I have never been to any US city that is anything like Seattle. This is not as impressive as it sounds at first as I have only ever been to one other US city, and that was Washington DC, but I feel confident that Seattle is something out of the ordinary. It has weather worthy of comparison with the British summer. It has an efficient and friendly bus service, free within the downtown area. It has coffee shops that sell strawberry flavoured coffee. It has the Space Needle, with the best collection of tacky souvenirs outside Blackpool.
In May this year it was also host to the annual Medical Library Association meeting. A typical MLA will be attended by 1-2,000 librarians and information scientists, not only from all over the United States but from many other countries as well (with a particularly strong UK contingent). Generally well organised, the conference offers a diverse Programme: a commercial exhibition, poster sessions, several streams of contributed papers and invited speakers.
Dashing from one stream to another to catch all the papers I had chosen to see (obviously no two were in the same room one after another) I thought I knew what the conference theme, "Committed to Change, Ready for the Challenge!" meant, but in fact it referred to the problems of information management in the face of rapid technological progress and political upheaval. The invited speakers in the plenary sessions tackled the conference theme with gusto. William Stead, MD (Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Informatics, Vanderbilt University) spoke about "Positioning the Library at the Heart of the Biomedical Enterprise", focusing on the need to integrate the Library into the curricula and the rapidly changing skill sets required by librarians and library users. Do "Medical Librarians Save Lives", as Naomi Broering, MLA President, in her welcome address suggested, as she stressed that we are now often serving patients as well as practitioners? The Janet Doe Lecturer for 1997, T. Mark Hodges stayed with the theme of change with an entertaining meander through MLA meetings past from "Ninety-eight to Date".
The parallel sessions are more informal, but an excellent opportunity to share research results, project work and just general experience, and this part of the Programme is the most variable. Hidden away in the lists of short (half hour) presentations are the answers to your thorny problem whatever it is, but it's essential to go through it and work out a plan of action. It's even more important to stick to it, and not remain in a room when the paper you really want to see next is next-door, just because you have to climb over fifty people to get out. The most useful papers from my point of view this year were an excellent description of setting up and running an email focus group (Paula Palmer, Lake Washington Technical College) and a summary of research into using the Internet to meet the information needs of nurses in remote areas, from our own Amanda Richardson and Jane Farmer of the Robert Gordon University.
Lunch, as we know, is for wimps and medical librarians Stateside are not excepted from this general rule. MLA "Lunch and Learn" sessions can be the most practical and informative parts of the Programme. They consist of short presentation on the latest developments from database vendors, subscription agents and national organisations. In fact, so may organisations take up the opportunity that there are usually five or more "Lunch and Learn" sessions running in parallel during any one session. As a consequence, you always feel that it might have been good to go to many more sessions than there are lunchtimes to accommodate them.
Although the Programme itself contained lots of interest, I was not in Seattle only to listen, but to make contacts in a US audience for OMNI, for the first time. The Poster Sessions, well attended (perhaps due to its excellent location adjacent to the main Exhibition) afforded us an opportunity not just to speak at an audience but to meet and chat with many visitors as individuals. In any conference, the people you meet are more important than the papers you hear, an the Poster Session was, for me, the most useful and productive part of the meeting, not solely because OMNI was itself involved, but due to the generally high quality of the other exhibits. I would recommend anyone thinking of attending an MLA meeitng to consider participation in this part of the meeting. Abstracts for this year's posters can be seen on the MLA web site .
MLA also offers excellent pre-conference educational opportunities for delegates. This year, workshop topics covered web authorship and design, negotiating skills, patient records, evidence based medicine, clinical event data and of course, copyright amongst many other topics. Most workshops are a day or half day long. The Survey design course I attended was a good solid introduction to this topic and from this and previous experience of MLA educational opportunities I can heartily recommend them.
Leaving Seattle for the twenty hour journey home, having taken twice the recommended number of sleeping pills and still being wide awake, I wondered was it all worthwhile. But as the impressions made by grueling journey fade, the memories of salmon roasts and the strawberry coffee, the boat trips and the Pike Street Market stay fresh. Oh, and the MLA conference too, I almost forgot.....
The next MLA is in Philadelphia, and to help you decide if this is the year you go, there is already information on MLANET .