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professional development from home: zooming the virtual conference circuit

The academic library and information world, and its orbit of disciplines that I follow and/or work in—digital libraries, book history, print culture history, academic librarianship, art librarianship, archival practice, public history, government information, etc.—is a deep dive into a heady, infinite mix of conference offerings. The American Library Association (ALA) leads the pack, with two major conferences a year, and within the ALA there are many divisions, each with their own sections, all of which hold their own conference every year, or every two years (like ACRL). In a normal year I usually try to make it to one conference, which is fairly typical for librarians working in academic settings, some of whom receive financial support from their employer for this but really only enough to help with the expenses of attending one conference a year.

It appears that many conferences will remain virtual in 2021, and as I contemplate which ones I might want to attend, I also find myself reflecting on past conferences that were exceptional in some way. Mainly, from my perspective after a year of staying home, what I find exceptional about past conferences is that they took place in person, that I got to travel somewhere else for a few days, and I got to hang out, in person, with colleagues from around the country. I am missing this. But some of these conferences do stand out for other reasons.

One of the best conferences I have ever gone to was the American Printing History Association’s (APHA) 2016 conference at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA: The Black Art and Printers’ Devils: the Magic, Mysticism, and Wonders of Printing History.

Presentations covered a fascinating array of scholarly work on historical texts. As a volunteer reporter, I wrote up summaries for several of these: interpreting the intriguing marginalia in Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia Libres Tres (1533); how the tiny type and page sizes (and other unusual features) of miniature books challenged the conventional publishing of their day; and the research into historical book bindings and how they have been repurposed through the centuries to make new books. You can read these summaries here.

As incredible as the program was, I have to say the best part was the gorgeous, breathtaking setting! This was my first time at the Huntington, and I fell in love with the botanical gardens laid out on the extensive grounds and the library’s incredible collections laid out across numerous buildings (including an art museum), with a selection of items on view in each. I got to see firsthand some of the rare, precious materials in this expansive collection; these are two that I kept returning to as they are such great exemplars of book culture just before and just after the explosion of the printing press and its use of movable type:

1. The Ellesmere Chaucer manuscript edition of the Canterbury Tales, dating to the 15th century. This manuscript was entirely written and illustrated by hand—this edition has vellum pages with elaborate illuminations for many of the different storytellers highlighted in the chronicle. It measures roughly 16 inches x 11 inches, and has 240 leaves. Henry E. Huntington purchased this manuscript in 1917. You can read more about this item here.

2. The Gutenberg Bible, the first significant book that Johannes Gutenberg printed in Mainz, Germany, dating to around 1455. He produced around 175 copies of this large format, first printed edition, and he did some of them on vellum. The Huntington’s copy is on vellum and is one of only 12 remaining first editions on vellum in the world.

I just spent some time on the Huntington website to review the details of these two items, and I discovered that the library is hosting a virtual talk on May 19th about this Gutenberg Bible; the talk is free, but you do have to register. This is now on my calendar!

I would have to have spent months at the Huntington Library to take in the entire complex and to sample their programming. On their website they state that the library contains “11 million items spanning the 11th to 21st centuries,” with strengths in areas that are too numerous to list here, but which include American and British history, California history, and Hispanic history. Their site also states that each year they provide access for 2,000 scholars to use their rare collections and overall they see 800,000 visitors. Everything about the Huntington is extraordinary. I have been reading a history of this collection, Henry E. Huntington’s Library of Libraries (Donald C. Dickinson, Huntington Library Press, 1995), which recounts Huntington’s life and his early collection gambits, and how that grew to form the singular collection it is today. A collector’s dream read.

On one of the conference days I joined a tour of the Getty Center, also an incredible space and research institution, with its own complement of phenomenal holdings. In keeping with the theme of the conference, we were given a curator-led tour of the exhibit “The Art of Alchemy.” Afterward we were free to roam around and take in other exhibits; I also spent some time on their broad patio and looked across the hazy distance to the huge density of Los Angeles.

