I was fortunate to be able to go to the American Association of Law Libraries annual meeting in Denver. But it was hard, a lot harder than I remember. I consider myself an introvert and I do not like large gatherings in which I need to be social. The reality of being a part of a service profession is that, despite one’s personal preferences, you often need to participate in groups. Introversion can make being a director a real challenge. The annual meeting made me realize how rusty I am.
Is it something I can blame on the pandemic? Absolutely! But it’s not just the pandemic. It is a challenge I have had my whole career. Some people are just naturally good at social interactions and some have to work at it. I’m one of the latter. There’s a reason I’m a blogger and it’s more likely that you’ll interact with me on email rather than live. I feel more comfortable, more confident in my writing than I do in person.
I will own to having a good memory and try to keep it trained up. I tend not to take notes in meetings because I prefer to listen and train my memory. So it was startling when I got to Denver and the opening reception and could not put names to faces. People I’d known for decades were practically anonymous to me.
I mentioned this to a colleague, who wisely noted that was why we wear name badges. They’re not always visible, at a convenient or appropriate eye level, or sometimes spin or get covered by clothing or tote bags. I’m one of those people who may take their own badge when meeting someone and hold it up, like I’m asking for help: do you know this person?
I wear glasses and so geeky heads-up displays (HUDs), like Google Glass or Facebook’s Rayban partnership, are actually appealing, except for the complete commitment to participating in a surveillance state. I would absolutely consider [becoming?] a Glass-hole if it meant I could be better with interpersonal engagements. Not facial recognition so much as capturing badges like a phone can do with a business card for a contact record. I would never wear a Meta product just as I never use their other ones. I’d rather be awkward.
The second day was much, much better. Not only was I recognizing people faster or putting a name and face together in near real-time, in the event I couldn’t, I just plunged in. My go-to was to see someone walking and sort of steer myself into their path. It was good to see librarians from Texas, Ohio, and Arkansas that I’d first met on my stints in those states. It was also nice to meet Californian librarians who are practically neighbors but brand new to me. Sometimes just by swiveling in my chair, I made a new colleague.
One technique I used was to get to a room for a session a bit early and then have the opportunity to just focus on nearby people. Since we’re sitting down, it’s almost impossible to see a badge. So you can ask things like, “where are you from,” or just
stick out your hand and say, “I’m David” and wait for the normal reciprocity. This technique suits me because I like getting to places early! Play to your strengths.
Two is a Crowd
I have that type of personality that is conscious that 2 is “a couple” and 3 is “a few.” Sometimes 2 feels like a few, even it it’s just a couple. We have lots of “pairs of” single things , although I do say “scissors” and “trousers” and not, as some Midwesterners do, a “scissor.” Word hangups. Maybe that’s why I’m uncomfortable in groups!
The Opening Reception was fun. It helped to have the distraction of the vendors, some of whom were also known to me from the past. Their little clusters, like gangs on street corners, were interesting to walk past or bump into and chat. And, of course, colleagues everywhere.
I enjoyed it because it was chaotic. So if I wanted to stop and have sip of my drink or whatever, I could just stop and stand. Anonymity in a crowd. It was a good chance to re-orient and look around for familiar faces without having to just be part of a stream of people going to and from sessions or other activities. And, because we were all mobile and not sitting at session tables, it was easy to go to where there was a friendly face or a potential for an interesting encounter.
The easiest thing is find a large group event to attend. I went to one gathering that was so packed that there was literally no seating. Not only do I find those sorts of activities overwhelming – noise, faces, social cues – but I’m susceptible to taking any excuse to leave. I enjoyed some food standing at a bar and then made an exit. Do what you can do.
It was harder to find time to meet up with smaller groups just because of coordinating schedules. I treasured a sit down I had with some Arkansas colleagues. And perhaps the single best part of the conference was a long chat with a person I’d connected with during the pandemic but had never actually met.
It’s Not …, No, It IS You
As you may know, I started a new job a few months back. I’m professionally happy in a way I haven’t been in I don’t know how long. That self-awareness can be helpful. I’m much more aware that, at the moment, I’m able to put my best self forward. It’s one fewer thing to be anxious about.
The thing about going to a conference or starting a new job is that I have anxiety about dealing with people. That’s complicated, of course, because that’s the job. I’m not managing books or databases or a building. I’m managing people. I’m trying to network. I’m meeting with and perhaps steering a governance board. I’m doing outreach to ensure our law library has partnerships.
As the director, I am excruciatingly aware of the limitations of my introversion on my role. I watch colleagues who are very fluid and easy when meeting or interacting with other people. I am conscious to mimic behaviors – “it’s been nice talking to you” and pivoting to someone new – that seem to work. This is especially useful because I actually prefer talking to one person to get to know them, not just for awareness, and I find that takes me some time. So I copy the ones I can and I avoid those that I know will make me uncomfortable.
These are all “me” issues though. My attendance at AALL and my new start in San Diego have reminded me that, generally, people wish the best for you to the extent they are even aware of making a choice. People are happy to talk if they’re in a social situation too. In a new job, it’s usually counter productive to want someone else to fail. And as someone with a word fixation, remembering that anxiety is just the anticipation of a problem, not its likelihood, is actually helpful.
It also makes me think about how my personal limitations impact our law library. If there are staff who are better at doing the thing I struggle with, I try to learn from them or even deploy them if it’s better for the law library. This discomfort is inescapable if you’re like me and in a leadership role. But I am also aware that not everyone has the ability to do everything. A director should be wise in the use of their resources and aware of their own limitations.
One thing that hasn’t changed is my planning for a conference. I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in the conference hotel. It tends to be expensive compared to other choices and I usually work at places for which cost is a factor. There are inter-personal and other benefits of being on-site at the hotel, of course. But I am okay giving those up. I’m too seasoned for professional FOMO. And I know I do better with a bit of distance.
In this case, I ended up getting a hotel that was a couple of miles north of downtown. I figured worse case, I could use a car service to get back and forth. I was even tempted by the hire scooters. But my plan, and what I ended up doing, was to just walk in and out each day. It was about 3.5-4 miles each way and the hour it took was a huge benefit to my mental health.
Most days it meant heading into the city center and following one of a variety of streets to get to the Convention Center. Right on Arapahoe? Does 21st really not cross the train tracks? But each direction, I saw a different part of the city. And I got accustomed to saying ‘good evening’ to an older couple who sat out in the late evening behind their lovely flowers as I walked by the homes in Globeville.
The best day? I finally figured out how to get down to the Platte River. If there’s anywhere I feel in my element, it is by a river. The runners, walkers, dogs, wildlife, and smells of nature. I would probably stay closer in Denver next time to be able to get right onto the trails near the Platte and explore it more. The Cherry Creek Trail reminded me a lot of the San Antonio Riverwalk but without shops.
I was talking to someone the other day about time. People in cars, or even on scooters, can live a life chopped into minutes. You can arrive or go at any time. If you take transit, or walk, you have to think about the time in longer increments – the hour between buses, the uncertainty of traffic signals and crosswalks. It’s inefficient if you consider doing something to exclude thinking. I like the less hectic increments.
I loved just thinking while my feet did their thing: about work, sessions I’d just attended and how to utilize the information, and family, and pets, and Denver, and colleagues. No matter how much I’d enjoyed seeing any number of people during the day, it was nice to always know I had some solo time at the end of the day.
It was a relief when the conference was over. I felt like I had stretched some very old, out of shape muscles. I felt more connected to my work and folks who are engaged in the same kind of work. I felt good about the balance I’d kept between what I thought I could manage and what I couldn’t. I’m looking forward to Boston in 2023.