Louisa Choy and Kate Nyhan have been selected as our inaugural co-recipients of the ASIST New England Chapter Service Award for 2017 and will each receive $750 as a travel award. Together, Louisa and Kate have worked tirelessly as our Programming Committee Chairs after years of active membership and participation on the Programming Committee and Board. They have helped facilitate and lead many chapter meet-ups, events, and the 2017 annual chapter conference. Next year, they will lead the New England Chapter toward future endeavors as Chapter Chairs. We thank them for their service, leadership and commitment to the mission and vision of ASIST and the New England Chapter.
The ASIST New England Chapter Service Award is a new, annual travel award that is designed to recognize active members whose participation in chapter leadership contributes significantly to the development and sustainability of the New England Chapter. The recipient(s) each year will be selected by the current Chapter Chair and the most recent past Chapter Chair.
Catherine Dixon, a member of the NE-ASIS&T board, interviewed Louisa and Kate after NE-ASIS&T’s successful 2017 conference on user experience design. They discussed their involvement with NE-ASIS&T over the years, their experiences with putting together the January 2017 NE-ASIS&T conference, and their thoughts on the benefits to new members of joining active participation in NE-ASIS&T
How did you get involved in NE-ASIS&T?
Louisa: I started out in Simmons ASIS&T while I was in school, so when my coworkers, Rosalind Bucy and Maric Kramer, at Wheelock College, encouraged me to join NE-ASIS&T, the organization was already familiar. Roz and Maric were great coworkers and so I checked out a few NE-ASIS&T meetings. I really liked that there wasn’t a hierarchy in the group and everyone just worked to put events together, so I decided to get involved. I attended some free events and then helped with the Data Visualization winter conference in January of 2015.
Kate: My NE-ASIS&T origin story goes back to when I was in grad school too. I was changing careers and I needed to build technical skills and a good professional network, no matter what branch of librarianship I went into. I spoke with Michael Leach, of Harvard, Simmons, and ASIS&T, and he recommended NE-ASIS&T, so I joined Simmons ASIS&T as the liaison to the regional chapter. I had the same experience with NE-ASIS&T as Louisa: having a group of people on the programming committee who are easy-going, productive, with no sense of “well, you’re a student, so you have to listen to the people who have it figured out” – except on my part I really was there to listen to the people who had it figured out!
Louisa: Just no hierarchy. That’s what’s really attractive about it.
Kate: Exactly. The people there were interested in welcoming volunteers and new members with any kind of skill-set. An organization like NE-ASIS&T is so flexible that really, almost any skillset can be applied in some way in this context. And so in that early period, a lot of what I was doing was publicity and outreach. Then I started hosting some meetups, especially since we were on a twelve meetups a year schedule. That was great: whoever was passionate about a particular topic would host a discussion; we’d be open to continuing that.
One of the difficulties about that kind of programming is that it is in person and synchronous. And so one of the things I’m really interested in, and this has been a strategic push for NE-ASIS&T, for several years (not only because I moved to Connecticut, although that does give us an interesting way to test whether it’s actually happening) is to make NE-ASIS&T more accessible for people in the rest of New England, not just Boston. New England includes a lot more than Boston. And that could be Western Mass, it could be northern New England, it could be Connecticut. And I think we have a ways to go in making sure that we are catering to this wider audience, but things are getting better!
Louisa: Yeah, our former Chair of NE-ASIS&T, she moved away and became the ASIS&T Membership and Outreach chair and was able to get us access to the ASIS&T GoToMeeting so we’re really excited about trying that out and this will really expand our ability to host webinars.
What was the first program you each assisted with?
Kate: Hmm. I know that for the last one at MIT, which was “Big Data: What Is It and How Will It Affect Libraries,” I was still teaching and it was not a flexible position. I went in in the morning and set up the room, and then I went back and I taught for the day and then I came back afterwards to help clean up. And that made me feel jealous of the people who had consumed the content. Then I found out later that when you are one of the organizers at an event like this, you are not paying attention to the content even if you are actually on the premises! So my jealousy was a little misplaced.
Louisa: I think the first one was the Data Visualization event so I think I did registration and I did get to see maybe one out of the three talks and didn’t participate in any of the hands-on sessions because of all the work it took to get things running.
Let’s talk a little about the conference that just happened. It was very well attended and excellently pulled off, especially in the small amount of time you had. What was it like organizing the conference?
Kate: I don’t know how anyone has ever done one of these things without a Louisa.
Louisa: Or without a Kate!
Kate: This is not the kind of thing you should be doing alone. I think part of the genesis of co-chairs this year was that no one stood up to do it. I would not have done it by myself. Tom or Annie, current and past board chairs, suggested we lead the PC together.
