Notes from the Chair: Exchanging Ideas

Considering there are so many online platforms and outlets these days for communication and socializing, meeting for an in-person conversation seems a comparatively rare and refreshing event. Earlier this month, librarians from the SLA Boston chapter got together for an idea exchange — very much resembling a salon discussion, though more focused and including multiple subjects suggested by attendees.

This was truly some of the most valuable conference programming I’ve ever experienced. The idea for it originated with Journalism That Matters, an organization that travels around the country holding these “convening conversations” for the purpose of sharing ideas and skills. In March, they held one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to discuss how journalists and librarians could work together.

Other than participants and time, the only other requirements are markers, paper and a video camera if you wish to document the session. Attendees post questions about the top issues facing either their profession or their own work. These are then displayed on the wall, and the audience decides on which topics they want to talk about; those that are similar are combined.

The conversation concludes with a couple of key ideas or conclusions. One person from each discussion then reports the conclusion. Some of the conferences I’ve attended actually had us get up and physically stand with the idea we thought resonated most. And some have even agreed to keep in touch to help put the ideas or goals into place.

It was great to witness the enthusiasm that the SLA Boston president-elect, Khalilah Gambrell, exhibited in hosting this program. Additionally, the date on which it was held was selected so that two special guests could join us: David Cappoli and Deb Hunt, the candidates for president-elect of SLA, who were on the last leg of their East Coast campaign trail – following whistle-stops to visit with SLA members in Washington, DC and New York.

We grabbed our markers and in short order stuck paper slips expressing our concerns and questions on the wall; Khalilah very adeptly sorted them into several categories: Professional Development, Information Overload / Value of the Profession, Transitions / Retirement, Budget issues and Vendor / Publisher concerns. We then broke out into smaller groups to discuss these various topics.

I participated in the Information Overload / Value of the Profession discussion. The latter is a constant issue in our industry as well as others: with the ease of creating information it is difficult for users — even information professionals — to manage it all. It is always interesting to see where these discussions go; our conversation largely centered around cultivating relationships, reaching out to those ‘we don’t always hear from,’ and the value of extending oneself outside of his or her regular routine.

One librarian said she had success in casual conversation ‘just having coffee in the mornings with engineers’ when she was at an engineering firm. Another attendee suggested ‘identifying what’s sexy’; that is, the department in your company with most interest and activity around it. This librarian mentioned she learned this while working at Credit Suisse First Boston when there was a lot of interest in energy markets at the time. I added that interviewing colleagues personally but casually had been successful; that is, finding out what their needs and goals were, and how the librarian might support them with your own recommendations and by developing a kind of informational template around them.

David and Deb circulated to all of our groups, and definitely added some great ideas and success stories from their own experiences.

The time went by quickly and we could definitely have used more of it. A video of the session was made that hasn’t yet been posted; but I will do so once it is live. Here’s another account of our evening by Paula Cohen, another attendee.

We were kindly hosted by Dee Magnoni, the librarian at Olin College of Engineering, at their campus, which also included dinner and a library tour.

It looks likely we’ll do this again in the future; and hopefully this account will give you a sense of the format one might use to host a conversation like this. It’s a great way to get feedback and ideas on questions and concerns you’re seeking solutions for from some very engaged and involved members of the information profession.

– Leigh Montgomery

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