On Guy Fawkes Night I set off for New Zealand, where I pursued the most exciting opportunity of my professional life. It was AMAZING. But I also won't be doing it, or anything like it, again - for a very long time. Because it's a pretty selfish act, to go away for 8 days and leave your spouse and children to it, just because you get to do a cool thing. This post is partly unpacking that and partly writing about the fantastic experience of going to the LIANZA Conference.
(Email subscribers! There's a lot of pictures in this one. If they're not displaying view the original post online.)
I am by nature both overly cautious, and overly lazy. As it happens falling into librarianship has sorted both those things out for the most part. It's not that I'm 'cured' of them, just that they're both constantly superseded by circumstances. I care about my job and the profession enough to stop me being lazy or cautious most of the time.
But it's always there, in me. Often I secretly hope things I'm committed to will fall through. When I went to the LIASA Conference in Cape Town the travel didn't get sorted for ages, and I started to get genuinely hopeful the whole thing would be called off. But it got sorted, and I had an absolutely incredible experience. It's always the way.
So when the chance came up to go to LIANZA in Wellington (thanks to my bad fonts...) I was conflicted - I really, really wanted to go, because a) it was such an honour - to do a Keynote at an international conference, and I feel incredibly fortunate to get that sort of opportunity in the first place b) it was in Wellington, which sounded like an amazing place, and c) because I didn't want to give in to the lazy and cautious part of me and not pursue an extraordinary opportunity. In the negative column was a) I'd have to be away from my family for at least a week, which would be hard for me and also for them - solo parenting = zero fun a lot of the time, and b) I'd have to spend time at the weekends preceding the conference writing the keynote, and prepping the workshop I was also going to do while I was over there, and c) the journey door to door is about 35 hours each way, which is not much fun.
The positive column won over the negative column. Fundamentally I didn't want to turn down the greatest professional opportunity I'd ever been given. I asked my wife if I could do this, and she said yes - but really, it's not that meaningful to have done that, because she's not the kind of person who's going to say 'no, you must stay with us'. But she was dreading it. It loomed large in the calendar for us as a family - something to get to the other side of unscathed. I was excited, but it felt like a selfish excitement.
I felt quite odd during the conference because I found it incredibly difficult with what was happening at home (more on which below) to be away, but it was perhaps the most professionally nourishing thing I'd ever done. I LOVED it.
The conference was fantastic. It was very much a shared experience for librarianship in New Zealand. I felt this about LIASA for South Africa too - and missed not having that in the UK. We don't have a single conference that unites everyone, that everyone in the profession catches up at. It's a shame, because it's a great feeling to be among a community who share so much understanding.
We started with a powhiri - a Māori ritual ceremony of encounter. It's hard to describe - it involved all of us lining up inside the venue, and then entering as part of a sung call and response between our leader and those inside the building, which established we were friend rather than foe. Here we are all lined up, ready to go.
It was exciting! Everything about the opening to the event was vibrant - I genuinely feel for any New Zealanders coming to UK conferences because we can't promise anything quite as involving over here!
The first keynote was from Sarah Houghton, who has achieved quite a high level of librarianship-celebrity with her Librarian in Black blog. She was talking about library ethics and privacy, and it was something I needed to hear. I believe in a notion of librarian ethics, but often on twitter it's assumed there's a universal set of values we all subscribe to. It's not really something that's ever come up, in my career, outside of the twitter and blogs discussions. I'm not sure staff are being told what our general values are, only those of the institutions they work in. (I may be wrong, but that's my experience of it.)
So to have Sarah lay out exactly what it means to be a librarian in terms of ethics and values, and to give several examples of not just what not to do but what we CAN do, was very valuable to me in shifting this whole conversation to a firmer footing in my head. Sarah's slides are here.
Then Justin Hoenke did his thing. I'll put a link to his keynote here when he uploads it, but you can watch the talk right away if you wish. I was unbelievably excited about meeting Justin, because we'd worked together before, but remotely, and it pleased both of us that we'd finally meet in so far-flung a location for someone from the US and someone from the UK... Amazingly it lived up to the hype, too - we spent a lot of time together and I absolutely loved it. I'm crap at being myself with people I've just met, but with Justin and with Ines from LIANZA I was able to do that right away, which is a rare and exciting thing for me that is so liberating it feels like flying.
Justin's talk was ace, and watching him deliver a talk in a very laid-back style made me, as someone who also tries to present as conversationally as possible, really excited about talking to this group of people. They were receptive and engaged and enthusiastic - perfect. I've never wanted to work in public libraries so much as when watching Justin talk: the difference he's made to his community both in his previous job and his current one is just amazing! It was inspiring.
Kim Tairi's slides were BEAUTIFUL and are online here - she uses her own drawings and I really like the style. Like all good slides they don't tell you the whole story, so you can watch her talk here. It was pretty amazing to hear Kim's talk because she seems like one of us, but she runs a library! She's in charge of a whole academic library! Justin and Kim are both (I think) somewhere around my age, and although I don't envy them being bosses I'm hugely admiring of their ability to do it.
