2015 NJLA Conference Recap

Once more, the NJLA conference has returned to the seaside town of Long Branch, a stone’s throw away from Springsteen’s fabled land of Asbury Park. There had been a short three year break when the conference was held on the now-closed Revel casino in Atlantic City, a juxtaposition of a city in economic decline hosting a profession fighting off the perception of obsolescence. This place is where I attended my first conference either six or seven years ago, so it feels good to be back.

While librarians make up the majority of those staying at the hotel this week, this place is also a vacation destination for Hasidic Jews. The lobby is a mix of cardigans and yarmulkes, men in large black hats passing by women in short colorful skirts and dresses, a cultural mixing of the religious demure with the professionally conservative. On the first night of the full conference, there could only be what I can imagine is Hasidic speed dating as young men and women chatted in pairs all over the lobby while sitting or walking an appropriate distance apart. It was a far cry from the not-completely- sober exuberance of previous night’s librarian fashion walk-off, featuring peers going  for the most “librariany” to full on costumes before retiring upstairs for room drinking and socializing. (We know how to have a good time here in NJ, a statement I will put up against any other state conference.)

I mention the other hotel guests here because it seems to me that we have a middle ground: we are both groups in the midst of a rapidly changing changing society. I won’t say that we are necessarily aligned in our desired outcomes (keeping the Hasidic traditions versus trying to meet the evolving needs of our patron base), but it’s hard for me not to see the similar struggles. How do we honor the values and traditions of the librarian profession, but meet the needs and expectations of the modern world? A simple question, yet a nebulous convoluted (and contextual) answer. And yet, here we are locked into this constant question.

I was a panelist for a session entitled “Conversation Starter: Professionalism on the Edge”. The room was packed, both a testament to the interest in the issue as well as how the smaller conference rooms couldn’t handle our overall numbers. Together with my fellow panelists, we tackled questions such as handling negative coworkers, “doing more with less”, dress codes, and posting on social media. The last two are the most notable to me because they got the most discussion. There is a delicate balance between formality and approachability, the use of dress codes as a mechanism of oppression for people of color or minorities, and “looking the part” to combat de-professionalism. (Very good question/statement from the audience: “What is women’s business casual? Because we don’t know what that means either.”) From my vantage point, it really depends on, well, everything: the community, your role at the library, what image you are trying to project, and figuring out the fine line between looking the part of an information authority expert and exhibiting your own personal flair. It raises an interesting question: at what point can your appearance be too intimidating for some people approach you but how much dressing down can you do before people stop taking you seriously?

The second and more contentious discussion revolved around posting complaints about patrons on social media. The short, immediate answer is simple: don’t. It is certainly the most HR friendly, the least problematic answer but to me it feels vastly incomplete. It feels like the abstinence education version of an answer: don’t do it because if you do you will get pregnant because condoms fail and you will ruin your lives forever guaranteed. It doesn’t accurately reflect the social reality that has been developing online in the last twenty years.

I can agree that no librarian should complain about a patron in a public forum (and certainly not using specifics such as names or places), but there are now many layers to the social media world. Secret Facebook groups, anonymous blogging sites such as Tumblr and LiveJournal, and other identity detached social media platforms exist where librarians can vent about patrons without having their names next to their posts. Yes, the ideal advice is to not do it, but the pragmatic advice is that if you do, be sure to bury it so deep that no one can find it or do it within a trusted group. Because, like it or not, the new reality of online socializing is here and in case you haven’t noticed, complaining is part of that social fabric. So take the steps necessary to protect your career and vent away if that’s what you need to do because bottling it up is not the path to happiness.

In his keynote, Jason Griffey delivered on what he promised early on in his talk: that everyone in attendance would leave mad about something. He spoke about library vendors (not getting products that actually meet our needs), library technology (unable to match user experiences in the rest of the world), and librarians themselves (not investing in the fields and technologies that are important to us). It was not a “rah rah library”, but a subtle and well meaning “you guys need to get your shit together” kick in the ass that should have left everyone unsettled in one way or another. Technology is transitional and temporary, but failing to provide for our patrons in their basic needs as well as evolving societal information expectations is a damaging stain on our purpose and character. Status quo should be replaced with status queued: taking the steps to meet the next change.

As always, some of the best times were in the spaces between: the conversations in the hallway, the meals shared with others, the small group of people sitting around the hotel room with a drink in hand carrying on about one thing or another. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a good conference, one in which I left feeling renewed in one shape or another. This was a good reminder about how a conference can work in rekindling the passion and rejuvenating the soul. It has done this for me as I stand on the eve of fatherhood and all the joys (and poop) that entails that next stage of life. Hopefully, perhaps, maybe, it will help with that transition as well.

I look forward to next year. In the meantime, keep climbing.

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