Louisa: I was sort of interested, but it seemed way too overwhelming to think about doing this all by myself and when Tom was like “maybe do it with Kate” I felt much better about it.
Kate: So then we actually met up together and thought “Can we? Will we be able to do this?” I think that we’re very in sync. We have complementary working styles and Louisa is very forgiving if something slips off my schedule until the weekend or something.
Louisa: Kate has amazing ideas and I’m always ready to make spreadsheets!
Kate: We are a good match… but part of the late start in fall 2016 was that it was unclear how we were moving forward, and that lack of clarity about transitions and hand-overs is deadly. We can avoid that happening again.
Louisa: I think if we had been able to start the event planning much earlier it would have been easier to delegate some stuff. There were some things I couldn’t delegate because I was on a time crunch. It was faster for me to do all of this myself or Kate to do all of this herself for some of her tasks than to pass it off.
Kate: We had a relationship where we trusted each other. I certainly trusted Louisa, for instance, when Louisa says it’s ready to go out, it’s ready to go out! I don’t need to look at it. Ideally the entire PC is working towards that kind of mindmeld, but it doesn’t just — boom– happen when you meet each other.
Louisa: I think we’ve had a pretty new group. I think a lot of the people we started out in the PC committee with also became board members. So now we have a fresh crop of PC people.
Kate: And speaking of crop, we need to plant more seeds, we need to take care of them better and make sure we water them, and I think that’s somewhere where we’ve fallen down. With the time crunch, we were really focused on getting the January event to come together. And it did come off. It was great. It was very successful; we got tons of money for the student and professional travel awards. Short term it was great. Long term, I look back and I think I could have leveraged some of these opportunities to put NE-ASIS&T in a better position going forward. But it’s easy to say that now. As of December 28th it was not so easy.
Louisa: Agreed. If we had more time to plan this, we would have had time to get the PC folks more engaged. It would be a good opportunity to say “Let’s work together on this and on tailoring this message” but because we were on a time crunch we were like “OK. This needs to go out. It needs to get done.”
Kate: On the plus side we do have a lot of contacts from this, we do have a lot of feedback. I think that the response rate was 30%! Which, you know, it’s not 100% but …
Louisa: They actually went to the Google form. It wasn’t a written form handed around. People actually went to a link!
Kate: And a lot of people made detailed suggestions. So the people who bothered to do this weren’t just saying “yes, it was good,” “yes, we’ll come back.” They shared their ideas and thoughts.
Louisa: It was interesting to see comments from previous years and then this year to see if there are running themes that we can better address.
When did it really start to feel like it came together? Was there a moment when you felt “Oh, this is really happening now”?
Kate: For me, it was when we saw we had enough registrations to pay for the travel awards. And that was great! But I had definitely felt some pressure. The annual event has gotten bigger and better over several years now; the travel award has been getting more generous for several years now.
Louisa: I feel like I was nervous until the very end. Having enough registrations was certainly a huge load off my shoulders because I thought, “well, we have to make at least enough to cover catering.” And then, “Okay, well give us at least enough to cover one travel award. Please!” And then it got to two and it was a big relief.
But at that point you had actually already done most of the work of putting the event together.
Kate: Well, there is another moment where we fistbumped which was when — and this one was all Louisa — When Louisa got so many people to say “yes, I want to present for free on your schedule at this event.”
Louisa: And then, but Kate suggested some of the names of who we could contact and I said “oh, okay, that sounds like a great person to contact! Let me just contact that person right now!”
Did you have any trouble getting people to agree to speak, or were they mostly excited to participate?
Kate: In general they were really excited about it. Most people who refused had existing commitments that day and, you know, that happens especially when we were scheduling it so late. Here’s a lesson we learned. Even though Wayne Gretsky is not my favorite hockey player, if he really said “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” it’s true. “Ask and ye shall receive.” The thing that I feel more confident about now than I did then was, while we were asking for a favor, we were also offering something. We were offering 100+ people who were mostly librarians who were interested in your ideas.
Louisa: I mean, you’re getting name recognition professionally for your resume, or even in the business context although we don’t promote specific businesses.
What sort of lessons did you take away from your experience with this conference?
Louisa: With the lessons learned from this event, we have been keeping track of the planning documents in Google Drive, which will be accessible to future leaders and I’ve organized some of the information in our Google Drive so it is neatly packaged for the next person.
Kate: Quite early we started a “lessons learned” document, so it’s not purely retrospective, it’s what we were learning in the thick of things.
Do you have any top take-aways?
