, lively discussion, and I even walked away from it with a book about baseball and antitrust law, two subjects I find very interesting. Perhaps the most interesting session for me was Adventures in Archives, where I learned about the Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories and took copious notes to share with my internship site supervisor and others, who would certainly find a project like this relevant to their work. In other sessions, I learned about topics as varied as maps, food science, cyber-security, journal publication, and so much more.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the conference, for me, was the Info-Expo pavilion. I had anticipated learning about interesting topics in the information sessions, but nothing prepared me for the wide range of vendors and services, many of which I had never previously considered. I spent many years as an intellectual property lawyer without encountering services like copyright clearance centers, for example. The services and products I found most familiar were, unsurprisingly, those aimed at legal practitioners – Law360, Lexis, Westlaw, Bloomberg, etc. – though even there, I was able to learn about new functions and features available in each of these services. In addition to the expected conference swag, I walked away with a lot of informational materials with applications well beyond the conference. For example, I picked up a comic book at the WIPO booth, which will be useful for the class I teach as a simple visual aid to explain the way patents work.

And yet, as much as I did at the conference, there was still so much more I wish I could have done. For every session I was able to attend, there were two going on at the same time that I wanted to sit in on as well. For me, that’s the sign of a successful conference. I am grateful to have had the experience, and I look forward to being fully engaged with SLA going forward.