fredag 22 februari 2013

20 years in Library and Information Science - reflect and repent, part 1: conferencing

This year I have worked within Library and Information Science for two full decades, and I have a confession to make: I never was one for conferences. Conferences are full of networkers, and I am not one of them. I take a very long time with people and I have severe difficulties with the shallow acquaintancies and polite small talk dominating most conference scenes.  I have, however done them, and I have become better at it over the years. I have even found a few conferences I like – small ones without much of the invisible codes of conduct, the hidden hierarchies and the disturbing power structures of the major, reoccurring LIS conferences and meetings. What has stuck with me, in most cases, are not the presentations, but everything else, the things that connects to (said he, pompously) life. Aspects connected to work or career tend to fade away very quickly in the turns of my bleak memory. But - I have got stuck in a snowstorm in Texas. I have been food poisoned at a vegetarian restaurant in Vilnius only to find myself giving a talk in an over-crowded room at the university the following morning, wearing a purple tie, pretending to be fine. I have discussed love and the construction of running shoes in an Italian restaurant in Wisconsin. I have heard an interpreter break down in laughter over a French professor’s desperate attempts to speak comprehensible English. I have been the judge in a competition where internationally renowned scholars created metatheoretical snowmen. I have been too drunk to attend early morning sessions. I have been called a ”communist” for questioning the ethics in studying the information behaviour of scientists working in animal testing plants. I have seen elderly professors sleep deeply while I presented a paper. I have slept deeply while elderly professors presented theirs. I have been in a barfight with a bibliometrician over the value of positivism. I have been guided by insomnia through long walks in nocturnal cities that I have not known. I have been yelled at by a drunk, angry Danish professor in a pink tuxedo in a small boat on a Finnish lake. I have flown across the Atlantic to give a five minute talk. I have been offered a modelling job for a British artist in her studio in Cyprus - after the conference I was sent a sketch showing me presenting, shaped as an alien monster. I declined. I have spent a break between sessions discussing the Wolverhampton mid 1970’s football team (which I saw taking on ”my” team, Malmö FF, as a child) in the shadow of the mighty Old Trafford. I have got lost in a dark basement outside of Tampere, filled with large, scary puppets, voodoo dolls and shrunken heads during a late dinner, just searching for the lavatory.  I have seen grown men and women choosing whom to talk to and whom to not, from a list of attendees. I have stood bewildered in a corner, fingering on my drink searching for a way out.

And, I have been in the presence of sheer brilliance. I have seen paradigms shift. I have seen people I did not expect anything of turn out to be quite bearable – often to my genuine surprise. 

When I started off as a doctoral student, attending conferences was of course part of the education and a way in to the research community. It was quite frustrating to feel that I couldn’t really crack the codes and make it work – within me. This part of the job has been a struggle. It is only during the last few years I have found a peace in myself which has allowed me to incorporate all of this into my life in a balanced manner. I now allow myself to be picky, I do not attend many conferences (internationally or nationally), but the ones I do, I go to because I have chosen to – for my own sake. I have reached a point where I know quite a lot of people; I do indeed take a long time in approaching, but by now some have actually been there quite a long time too. A qualified few I even dare count as some sort of friends. I am still cautions of attending the large conferences of my discipline, such as the CoLIS and the ASIS&T meetings. I avoid their formalities and keep a good look out for the symbolic power show-offs and submissive boot-licking practicies. I much prefer the closer environment of, for example,  DOCAM, which I started to attend regularly in 2009, even hosting the event at my university in Växjö in 2011. These annual meetings have emerged during the last decade as a calmer alternative to the larger conferences of the discipline. They put focus on the the presented studies, long discussions and the things people do – and not on who they are. They are informal, egalitarian and engourage writing, thinking and all that which make us intellectuals, in an academic environment which does not have the time anymore for intellectual endeavors. After all, that is what has kept me in this field for two decades now. If I had let the conference environment with its twisted social games seek me out, I would have been lost to the wolves by now – and it has been close. Instead I have stuck to my writing, slowly carving out the ideas that have emerged from my fascination for libraries, documents, documentation, collecting, and the strange occupation of librarianship.

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