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Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
Interdependence Outlook for Information Professionals at SLA's Annual Conference
Overview by Richard P. Hulser with reports from 12 contributors
Where else can musings about ghosts and vampires share the agenda with discussions about smart tabloids, cyber utopianism and transformational leadership than at the 91st annual Special Libraries Association conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Held on 10-15 June 2000, over 7,800 attendees shared their knowledge and experiences on a variety of topics related to this year's theme of "Independence to Interdependence: The Next Phase in the Information Revolution". The city of Philadelphia was overflowing with the activities of the many information professionals participating in the conference.
Continuing a well-received practice begun just a few short years ago, many sessions in the final program were noted with icons representing five subject tracks: advocacy for the profession, information management, management, professional development, and technology. A number of attendees noted that this was very helpful to them as they assessed where best to spend their time during a week of a great many sessions and activities.
There was a sense of a shift of topics of presenters and exhibitors alike from "Let me show you our Web site or portal or whatever technology" to "Here are some business problems and how we are using technology, planning, and other means to solve them". The exhibit area was one of the largest ever and was particularly interesting this year because of the number of new vendors (at least to this audience) and their various products and services which stretched beyond the traditional areas of information management.
A wide range of continuing education courses and workshops both before and after the conference provided in-depth focus on topics such as searching faster and smarter on the Internet, enterprise information portals, knowledge management competencies, and effective negotiating. A number of attendees were also busy honing their leadership skills at sessions held over the weekend for elected and appointed association unit officers. The latter was topped off by a dynamic luncheon presentation from Carol Kinsey-Goman, PhD, who focused on transformational leadership and the challenges we all face in trying to change behaviors in ourselves and our organizations to lead to a productive environment and achieving business success.
The intensity of the meetings and visits to the huge number of exhibits was augmented by many opportunities for relaxation and getting reacquainted with friends and colleagues from all over the world. A variety of receptions, parties, and casual meal experiences were welcome respites for all.
In a change of pace and format, this year's time slot for a keynote address was the location for a fascinating, entertaining interview and interchange between David Talbot, founder, chair, and editor-in-chief of SALON magazine, and his interviewer, Terry Gross, host and producer of Fresh Air, a daily program on national public radio. The capacity crowd was not disappointed as they were treated to discussions of smart tabloids, viral marketing, issues around Internet tracking mechanisms, cyberutopianism, and a closing personal side story about the Talbot family's connections to movie director Ed Wood.
Gross drilled right into the hot topics. Her introduction included reference to the fact that SALON was one of a number of online news sites that have made news because of their financial troubles. SALON had to lay off 13 people the prior week due to these problems; she posed the concern that the layoffs were focused in the arts coverage area and not the news. This was of particular interest to her because she wanted to know if quantity, such as number of hits on the Web pages, was becoming the key factor over quality and scope of coverage. Also, she wondered if a journalism site can be free and remain free, given the current financial pressures. Her focus was the implication that this action was an ominous sign for online journalism sites feeling economic pressures and perhaps would have to yield content to what is popular.
To be sure, Talbot was ready for the inevitable and used the opportunity to cite a number of key points. He acknowledged that while SALON stuck with the interesting areas for over three years, in the end it is survival that counts and he had to focus on areas that were bringing in the most interest as represented by the most circulation. He further went on to assure the audience that, while they indeed had cutbacks at SALON, much is still there and vibrant. He spoke about working toward creation of a "smart tabloid" which contained tough, hard-hitting journalism with information such as political coverage not obtained anywhere else, but which also enticed people much as the New York and British tabloids do today.
This is the first time in history, noted Gross, that people can be accurately tracked on which and how many pages they read. She asked what Talbot does with that information in his role as editor. His answer centered around realizing they had to write stories in such a way that people would read beyond the first page, such as is done by newspapers. The key is understanding that the Web is "Darwinian" and you have to work to hold onto the readers.
The discussion then went on to cover issues surrounding a recent redesign of the SALON site, which apparently did not initially go over as well as expected, but then was revamped again with better success. There were some lessons learned from this experience, according to Talbot; and the audience, particularly the Web masters and Web queens (a new term heard by this author during the conference), were eager to hear them. For instance, he noted that it is a huge challenge to try to incorporate a lot of great material without endless page scrolling by the reader. Related to that challenge, SALON has a number of Web sites and readers preferred being able to navigate directly from one story to the next without having to go through a series of alternate channels. It was also found that people on the Web take what they hear and read personally and are emphatic about their desires. Talbot feels this is good because people are more engaged and feel more a part of the Web site, which he thinks can be claimed by only a few print publications.
