Wednesday, September 28, 2011

After the sky

There are Giants in the sky!
There are big tall terrible Giants
in the sky!

Maybe it's just the air travel that always makes me think of this song from Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods whenever I go to a library conference, but the more I reflect upon the phenomenon the more I'm convinced that there's something deeper going on. Having just returned from Interlending & Document Supply in Chicago, I thought I'd take a closer look at the lyrics and how they apply to the library conference experience.

When you're way up high
And you look below
At the world you left
And the things you know,
Little more than a glance
Is enough to show
You just how small you are.

Conferences provide both perspective and context. Simply being removed from one's everyday library environment is an important aspect of this shift in perception, and one of the main reasons why virtual conferences (as relatively cheaper and useful as they may be in certain circumstances) will never be able to replicate fully the experience of traveling and meeting your colleagues in person.

One of the more humbling aspects of Interlending & Document Supply was the international scope of the conference. Even working for a major university library I routinely felt that each speaker was opening up vistas that I could only dimly apprehend before, giving me a true sense of my place in the grand scheme of global research sharing.

When you're way up high
And you're own your own
In a world like none
That you've ever known,
Where the sky is lead
And the earth is stone,

You're free, to do
Whatever pleases you,
Exploring things you'd never dare
'Cause you don't care,

Being at a conference can be absolutely liberating. While you may have some colleagues there whom you look forward to seeing again, often you will find yourself in an unfamiliar setting (perhaps in a city you've never even been to before), speaking from the heart and sharing your thoughts and opinions with total strangers. As much as this social aspect of conference-going can be daunting, I always look forward to those serendipitous encounters that bring me in contact both with new colleagues or people I've actually been doing business with from afar for years.

In that light, it's funny and a little frightening how one's reputation can precede oneself among your peers. On the first day of ILDS I was standing in line talking with someone when suddenly the person in front of us whirled around and said: "Wait! You're Tom Bruno?" As it turned out, she was a colleague at a library that we have a lot of dealings with, many of them rather complicated and headache-inducing for both of us to resolve. Never in a million years did I think I'd meet the person at the other end of those ILL requests, but now that I have I feel a much closer kinship than I had before. I had worried that I was at the very best a "frenemy" in her list of resource sharing contacts, but by the conference's end we were fast friends.

When suddenly there's
A big tall terrible Giant at the door,
A big tall terrible lady Giant
sweeping the floor.
And she gives you food
And she gives you rest
And she draws you close
To her Giant breast,
And you know things now
that you never knew before,
Not till the sky.

I'm a fairly extroverted guy when I need to be. but the library conference experience always pushes my limits in how social I can be. After an exhilarating day of engaging presentations and thought-provoking conversations with fellow libraries during coffee breaks and over lunch it can be sorely tempting to crawl back to your hotel room and zone out in front of the Food Network for the rest of the evening, but a conference is charmed time. You only have it for so long, and once the opportunity is lost you will almost certainly regret having squandered it on something mundane that you could do any day of the week at home.

There are indeed giants in the sky, but the rock stars and superheroes of our profession are more accessible than you might think. After hours is the time when keynote speakers, distinguished presenters, and guests of honor mix and mingle with the rest of the conference attendees, and there's literally no telling who you may end up talking to after the first two glasses of wine. It's okay to be a gobsmacked fan- I must have amused the heck out of the folks of the Center for Research Libraries by telling them over and over again that visiting their library facility was on my "Bucket List" of things I wanted to see before I died- but it's not okay to be a wallflower.

Only just when you've made
A friend and all,
And you know she's big
But you don't feel small,
Someone bigger than her
Comes along the hall
To swallow you for lunch.

And you heart is lead
And your stomach stone
And you're really scared
Being all alone...

And it's then that you miss
All the things you've known
And the world you've left
And the little you own-

The fun is done.
You steal what you can and run.

No conference can last forever. At some point your brain will be filled to bursting with new ideas and you will be so emotionally tapped out that even the prospect of gourmet food and an open bar won't be inspiration enough to spend another night out on the town with your fellow librarians. It's funny how quickly this threshold can be reached at a good conference, which is perhaps all for the better that some of the best library conferences I've attended over the past few years have kept it short and sweet. No sooner have you accepted this caffeine and adrenaline powered whirlwind of ideas as your reality than it is time to leave- and suddenly you are rushing to make your travel connections because you pushed your conference agenda to the very envelope so as not to miss so much as a minute of the magic.

My flight out of Chicago on Wednesday night was sufficiently late that I was able to take that Bucket List tour of CRL I had always wanted, plus visit the brand spanking new Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago, where robotic cranes pluck items out of high-density storage bins and whisk them up to a glittering reading room under a glass dome. Between the charter bus scheduled to ferry us from library to library and the thought of having to ride two subway lines to get back to the airport- not to mention the prospect of having to run the TSA gauntlet once I got to O'Hare!- I was already sweating bullets as the conference was declared closed in the early afternoon; fortunately, however, my colleague at the University of Chicago helped me avoid a full-bore panic by arranging for an early tour of the robots at Mansueto and even drove some of us to the nearest L station (thanks again, David! You are a prince among librarians).

Fortune favors the bold- sometimes it even smiles upon the foolish...

And you scramble down
And you look below,
And the world you know
Begins to grow:

The roof, the house, and your Mother at the door.
The roof, the house and the world you never thought to explore.
And you think of all of the things you've seen,
And you wish that you could live in between,
And you're back again,
Only different than before,
After the sky.

Coming home is always a mixed blessing. On the one hand it's nice to be back among friends and family, and who doesn't look forward to sleeping in their own bed after several nights in a hotel? But returning to the office can be jarring, even after just a short conference. When I was a support staff member I would invariably dread whenever my supervisor came back from a library conference, as she'd want to implement all of the new ideas she had picked up from her colleagues... usually all at once!

Now that the tables have turned and I am the one coming back to the office in a hyperstimulated state of mind, I more keenly appreciate the dilemma my previous boss must have found herself in. I try to temper my enthusiasm, but at the same time I don't want my time up in the sky to have been all for naught. Trying to share the creative energy one brings back from a conference without overly disrupting your support staff's daily workflows is a more delicate balancing act than I had imagined when I was on the receiving end, but it's the most important part of attending a library conference in the first place.

This is why we go to conferences, not only so that our experiences there change us for the better, but so that we can share our experience and effect positive changes of our own when we return. It will be a long day indeed -- if ever!-- before this transformative aspect of conference-going can be replicated by other means. Until that day arrives, I will always look forward to the next opportunity to visit the giants in the sky, and as a manager and future administrator I will be sure to advocate that this kind of professional development be properly valued for what it is.

Librarians should be going to conferences not despite declining financial fortunes and shrinking travel budgets, but precisely because of these pressures. It has never been more important for libraries and librarians to share what they know, and there is no better way to facilitate such an exchange of information and experience than by coming together in person. Our email boxes are filled to bursting, our RSS feeders overwhelmed with blog entries, and our social networks are already jammed with so much noise that it is difficult to cull any meaningful signals. Library conferences on the other hand provide an intense albeit brief period where most if not all of our mental and psychic bandwidth can be devoted to absorbing ideas and contributing to the Big Picture issues which so often elude us in our workaday lives.

We need the giants. We need the sky. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a cynic or a fool.

There are Giants in the sky!
There are big tall terrible awesome scary wonderful
Giants in the sky!

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