Monday, 13 August 2012

The Chicago blog post - Part 4

18 July 2012, 1345 CST 

The Social Media lounge in the foyer of the conference centre is being dismantled around us as we stand at one of the lounge’s remaining tables eating cold Giordano’s stuffed pizza. Sarah – the first ECCA to leave our little fellowship – and Neil Infield – one of the SLA Europe British contingent – are about to leave for O’Hare and the mood is cheerful but tinged with a melancholy that is accentuated by the physical evidence all around us of the conference disappearing. It’s like the last day of school before the summer holidays when all the work was taken off the walls, the desks were tidied, and the classroom in which you’d spent a year was stripped of everything that made it feel alive. Around the foyer, workmen are rolling up signage, dismantling the registration stands, and carrying materials out of the exhibition hall. Since there’s still more two sessions, it feels like the conference has left before the attendees. 

This morning, despite being on four hours sleep after what-would-have-been-an-unforgettable-if-I-hadn’t-drank-so-much evening at the IT Division & Dow Jones Dance Party Open House (1), I can feel my brain whirring back into gear. The sessions on this final morning – one on social media, one on institutional repositories, and one on public library advocacy (2) – stand out in my memory as the most useful sessions of the conference and the notes from these sessions will be the ones that I most refer back to over the coming weeks. In the closing session this afternoon, I’ll feel fully woken up from the conference trance and begin processing my experience again. 

Giles, Ruth, Marie, and Anneli go to hang out by the lake since we’re told that the SLA Annual Business and Membership Meeting can be somewhat less than useful for first-timers. But I can feel the conference slipping away – I can feel it ending as we all knew it would – and I want to wring as much as I can from the Experience while I’m here. As I walk through the foyer towards the meeting, across layed-out rolls of plastic in which bits of the Marketplace and Information Booth will be wrapped, I can see the Experience collapsing around me. 

Only one room is occupied by SLA this afternoon and it feels like we’re all huddling together one last time before it all collapses and we go our separate ways. As predicted, as a new SLA member, the Business Meeting goes somewhat over my head and I spend the time looking around the hall at all the faces of the people I’ve met this week: all of the people to whom I can now attach memories, shared experiences, feelings. There are people in this room who I know now and who I don’t know if I’ll ever see again. But, as we make our separate ways in the world, we’ll always be connected by this shared experience, by this insane, exhausting, wonderful week. 

The same goes double for the other ECCAs to whom I’m soon to say ‘goodbye and see you in Britain’. During this week, we’ve shared a singular Experience and that strikes me as very rare. When am I going to be in a group of such similarly positioned people in such a unique situation again? That’s a bond that’ll last for the rest of our careers and it feels like a real ‘life-thing’. It’s the kind of thing that fits neatly into a narrative – ‘Once upon a time, this happened with these people…’ – and so it’s naturally satisfying and significant. 

18 July 2012, 1900 CST 

Having been to the Closing Reception, I leave the Chicago Hilton early knowing that I’m missing out on the baseball-themed Military Libraries Division Open House (3) and a free buffet which John DiGilio informs me will have hot dogs. But I’m tired, the members of the British contingent have gone their separate ways, and, for me, it feels like the party’s over. 

During the last reception and during the IT Dance Party last night, I’ve noticed changes in the way I talk to people. I’ve started referring to my home country as ‘England’ even though, when I’m at home, I don’t feel any cultural affinity to England as such: I tend to refer to myself as ‘British’ and from ‘the United Kingdom’. But saying “I’m from England” to an American seems to suit the situation more: it seems like what an English character in an American film would say. I’ve also noticed that – whether due to role-playing or cognitive exhaustion or networking overexcitement – I’ve started to stutter over words at the start of sentences which makes me sound like a befuddled Hugh Grant-ian Englishman. I realised that to some extent I’m playing a role: the role of an Englishman in over his head in the United States (4). Falling back on these lazy cultural stereotypes is simply an easy thing to do. It quickly defines my character in the narrative of this situation and it’s interesting how easily I’ve adapted to this. I never once used the word ‘Blighty’ before this week. 

