Thursday, August 22, 2013

30th Year Reflections/55: Heat Wave

“Short term trends indicate one more day of high humidity/heat for the eastern portion of the CWA [County Warning Area] will continue the heat adv [advisory] for 96-101 [Fahrenheit] indices over the east this afternoon.” — Area forecast discussion, National Weather Service, Chanhassen, Minnesota for August 21, 2013.

I have never dealt well with high heat combined with high humidity. Give me five minutes with temperatures in the 90s and a tropical dew point and I turn into a glistening, damp mess. Such swamp-like conditions and the handling of a book (think summer/vacation reading here) don’t mix. Combine this meteorological state of affairs with an inoperative domestic central air conditioning system and a week of “staycation” and you have a perfect storm—and an opportunity for creative atmospheric avoidance.

My plan for avoiding steamy exteriors combined Mother Nature’s own timing with an abundance of available air-conditioned spaces, both public and private. Even if the forecast high was in the 90s (with triple-digit heat indices), I knew that mornings would still be in my comfort zone. Afternoon, when the mercury climbed, was a time to seek artificial cooling (or the relative relief of my basement) and quiet activities. I arranged my schedule accordingly: walks or anything approaching rigorous were for the mornings; trips to museums, malls, movie theaters, or libraries for the afternoon. A late morning visit to my daughter-in-law and two granddaughters (with the comfort of air-conditioning), and an early lunch before the young ones settled down for afternoon naps was the one exception to this plan. That, and a late afternoon/evening fishing trip with my father.

Cultures around the world have known this survival strategy from time immemorial. During a five week summer sojourn in Greece over a decade ago, I quickly discovered that nothing of consequence happened in the afternoon. Only when the sun headed toward the western horizon and evening breezes from the Aegean brought relief did life resume, often into the wee hours of the morning. (In retrospect, those who organized our Greek summer school were both clever and anciently attuned. Classes were held in the mornings. Times of study and homework were for afternoons and evenings. Only on weekend treks to historical sites did we fully encounter the Greek summer in its blazing glory. But even here we were buffered by air-conditioned buses as we traveled from one site to the next or the shade of olive trees during a midday lunch.)

I am now midway through this domestic retreat. It has been, for the most part, a success. Today I’ll breakfast out with my wife, visit the Walter Art Center and its outdoor sculpture garden together, see her off to work after lunch (she’s on the late shift where she works), and siesta during the heat of the day. If the forecast proves true, I’ll find myself on the water late in the day for a few hours of fishing. Friday is predicted to be a repeat of Thursday, a brief respite before heat and humidity return for the weekend.

If I were to ascribe any negatives to this week away from the office, they would be attached to the technological tether that remained unbroken during my absence. Because of pending projects and upcoming responsibilities, I checked my office e-mail more than once. Even though my e-mail account includes a vacation notice, more than one message begged for attention…and received it, however terse my response. During a trip to the mall this afternoon I purchased a tablet, another potential tether to my work. I realize such intrusions to a week of rest are self-inflicted. Thankfully, I have another escape in the works, this one planned to a place where Internet connections are few and far between. I have no intention of bringing web accoutrements to that part of the world. Here, finally, I will escape the heat wave of modern technology.

Friday, August 16, 2013

30th Year Reflections/54: Twitter

“I tweet, therefore my entire life has shrunk to 140 character chunks of instant event & predigested gnomic wisdom. & swearing.” — @NeilGaiman

I resisted Twitter since it came into existence in 2006. I’m not sure what was behind this reluctance, but I’m sure it had something to do with the nature of the “tweets.” I did not want to know what someone had for breakfast or where they were at any particular point in time. Twitter, in my mind, was the equivalent of breaking wind. I had no desire to add my own online stink to the webosphere.

And yet, Twitter (and its users) persisted, odiferous though it might be. I started to see some benefit while attending conferences. Grabbing access to a hashtag-associated event from my laptop allowed me to follow conversations occurring during presentations. But I was not yet convinced. Much of what I saw in these conference tweets was equivalent to passing notes in class, with little substance related to content presented and rather more on other atmospherics in the room (or where to go for lunch after the presentation was over). I was never one for passing notes. I didn’t want to get caught by the teacher.

Over time, the wind freshened a bit. In those few moments when I did check a Twitter feed, I noticed a marked increase in the quality of some tweets. They were starting to comment on things of interest; they were informative. In a few instances, I added someone’s tweets to my rss feed. The prime example of what I thought a good use for Twitter came from my colleague Pat Coleman at the Minnesota Historical Society. Pat often tweeted about new acquisitions to the MHS library. I found his tweets illuminating. Here was an example I might follow, tweeting my new acquisitions for the world to see. But I was not yet convinced. There was still a lingering stench in my nostrils.

