How to Save 100 Hours, See a Beautiful City, and Expand Your Horizons
By Judy Davis
Those of us fortunate enough to have travel budgets have probably attended the AALL Annual Meeting at least once, so we know what to expect—lots of programming, some more and some less relevant to our needs, but all of it related to some facet of law librarianship. So what happens when you send a law librarian to a conference that has nothing to do with law librarianship? In my case, after some initial trepidation about being out of my element, I learned something that saved my staff more than 100 hours of time, discovered a new world of information outside my comfort zone, and managed to have a little fun in the process.
New Conferences, New Lessons
I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference for the customers of my library’s integrated software system. At first, I was apprehensive about what this experience would entail. Even after I arrived at the conference—the annual meeting of the Innovative Users Group—in beautiful, spring-weather Chicago, I felt a bit out of my element. Who were all these people? Were they going to spend the entire three days of the conference trying to sell me more of their products?
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that not only was this not a thinly disguised sales pitch, but there were a number of educational programs, poster sessions, new product demonstrations, and other useful events—just like at my familiar AALL conference. It turns out that the Innovative Users Group is an association of libraries that use Innovative’s products and is independent of the vendor company. The organization works to influence the development of the company’s products for the benefit of those who use them. A conference hosted by a group of libraries—this was definitely something I could do.
The conference was still different from those I had attended in the past, however. Of course the program offerings did not center on law librarianship. But another key difference was that since all the attendees used the same library management software, some of the educational sessions could be quite narrowly focused and still remain useful for many people. It was that element of the conference that allowed me to find a tidbit of information that ultimately saved my library tons of time.
A poster session presented by a fellow librarian outlined a procedure for uploading patron records into the library’s database by using an Excel spreadsheet obtained from the school admissions office. Of course it is possible to upload patron records into your database—many libraries, especially academic libraries that receive large numbers of new patrons all at once, do this on a regular basis. As far as I knew, however, this was accomplished with complicated and expensive software to which my library did not have access. So instead, we passed out a paper form to each and every new student during fall orientation. Each student would complete a form, we would collect the forms, and then my department—the Access Services Department at the University of Southern California Law Library—would begin the tedious process of typing each record into our database.
I’ve told you by way of this article’s title that I saved 100 hours of time. I have to admit now that that’s not exactly true. I’ve actually saved much more, and the amount grows every year. Between first-year law students, LLM students, and others, we have about 400 new patrons a year. I estimate that between printing, passing out and retrieving forms, and inputting the records, it takes library staff about 15 minutes to process each new record. And that is not counting the many impromptu departmental meetings to decipher students’ handwriting. My notes from such meetings often include observations like, “Name looks like ‘Devil’s Felony’??” Later, after many intuitive conjectures, this particular student was deemed to be Daniel Kelly, though I am still not sure about this since he has not yet checked out a book, according to his record as of today. (Student names have been altered to protect the innocent and the scribblers.)
Not counting the Devil’s Felony debate and others like it, my staff has saved about 100 hours that can now be used for other projects. Add to that another 33 hours—five minutes or so per student—required to fill out each form to begin with, and we have saved much more than 100 hours . . . for each year that we have incoming students. Did I mention we have incoming students every year?
For me, the Innovative Users Group conference was more than worth the time and money spent. Could I have found the record loading information if I had searched the product’s user guide? Most likely. But I didn’t, because I didn’t know to do that. I had no idea that such an elegant, simple function existed, and had I not stumbled across that poster session, I still would not know. Instead of writing this article right now, I would be trying to decide whether the sheet in front of me said “1043 West Catalina Boulevard” or “love Wildcats in a Bowl of lard.”
That’s the beauty of a conference—you never know what you are going to stumble across and how much it is going to improve your ability to do your job. I stumble across all kinds of fantastic material every year at AALL. I’m a veritable klutz of information discovery. But even though I am a law librarian, law librarianship is not the sum total of my job. I am also a manager, a technology user, a systems platform client, a public services worker, a teacher, and, always, a student. So why would I limit my learning to one facet of my job? Why should you?
Your library may not use a platform like those supplied by Innovative, and you may not need to upload patron records. But there is a conference out there somewhere that can teach you something—probably quite a few conferences, in fact. If you teach, consider a focused group like Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction. They have an annual Conference for Law School Computing. If this is too specific for your liking, then maybe you want to go big. I’ve already begun taking my own advice and attended a bit of the ALA Annual Conference this year. It was less than an hour’s drive away from me in sunny Anaheim, so it was hard to pass up.
I originally thought that a convention as large as ALA might be too generalized to be useful to me, but I found the opposite was true. With so many attendees (about 25,000), a vendor or program presenter can afford to focus on a relatively small segment of the market or audience because the high number of attendees ensures that there will be sufficient interest in a given product or topic. I actually found a tailored, inexpensive product that may help make my interlibrary loan department more efficient. It is an easy-to-remove label that saves time in determining which book is reserved for which patron. I know I will have a hard time beating the 100 hours (and counting) of savings I’ve already managed, but I’m willing to try.
So go find a new conference. If you are one of the lucky ones and have a travel budget that allows multiple conferences in the same year, make your “other” conference something out of the ordinary. If you have more frugal means, this might be an even better opportunity for you. If the AALL Annual Meeting is too far away to be affordable for you during a particular year, take a look at conferences you might not otherwise have considered. There may be some nearby ones that are less expensive. In any case, take a chance! Dip your toes into something a little different. You will learn something. You will see a beautiful city, even if it is your own. And you might even save a few hundred hours of your time.
Judy Davis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a law librarian and head of access services at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law in Los Angeles.