19 July 2012, 0900 CST 

A bit of the Chicago Public Library.
It’s my final day in Chicago and I’m doing the tourist-y stuff that I’ve been promising people I’d do all week. I don’t have enough time to do all the things that friends and colleagues have suggested so I settle for: wandering the geometric streets of the Loop, finding tourist-y gifts for family and co-workers, and visiting the Daley Plaza Farmers Market, the Rookery, the NBC store, Macy’s, Graham Crackers Comics, the Art Institute of Chicago (5), Al’s Beef, Books-A-Million, and the Chicago Public Library (6). 

It’s hard to be sure because it feels like forever ago but I think I came to America determined to retain my British cynicism. Part of me wanted to cast a derisive eye on the USA and return home smug with the knowledge that the UK is a more mature, more developed country. I’m no flag-waving patriot: my hidden patriotism consists of this smug sense of false superiority. But at some point in the madness of the conference and the glorious, unrelenting niceness of all the American people around me, my cynicism withered away. And I’m wandering the streets of downtown Chicago with a grin on my face because… 

I want to explore! I want to go to the top of all these buildings and see how far I can see. I want to go to the rest of America – the parts that I’ve only seen on TV. I want to meet the millions of people out there and find out what we have in common. I want to get in a car and drive until I see something interesting. I want to not know what's going to happen. I want to go to places and not be sure of my direction. I want to climb a hill; I want to see all the art; I want to eat different foods. I was sure that by this point in the week all I’d want to do is go back to my flat and curl up on my sofa with a cup of coffee and my slippers but, it turns out… screw that. What I really want to do is explore. 

20 July 2012, 0200 BST 

I’m 30000 feet in the air enjoying a thoroughly British gin and tonic on the overnight American Airlines flight from O’Hare to Manchester. Gin isn’t usually my drink but… it feels like time for a change. 

I want to say that SLA Chicago was a life-changing experience. And I will. But in what sense was it ‘life-changing’? I came home to my flat which was exactly as I’d left it; I went to work at Durham University Library and settled back into my job; all the various facets of my life are, on the surface, exactly as they were before. And yet suddenly everything has changed. Because I’m looking at everything differently and I can’t really explain without going into detail about the fabric of my life. As I said in Part One, this Experience was connected via a thousand tiny threads to the network of my life such that I’m unable to disconnect it from causal links to work, to my personal life, and to home. Things and events that didn’t really have anything to do with Chicago seem to be infused with the Experience’s significance: an email from my Dad that I read in my hotel room; a Facebook message that I picked up on the Chicago Public Library’s free WiFi. These things have led into other things that all happened after Chicago and yet they seem drenched in the significance of the Experience. Everything is connected and so the story doesn’t have an end. Experiences don’t happen in isolation and they can’t be disconnected but they do enhance and change what comes after. 

The Experience was life-changing in the sense that I feel changed. The person sipping a gin and tonic on this flight to the UK isn’t the same person who nervously wringed his hands on a flight to the US six days ago. After travelling 4000 miles from home on my own, meeting dozens of new people, standing up to talk about the UK’s public libraries in a room full of strangers, and not only being OK with that but being excited by all of that, it feels like there’s no reason to be afraid of any other experience again.

At 0700, as we come in for a landing, I look down on the higgledy-piggledy town and street layout of Great Britain and the random green-yellow patchwork of Lancashire and Greater Manchester’s countryside. It’s cloudy and damp outside and little blobs of drizzle stick to the plastic of the airplane window. I am looking forward to hearing some member of airport staff say, in a British accent, “Welcome home” (7) but I can’t help but feel, like the Mancunian weather outside, a little grey. 

13 August 2012, 0715 BST 

At the end of The Return of the King, after all his adventures, Frodo Baggins returns to his nice quiet home in the Shire. I always thought that Frodo should be so happy to get home, to write the Red Book of his experiences, and to finally relax after all his hardship. But, Frodo, like his uncle Bilbo before him, finds the Shire changed on his return: or at least, changed for him. He’s seen too much; done too much; suffered and fallen and won. How can you go back to the way things were? How can you ever settle down again? 

