Conference Focuses on Need to Provide Value

After two years of online conferences necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Special Libraries Association reconvened in person on July 31 in Charlotte, North Carolina, while also offering the option for attendees to live-stream some events from the safety of their home or office. The synchronous in-person and online formats were a first for SLA, but the conference was notable more for what attendees saw and heard than for how they heard and saw it.

Many of the approximately 50 education sessions presented at the conference addressed familiar topics, such as taxonomy, copyright, competitive intelligence, open licensing, and project management. But the keynote presentations, an open brainstorming discussion, remarks by SLA leaders, and even the conference tagline (Source Forward) spoke to a recognition of the need for librarians and information professionals to think more creatively about how to provide value to their customers and to society—and for SLA and other associations in the library space to think likewise about how to provide value to members.

One way information profession can provide value is by helping improve the information-seeking experiences of minority and marginalized communities and, beyond that, influencing the presentation of information so that these communities are viewed more positively and feel more included and welcome. All three keynote presentations touched on this challenge, notably the closing address, “The Role of Information Professionals in Crafting a Gender-Inclusive Future,” by Travis Wagner, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland’s Center for Archival Futures whose research focuses on queer archives and advocacy in sociotechnical systems.

Speaking about the obstacles facing transgender individuals seeking health care, Wagner touched on two in particular—binary-gender patient intake forms and doctors marketing themselves as trans-friendly when in fact they are not. “Folks tend to go online to find other folks who share their identity,” Wagner said. “Unfortunately, there are allegedly trans-friendly doctors who are just fronts for any sort of conversion or reparative therapy. It’s safer for them to seek out health care information and guidance from one another.”

Wagner’s keynote closed the education portion of the conference, which included a brainstorming session titled “Our Professional and Personal Needs are Changing: How Should Our Professional Organizations Respond to Support Us and Retain Us as Members?” That question was also addressed by 2022 SLA President Catherine Lavallée-Welch in her remarks to conference attendees at each keynote session.

“The pandemic changed so many things—how we work, how we travel, how we interact with others, how we learn, how we shop,” she said at the keynote session on the conference’s second day. “It has even changed how we talk about the present and the past. We say ‘since the pandemic’ or ‘before COVID’ almost every day, don’t we?

“The pandemic has also changed SLA. This conference is one example—it was supposed to take place here two years ago in person, and instead we had two years of online conferences and awards programs. Now some of us are in person in Charlotte, and some of us are live-streaming from home or work. And others didn’t want to risk being onsite and didn’t want to watch another conference on their computer.

“This points to a challenge we’re facing—a challenge that every association is facing—which is how to keep members engaged in uncertain times. Underlying that challenge is a question that pre-dates COVID but that has become more urgent during COVID. The question is this: How do we create value for members? And there’s a related question: How do we make it easy for members to experience that value?

Lavallée-Welch noted that much of SLA’s value is provided by SLA communities and cited several examples, including a symposium hosted by communities in the north-central region of the United States, monthly webinars presented by the Competitive Intelligence Community, and a monthly speaker series offered by the Kentucky Community.

“These are just some of the many ways SLA is offering value through community, connection, and career growth,” she said. “What they all have in common is that they meet members where they are. A speaker, a web link, and voilá—career growth. A space, a handful of librarians, and voilá—community and connection. A stipend, an application form, and voilá—more career growth.

“By staying involved in virtual events, community events, and local and regional events,” she told her audience, “you have provided strength to your colleagues.”

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