As I said in my talk, doing a keynote at an international conference felt like a big responsibility. I was as far away from my house as it's possible to get without coming back the other way, and although I didn't ask for a fee it still cost LIANZA a small fortune in plain tickets and hotels to get me there. I felt like my talk was positioned at the ideal time - Sarah and Justin had to open the thing, which is pressure; David Lankes had to close the thing, which is pressure; Kim had to speak first thing the night after the Gala Dinner, which is very tough indeed! My talk was 3 days in, and in the afternoon, and I felt really ready for it and happy with the slot. Usually I practice the first 10 minutes of a talk so I know how I'm going to start, and then allow things to flow from there - for this one I practiced the whole thing in full THREE times! I've watched it back and there's a few things I'd change, but it's basically a presentation that's as close to how I'd wanted it to go as it was possible to get. The people in the room were LOVELY: so supportive and responsive and engaged. It felt great. Thanks to everyone who tweeted such kind things, too.
If you're interested in the library marketing manifesto I presented, the slides and recording are elsewhere on the blog.
David Lankes started his talk by saying 'I'm glad I get to go last as I can correct Ned and Justin's keynotes...' which I liked. There were indeed things in David's (masterfully delivered) address which I disagree with, but I think people appreciated getting multiple perspectives. I certainly enjoyed the through-line of conversation between all the various talks - I quoted several of the other keynotes in mine and found them all to be valuable in shaping my thoughts. David has done a lot of big talks like this one, but it's still a new thing for me - he was very supportive, which I appreciated. We went to the amazing World War I exhibition at Te Papa and afterwards agreed that, in the grand scheme of things, the stuff we disagree about doesn't really matter...
Wellington is a fantastic place. I had no days there where the conference wasn't on, and there was always something in the programme I wanted to be at, so I only had the odd snatched moment to explore. I went up and down Cuba Street which was great, I ended up going to Te Papa, the national museum, twice because it was so amazing. On the first occasion I got there when it opened and headed straight for the top and worked my way down; everyone else did the opposite and it felt like I had the place to myself for about three quarters of an hour, which was magical.
On the Tuesday after the Gala Dinner we retired to a Korean Karaoke Bar (I never do this sort of thing....) but I was running a workshop the next morning so I left at 1am, long before the rest. I have absolutely no sense of direction, so it was with some excitement that I set out into the Wellington night to find my way back to the hotel. Normally I use Google Maps for EVERYTHING but with no foreign data plan I just wondered around until I found the coast, and then followed it back home. It was great, having the quayside to myself with ocean crashing away in the dark beside me.
I met so many great people at SHOUT15 - I don't want to list everyone in case I miss someone out but you know who you are! It was brilliant meeting people I've known for years via Twitter, and I made a lot of new friends too. This is what made it such a fantastic event for me.
LIANZA made everything very easy, too. From the moment Ines and I started emailing about going over there they've been kind and helpful. It's a great organisation. One day I'll be back!
Fatherhood and Career Stuff
I've been away from my family for a period of a few nights four times since my 5-year-old was born, all career related: the SLA Conference in America, LIASA in South Africa, doing some training in Australia, and now LIANZA. For the latter 3 of these, I was away for about 8 nights - essentially the shortest possible time without it being impossible to get anything meaningful done whilst there. The journey in each case was at least a day each way, so the time spent in each country was basically 5 days. Parenthood is more important to me than my career, so how can I justify this? In each case, it felt like a one-off opportunity, too good to miss. I wouldn't trade going to any of them - they've each felt hugely significant in my development, and my understanding of culture. But as of now, there won't be any more until at least the kids are a lot older, or they can come too.
While I was away this time, they had a spectacularly unlucky time. Both of them ended up in hospital (the youngest in the middle of the night, the oldest rushed there from school in an ambulance), and my wife ended up missing work attending to and following up all of that drama. Other smaller things went wrong too and all in all it was just massively stressful - and I wasn't there. Because of what happened with our youngest last year (and her last treatment was only a couple of months ago so it's been a real war of attrition) there's a sort of residual stress-level to do with their health, which means relatively small problems feel like yet another thing to deal with. Everything feels bigger than it is. It was awful to be literally as far away from home as it's possible for someone in England to be - the guilt of voluntarily not being there came second to the horrible feeling of just not being able to help. I had anxiety dreams and trouble sleeping. I coped by not thinking about it as much as possible during the day, which felt like a betrayal in itself.
(I'm aware how #firstworldproblems this all sounds - but I didn't want to present a varnished version of this experience that made it all sound like perfection. It's important that we talk about this stuff and the feelings that surround it. Everyone has different circumstances around work/life balance, and I'm glad this post has sparked conversations around that in general rather than specifically doing talks abroad. The specifics are different for all of us but there are common issues. Lots of people have told me men don't talk about this stuff enough, too!)
So basically, no matter how cool the thing abroad, I can't do it anymore. For a while. Everyone else has to suffer while I swan off to another country and have fun. It's just not justifiable. The fact is I don't need to do it, I don't have to travel abroad for my job. I want to do it - if it were consequence free for my family that would be fine, but it isn't, so it's not.
Shout15 was an awesome, fantastic, magical way to duck out of long-haul foreign travel.
I can't believe you've read this far...
Thanks for getting to this bit, if you did. My overall feeling from LIANZA is that people are pretty great. We all need to look after each other.