Tomorrow it's a month to the day since I set off on my journey to America and back again. It’s been an exciting month – personally and professionally – and I feel that it’s because I’m still possessed by that spirit of adventure that struck me in Chicago. I was in London over the weekend and by Sunday afternoon, I just wanted to go home. But where? I realised I'm not sure where ‘home’ is anymore. Although my flat feels familiar, it doesn’t feel qualitatively different from all the other places I’ve stayed in the past month. 

I’ll never have a first trip to America again; I’ll never have a first SLA Conference again; I will never have this Experience again. But I know that there are bigger and scarier adventures ahead. And now I know that as long as I have myself, a bag on my back, a place to sleep, and at least one person to talk to, I’ll be OK. 

(1) It was a fantastic evening – easily the best of the week. Despite almost no forward planning, I thought my makeshift 1920s gangster costume looked a. rather good and b. rather authentic. I got to the dance floor with a pretty American girl two songs before the lights went up and the party ended which actually came as something of a disappointment. 

Photo by the SLA Photographer.
(2) The USA seems to be just behind the UK in terms of public library cuts and/or closures such that they now seem to be in the position that the UK occupied in late 2010. So in this session, people were suggesting and planning stuff that we in the UK have already done. For example, someone suggested that we compile a list of all the valuable things that public librarians do and, since I couldn’t get a word in, I didn’t manage to say “Erm… Lauren Smith has already done this, you guys.” I settled for tweeting it. At one point, I did stand up to talk about the UK’s plight and the work of Voices for the Library: attendees at that session should totally check out the website for more useful information. 

(3) Quick note on military librarians. As a former military librarian, I know how little communication there is between them in the UK. And so, I was surprised by the number of American military librarians who I met at the SLA Conference. Something similar to the SLA Military Libraries Division could be of great professional benefit to the military librarians working in isolation across the UK. 

(4) See also: the tweed jacket. 

(5) Where I particularly enjoyed the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective. I’m no expert on art but it struck me that his pop art was truly postmodern in the sense that it was a homage to and a parody of the bombastic, over-dramatic comic book style of the time (and, more importantly, the bombastic, over-dramatic mentality of the time in which bombastic, over-dramatic comic book style things were accepted as normal. See, for example, the comically overly sentimental women and the grotesquely masculine men in his art.). Like David Foster Wallace’s writing, on the surface Lichtenstein’s art ironically parodies the genre that he worked in while underneath being perfectly respectful and representative of his genuine love for the genre. His work also contains a pleasing amount of self-reference which suggests how conscious he was of the development of his style. 

(6) Where I run into several librarians from the now-ended SLA Conference. Where else do librarians go during their time off work? 

(7) Which, quite excitingly, actually happens. On the whole, I found UK airport staff to be a lot friendlier than US airport staff. (7a) 

(7a) FYI, the US Department of Homeland Security now has a complete set of my fingerprints and a full body scan of me. Should anyone want such things.


Joy said...

I've always had that not knowing where home is uncertainty. Since I was small there have been times when I've sat in my home and thought (and said) 'I want to go home'. Never quite sussed it out.*

*Unless of course I'm ET or something and don't know it...

Sarah Wolfenden said...

So that's where you went - dancing with the pretty girls!
I also got drug tested by the lovely US security - scary experience. Shame I had to be the first to leave but sort of glad as I could also see it all being packed away too.

Ruth Jenkins said...

I've loved these posts, they've captured the weird, surreal, out-of-body ECCA experience brilliantly. Kind of sad they've ended- reliving the end of the conference all over again!

Marie Cannon said...

Same here Ruth, these posts are fantastic Simon - I can't believe it's been a whole month! Certainly feeling very sad and nostalgic now

Marie Cannon said...

By the way, also love the Frodo Baggins reference - it fits so perfectly!

Simon Barron said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. I can't believe it's been a month either. And I'm sorry that writing these posts is over as well: I really enjoyed diving into my memories of the whole Experience and extracting what I felt was important.

Time to start saving my pennies for SLA San Diego next year!

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