I just visited the Getty Center’s website to take a peek at what they have going on this month, and I found two subject areas I am reading about this year:

1. The Getty Research Institute (part of the Getty Center) holds the archives of artist Ed Ruscha’s photographs of Los Angeles, 1965-2010. On their website they have an interactive exhibit of his photos of Sunset Blvd.—you choose the vehicle you wish to “drive,” and then as you scroll (right to left or left to right), your vehicle traverses a photomontage of his collection—photos placed one after the other to completely fill in the route, so that it appears you are driving the length of this famed street. Choose “flip” to see the images from the other side of the street. There’s much more information about his archive here.

2. On the Getty’s Iris Blog, there is an article about women in the Middle Ages to commemorate International Women’s Day. Staff medievalists reached out to the Getty’s social media followers and asked them to submit their questions about women’s roles in the Middle Ages; this blog post provides answers to those questions. They write about education, work, health, writers, artists, and many other topics.

During the academic year 2014-2015, I lived with my family in Oakland, CA, a sabbatical working year for my husband. I took advantage of being in another part of the country and attended four conferences that year (one of these was back in the Midwest, however, in Chicago).

That spring I went to ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the ALA) in Portland, OR. The theme was “Creating Sustainable Community.” The conference seemed a little heavy on the topic of information literacy and reference instruction, which of course is one of the mainstays of academic librarianship but is not an area I ended up working in. I did find talks on other topics and attended a fascinating presentation on the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which at that time was establishing partner hubs across the country whose digital holdings they would add to their rapidly expanding public digital platform. I also went to all the keynotes. I was thrilled to hear G. Willow Wilson, author of graphic novels and a range of comics, including DC Comics and Marvel Comics. I know her from the memoir The Butterfly Mosque, her account of converting to Islam and falling in love with an Egyptian man, whom she later married. And there was Jad Abumrad, one of the hosts and creative talents of Radiolab and Lawrence Lessig, the astute Harvard Law School professor and activist. Each presenter in their turn was treated like a rock star as they took the stage in the enormous darkened hall amid the glow of the jumbo screens that allowed those sitting farther back in the audience to get a good view.

In June, the RBMS (Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of ACRL) conference was held in Oakland; I was only able to go one day, because the conference coincided with the ALA summer conference, which I had to attend (more on this below). The theme of the RBMS conference was “Preserve the Humanities! Special Collections as Liberal Arts Laboratory.” I went to the plenary with Janice Radway, a gender and book history scholar we had read in the iSchool classes I took on the history of the book, readers, and reading. This and the other sessions on the digital humanities and digital scholarship really ignited my hopes to one day work in a rare books or special collections library.

That year I served on an ALA committee as an intern: Association for Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS), the Cataloging and Metadata Management Section (CaMMS), Subject Analysis Committee. In this role, I was required to go to both of ALA’s conferences that year and participate in each committee meeting. In June the ALA’s summer meeting was held in San Francisco. At the committee sessions I sat at a large table with people from all over the country, including a liaison from the Library of Congress. The discussion that year centered on how to replace the authorized LC subject heading “illegal aliens” with a more suitable, culturally appropriate term. Unfortunately, even though the Library of Congress decided to cancel this subject heading in 2016 and use instead “Noncitizens” and “Unauthorized immigration,” Congress took the unusual step to intervene, arguing that as they still used the term “Illegal aliens” in establishing federal laws, the term had to remain. Here is more information on this.

The other ALA meeting I had had to attend that year had been in January, the first conference I went to that year. I had traveled from the Bay Area back into winter to attend that conference, which was in Chicago; I was not happy about having to return to the cold from warmer California. While I was there, Chicago got hit with a major snowstorm and had near-record snowfall. As I bonded with the other intern (a librarian based in Canada) over hot chocolate in the lobby of the hotel, heavy snow pummeled downtown Chicago, and I have memories of shuttle trips along snow-caked streets to McCormick Place where the conference sessions were being held.