New breezes blew a couple of years ago when travel monies started to tighten and fewer conferences were therefore possible. For those conferences I could not attend, Twitter became something of a surrogate. I could follow presentations from afar. Most helpful tweets came with imbedded links to articles, reports, or other materials referenced during a talk. Twitter became more important as a way to reach out from home base, to virtually participate in an event. But I was not yet convinced. I still resisted creating my own account and joining this network.

I have no idea what finally triggered my conversion. Perhaps it was an unrealized need to be part of a larger conversation (or in this case a specific conversation connected with our Sherlock Holmes conference). Many of my colleagues are on Facebook and Twitter; some of them have accounts associated with collections in their care. As a staff, we’ve talked for some time about how to use social media as an outreach tool. Our library communications office uses these tools well. If others could do it, then so could I. My moment had come. It was time to smell the Twitter roses.

I experienced a similar revulsion when agonizing about whether or not to join Facebook. (On that occasion, a desire to share a trip to England with my extended family tilted the balance in Facebook’s favor.) I still view many tweets as extraneous and irrelevant. But, for whatever reason, I found myself at the computer early last Sunday morning creating an account. My first tweet was this: “Finally drank the kool-aid and created a Twitter account. Enjoying our Holmes conference #shmn13 and good friends.” Since then, I’ve tweeted another eleven times, am following 43 others, and have 19 following me. The numbers aren’t huge, but it is a start: my first steps into Twitterdom. My “handle” is @UMBookworm. I’m not certain, but the air smells somewhat sweeter this side of Sunday.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

30th Year Reflections/53: Conference Prep

“Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.” — A. A. Milne

Good planning eases the mind. I’ve found this to be true in many instances, but perhaps the greatest exemplar on the importance of good planning that I’ve witnessed or been a part of has come in preparations made for a conference. I was reminded of this while serving as a member of the local arrangements committee for the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) preconference in June. There I witnessed (and examined) two large three-ring notebooks assembled by Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) conference supervisor extraordinaire, Tory Ondrla. According to the ACRL web site, Tory “manages logistics for ACRL professional development events including the ACRL Conference, preconferences, workshops, institutes, the ACRL Conference, and ACRL Board functions.” Even though she was absent from the RBMS preconference due to maternity leave, those planning notebooks were testimony to her experience and expertise. They were the playbooks used by her two substitutes during the conference. Those notebooks are a lesson in good planning.

My first experience planning a major academic conference came in 1988 with a multi-day event: “Swedish-American Life in Chicago, 1838-1988.” I was a member of the planning committee, with particular responsibilities for logistics, audio/visual support, food breaks, and other activities. In order to ease my own anxieties, I prepared a spreadsheet with an almost minute-by-minute breakdown of the event, linking this timeline with the name of each responsible member on the planning committee, equipment needs, speaker needs, and other important contacts. I printed this spreadsheet and had it readily at hand; it was my playbook for the conference and made a huge difference for my part of conference management. The conference turned out to be a huge success, with all the talks captured on videotape (and now in the Swedish-American Archives of Greater Chicago). Conference talks were later compiled, edited, and published by the University of Illinois Press as Swedish-American Life in Chicago: Cultural and Urban Aspects of an Immigrant People, 1850-1930. I wrote a chapter for the book, based on my conference presentation, and created the index for the volume.

Since 1988 there have been a number of conferences I helped plan. Perhaps the most enjoyable have been the string of Sherlockian conferences (and associated exhibits) from 2001 to the present. Each conference had a theme—“2001: A Sherlockian Odyssey”; “A River Runs By It: Holmes and Doyle in Minnesota” (2004); “Victorian Secrets and Edwardian Enigmas” (2007); “The Spirits of Sherlock Holmes” (2010); and our recently completed “Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Place.” This tradition of triennial conferences follows three earlier gatherings of the Holmesian clan in Minnesota: “Rogues, Rascals and Ruffians” (1993); “The Detective and The Collector” (1995); and “Founders Footprints,” the 50th anniversary of the Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota (1998).

Each conference has been planned and organized by a wonderful group of volunteers. Planning for the triennial conferences begins about two years prior to the event. Each member of the planning committee shouldered various assignments with aplomb. Working in conjunction with university and hotel staff, each conference ran like a well-oiled machine. There may have been a few minor bumps along the way, but attendees rarely noticed. It has been a joy to work with this group of dedicated people, and an even greater joy to see conference-goers enjoying themselves at these triennial conferences. I’m sure Holmes would appreciate the planning and organization behind each event.