Interestingly, his staff has found that, if a story is longer than one page, baby boomers, such as himself, print it. Also, 30 percent of their readers already access SALON by their hand-held devices such as personal digital assistants and cell phones. This really surprised Talbot, but he added that this kind of access was done mainly for short news stories and reviews, typically not the longer stories.
Talbot talked about a recent story focused on payoffs by the White House Drug Office to the TV networks that were made to ensure anti-drug propaganda was inserted into major prime-time shows. He pointed out that this amazing compromise on creative integrity had to be revealed to the public. As a result of this story, SALON had a lot of press coverage, including on ABC News. Talbot called that "viral marketing", which was good because it gave broader visibility to SALON without extra effort by the magazine itself.
"The computer is a cold medium", said Talbot and you need a writer with a unique and emphatic voice, such as a celebrity or controversial figure, to ensure interest and get stories read by people. Nonetheless, Talbot is concerned with journalistic integrity and spent some time during the interview citing an example of a controversial story recently done by SALON about Henry Hyde's extramarital affair and its impact on their magazine. What was most significant, according to Talbot, was the antagonism from the media establishment, among others, because SALON was a small organization on the Internet as opposed to a print publication. He pointed out that the Internet is still "suspect" regarding credibility, although he feels that is changing. He was emphatic that they indeed follow the same standards of good journalism as the rest of the more traditional media.
At this point, Gross changed the subject to touch on a more personal side of Talbot. His father, Lyle Talbot, was a contract movie actor with the Warner Brothers studio and appeared in a number of movies, including two directed by Ed Wood Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda. Talbot's mother was a much younger chorus girl when she married his father. It was in this context that David Talbot related a funny story about how, as a child, he and his brother met Ed Wood, in his mother's négligé, at breakfast time in his home.
When asked by Gross if he still thought doing a publication online was fun, Talbot said it was, and that it was similar to his father's experience in show business in that it was like putting on something new every day with immediate reactions, both good and bad. Yet he also revealed that it can be painful, especially the business side, including having to lay off colleagues such as he had to do the previous week.
Needless to say, this was an engaging session which contained many lessons interlaced with some revealing stories. The interview format proved to be both informative and entertaining. The news that it would be broadcast later in the week on NPR was greeted with enthusiastic applause by the attendees. Certainly this broadcast would not only publicize the conference and association to a broader audience, but it would also give an added boost of recognition to the profession as well.
Sessions and Meetings
There were a variety of sessions from which to choose and a number of them are reviewed in the articles contained in this special issue. A nice diversion was the annual author luncheon sponsored by the Museums, Arts and Humanities Division, which featured the topics of vampires and ghosts. The session titled "Our Vampires, Ourselves" was delivered by author Nina Auerbach, professor in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania. Although she focused mainly on her new book about ghosts, she did manage to interlace comments about vampires as the luncheon audience demanded.
At the association's annual business meeting, outgoing President Susan DiMattia reiterated her theme of the year, which consisted of the following terms: Communication, Competitive edge, Correlation, Culture, Cheering, Courage and Chutzpah. She pointed out that these were the foundation for her focus to educate those who need to understand the value of special librarians.
During his annual speech to the membership, David Bender, SLA executive director, gave no hint of his impending retirement in June 2001 after 21 years of wonderful service and contributions to the association and profession. This was announced at the meeting of the SLA board of directors at the end of the conference.
And in her inaugural address, incoming President Donna Scheeder focused on the issue that "SLA is people, not buildings", which she indicated would be her rallying point throughout her presidency. Further details from Donna can be found in this special issue.
The camaraderie and sharing among colleagues were identified as significant features and benefits of attending the conference. The conference culminated in a wonderful closing gala to celebrate elected officers, award winners, and the accomplishments of members throughout the year. The ambiance provided a momentary respite before some final meetings and workshops closed out the week. Attendees could be seen excitedly chatting with one another while streaming out towards transportation to the airport and the 30th Street train station with new ideas, skills, tools and friends to aid them in their future endeavors.
Richard P. Hulser is content product marketing manager, InfoTrieve, Los Angeles, California. firstname.lastname@example.org
© Richard P. Hulser