While I was in California for that year, I also joined the Northern California chapter of ARLIS/NA (Art Library Societies of North America), and while I did not go to their annual conference (which was in Forth Worth, TX, in 2015), I did attend one of the chapter’s seasonal business meetings. These meetings were always located at a pre-selected art library or archives, and after the meeting, an arranged tour took place. The meeting I attended gathered at Fort Mason, in San Francisco, for a whirlwind day of multiple tours that included stops at the Maritime Research Center, the Mexican Museum, and the Long Now Foundation. The Maritime Research Center is part of the National Park Service; it houses a museum, a library, and an archives. The Mexican Museum, soon moving to its brand new site in Yerba Buena Gardens, displays this great mission statement on their website: “…to voice the complexity and richness of Latino art and culture throughout the Americas, and to engage and facilitate dialogue among the broadest public.” The Long Now Foundation is one of the most forward thinking organizations I have ever encountered: their goal is to promote “long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.” Their library, and a clock that will measure time in extremely slow increments, serve to foster the imagining of a very distant future. Here is a great article about this group.

I also joined the chapter the day they gathered to attend the expansive Ai Weiwei installation in San Francisco: @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz (this show ran from September 2014 to April 2015). This is one of the most provocative art shows I have ever seen—a unique opportunity to blend a message of human rights and freedom of expression with a space that imprisoned people, including political prisoners. I had never seen any of Ai Weiwei’s work before, and I had never been to Alcatraz, and I couldn’t believe my luck that these two stunning experiences were aligning while I was in California.

Most notable for its years as a government penal institution, along with several years of occupation by Native Americans resisting federal policy, Alcatraz has now been empty for decades. In 1972 it became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is visited by over 1 million people each year. On the day I went, I would be among that number, freely able to enter and traverse a space that at one time rigidly confined and restricted the men who were incarcerated there. Alcatraz gets its name from the archaic Spanish “alcatraces” for “pelicans.” Today more than 5,000 nesting birds inhabit the island and the ghost buildings of the penitentiary.

Some of my favorite architecture is aging, dilapidated structures that have outlived their use but remain standing, a physical artifact of a former time and place and function, now abandoned. In Ai Weiwei’s view, people can also be abandoned, when they disappear into prison cells for their political views and affiliations.

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and activist who creates art as a way to voice his resistance to the Chinese government, and as a way to support political prisoners around the world. He could not in fact travel to San Francisco to install this exhibit; the Chinese government had imprisoned him for almost three months in 2011 and then didn’t return his passport until 2015.

Ai Weiwei’s exhibit—including scupture, sound, mixed media—occurred over multiple interior spaces across the complex, and each installation intimately spoke to the former function of the site. A large Chinese dragon kite unfurled across the expanse of one floor of the New Industries building; to Ai Weiwei, wind represents personal freedom. The dragon was made up of smaller, individual kites, with quotes from imprisoned people, like Nelson Mandela and Ai Weiwei himself. On another floor, color visuals of 176 people imprisoned for their views, many still in prison at the time of the show, were laid out end to end on the floor, each image built by hand with colored Legos. Over 80 volunteers in San Francisco worked for five weeks to build these images. I could linger to view any one of the tiles or consider the whole, which indicated the “relationship between the individual and the collective.” These were just two of the installations; for a fuller description of this incredible exhibit, click here.

All of these experiences seem so very long ago now, in a time when we didn’t have to wear masks and constantly assess our physical proximity to other humans. These events drew thousands of participants, who were always in the flux of large groups: the mass of people moving from one conference session to another one, the many who crowded the publishers’ exhibit hall, the many who attended conference tours and after-hours social events, and the many who boarded shuttles to return to their hotels for the night. And then there was the travel to and from the conference and the many flights involved. This congregation of people is unimaginable now, and I wonder when it will be safe to do these events on this physical scale again.

Over the past year, everything, of course, has gone online. And while the reasons for this are grim, the result is that I’ve been able to tune in to many conference presentations and talks that I otherwise would not have been able to attend. Last year when I was still with the Wisconsin Historical Society, thanks to their generosity, I was able to attend conferences hosted by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) and the Society of American Archivists (SAA). Last month I attended two free book arts conferences (which I discuss more fully in my blog post on artists’ books). Now I am looking forward to the remainder of this year, and there are many intriguing options. But I need to be cognizant of cost: it’s coming time to renew memberships, so any conference I go to will require a membership renewal on top of the conference fee.

Here’s what I’m looking at; I won’t go to all of these, but this wide assortment gives me some interesting options to consider:

· Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) April 13-16: This year the topic is the “open future,” and sessions will not only be about open access to scholarship, but also about sustainability, equity, and diversity and inclusion. Sessions will be live (CDT) with a 30-day window to view presentations on-demand.

· Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA) May 11-13: Since my fun and educational outings with the Northern CA chapter, I have thought about joining the larger group, but based on my recent work sites and projects, I haven’t been able to justify the expense. I have a good friend who is an art librarian, and she has encouraged me to attend sometime, so maybe this is my year! They usually have fabulous locations; I remember one year she was very excited because they would be meeting in Mexico City and touring the art museums there. I’m curious to see how they will fit this kind of thing into the program this year, which is being hosted by ARLIS/NA MOQ (Montréal, Ottawa, and Québec). The program will be released sometime this month.

· Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) June 8-10: This year’s conference theme is “Power. Resistance. Leadership.” Among the keynotes are archivists, digital collections managers, and book history/print culture history scholars; this sounds like a good, targeted conference for me.

· Society of American Archivists (SAA) August 2-6: This year’s theme will be “Together/Apart.” Their program schedule hasn’t been released yet.

· Special Libraries Association (SLA) August 4-13: This year’s theme is “Destination Everywhere.” They are currently reviewing presentation proposals and will post the full schedule in May.

· American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) September 22-25: This conference will be a hybrid of some onsite presentations and events (Little Rock, AR) and some virtual. Their theme is “Doing History/Doing Justice.”

I have been hunting around for a more targeted conference on metadata and digital libraries, and here’s what I have found within this domain:

· The Joint Conference on Digital Libraries (JCDL) September 27-30: This is an international forum that brings together the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), so at first glance it looks quite specialized and completely outside my education and experience. On their website they do, however, reach out to practitioners in librarianship, archival practice, museums, the social sciences, and the humanities, among other disciplines, so perhaps my first assessment is wrong, or this is a new effort to bring in practitioners from different disciplines. The deadlines for presentation submissions are in April, so it’s too early for any definite program information. They list a wide range of topics, mostly outside of my skills and education, but on this list I see digital humanities and heritage; still, overall, this does not seem like the right conference for me.

· The Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI) holds a conference each September, but so far there is no information on a 2021 event. The 2020 conference, which was virtual, ran on the theme “Reflections on a Quarter Century of Metadata.” Some of the presentations listed for the subtopic of “Data Integration and Provenance” touched on activity in China and Japan, and included a presentation on historical humanities. Overall this conference looks to be quite specialized as well. Links are provided to the slides and to the recorded presentations on YouTube, which is great. I’ll definitely check them out.

· Digital Library Federation (DLF)/Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) November 7-11: This forum is slated to be held onsite at the St. Louis Union Station Hotel. There is no other information available, but visitors to their site can sign up to get email notifications. Looking at their 2020 Forum, I see some really interesting talks: decolonizing knowledge and the Internet, documenting dissent in the archives, marginalized people and archives, and so on; these are all on YouTube as well, so I will definitely check these out.

Finally, I have long been fascinated by the international scope of librarianship and the work of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). It looks like their annual meeting, the World Library and Information Congress, might take place in August, but I can’t find any specific dates listed yet on their website. I had thought that IFLA’s members were institutions rather than individuals, but this is not the case; they offer three levels of membership: associations, institutions, and individuals. The fee for individuals is 77 Euros, which today comes to about $90.00. A member survey on expectations for a virtual conference can be found here.

So much to choose from! And it’s interesting to see that some of these conferences, after the fact, make their presentations available on YouTube. I wonder if this will continue when conferences resume in-person. I also wonder if conferences will simply turn hybrid at some point, with both virtual and onsite presentations, as a lot of associations have cited high attendance over the past year with their virtual offerings.

Conferences rev you up—they propel you out of your yearlong, day-to-day work routine into the exhilarating clamor of the industry’s crossroads. After a year of being isolated from even our nearest colleagues, it will be crucial to attend these virtual gatherings: to stay informed of the latest advances in the profession, to exchange ideas and findings and achievements from the many remote workplaces we have inhabited this past year, and to witness our own participation in the larger flow of ideas and concepts and practices. Even if we’re doing it all from a comfy chair at home.

Image was taken on the grounds of the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, October 2016


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