Louisa and Kate: Start early!
Louisa: I think this was one of the biggest lessons learned.
Kate: Communicate expectations clearly with everyone involved.
Louisa: Don’t take for granted that the information you had from the previous year will be correct for this year. Locations change their policies both in what they offer and how much they cost. And the January event has changed this year as well. It actually changes from year to year depending on topic and who we can get involved. In the past, we’ve had one room and a half-day program. Last year, it was a full day program. This year, we got a little bit ambitious and had breakout sessions that required the booking and managing several rooms and off-site tours. There are good arguments for doing a streamlined program too — nothing is set in stone.
Kate: I think being clear about timelines, expectations, whose job it is to do what… That reduces some of the stress and gives everyone a better experience and also better language to talk about what they have accomplished for their job or in interviews or on their resume. We want to keep in sight that people do this because it pays back to the community, but also because they can get experience that looks really good. I used this: I was transitioning from my teaching job to a job in libraries, and I was lucky to get a great personal recommendation that really helped me find my current position.
Kate: During the hiring process when I was applying for my current job at Yale, it was definitely a big selling point that I had – partly the project management experience, partly committee experience — getting people to achieve a goal when I’m not their boss. Right now we may be co-chairs of the programming committee, but we can’t fire someone and even worse, we can’t reward someone except in the most ephemeral of ways. I can’t give you a raise. I mean, I can give you a 100% raise from your salary of zero dollars for participating in the programming committee. So having the communication and social skills to build a team of people that will get great things done, even when you don’t have any of the traditional levers or carrots or sticks — I think that was really interesting to them. But most importantly, even though I was a new librarian, I had a network of colleagues who considered me to have a thoughtful approach and ideas worth considering. I think that gave people a level of comfort with me as a new librarian that would have been really hard to demonstrate in any way other than having experience but, you know, you need experience to get experience.
Kate: Catherine, you had the same experience, so what was it like for you? How interested were people in your involvement with either ASIS&T or Simmons ASIS&T or PLG when you were interviewing?
Catherine: There was definitely a high level of interest. I think especially going for academic librarian positions, that’s something that they look for because being part of professional organizations and publishing and so forth is expected of you going forward. I work at a publishing company now, so it is a little bit different in that any involvement that I have in the library world in terms of committees is purely out of my own interest on my own time. I think it’s really exciting to be part of an intellectual community of people who get really nerdy and excited about all of the same things that I get nerdy and excited about, and I think that shows if you’ve been part of a group like this. It shows when you are in a job interview how excited and devoted you are to the principles behind your profession. The employers are looking for somebody who is excited about what they are doing because they are going to do a better job. And being part of a group like this shows that on paper in a very concrete way.
Louisa: Because this kind of involvement shows that you have people skills and initiative. It shows not just how you interact with patrons. They are looking for people who will be their new colleagues. So it’s really important to show association with a professional organization. You show you can actually work with people and you’ve had that colleague-type experience before.
Kate: And paying the membership fee is not what does it. You have to be active. I feel like I look very differently at someone who had somehow been involved in planning. I’m not knocking sitting at the registration desk and welcoming people, but I’m thinking a little more substantive. It doesn’t have to be a year-long commitment, but being the moving spirit behind some project or event.
Louisa: And at NE-ASIS&T you don’t have to be involved in our conference. You can create a meet-up. Something small. A one-shot deal.
Kate: We’re not a one-trick pony with the January conference. There are lots of models and opportunities for people to be involved — work-togethers, skillshares, book talks….
Catherine: Blog posts!
Well, that sounds just great! Do you have any other pieces of wisdom or projects you are excited to get started on that you want to share?
Kate: Be the change that you want to see in your profession. And particularly in NE-ASIS&T, because I can’t promise that every aspect of our profession is interested in change, but NE-ASIS&T is interested in change. We really are highly driven by requests and suggestions and interests of people who are active at our events and discussions. If you have a topic that is interesting to you and you think it should be interesting to colleagues, than we would like to find a way to convene discussion about that topic, whether it’s an event or a webinar or a meet-up, or a whole conference — the door is open. The inbox is open.
Louisa: firstname.lastname@example.org! And I know Kate and I are academic librarians, but we actually want to reach out to all information professionals with that message.
Kate: Yes. We‘ve talked about this trend of academic or health sciences librarians becoming data scientists or data-aware librarians; a lot of other allied professions, developers, information architects, there’s a lot of professions facing the same challenges that we are: challenges of organizing information, of understanding users’ needs, and of telling how our specialties add value. And if we can come together to share our experiences and our questions and our disasters, and our good examples and best practices, I think we can all learn a lot.