Librarians and Happenstance Voyagers, SXSW 2013, Day Four and Five Wrap-up

March 14, 2013

“Happiness is contagious.” This missive, which is one of the many kernels of wisdom I jotted down at SXSW, stands out as I pour through my notes and reflect on the powerful, transformative experience I just had in Austin. The quote was about workplace happiness, but I saw it play out all around me and felt it myself at this mega-conference. Did you know when we smile—or see someone else smile—our bodies dump happiness-inducing chemicals right into our bloodstream? I learned that through and through at South By.

Over the past six days, I found myself in a joyful state of openness spurred by learning, great conversation, and thousands of smiles. Sure I was dead tired and my body forced a retreat to my room by 10 pm on Tuesday, when what my head and heart wanted most was a ride on a karaoke-equipped RV cruising the streets of downtown Austin. Nevertheless, I didn’t sink with the regret of experiences missed. My cup runneth over and I am content and in platonic love with many new and old friends. I’m happy and ready to spread the happiness.

I journeyed to SXSW with few set expectations. I was on a mission to be a voyager of happenstance, intent on enjoying the ride whatever it might yield. After coming to truly understand just how dynamic and multifarious the South By adventure is, I added another component to my conference philosophy: Rest and recharge when you get tired or overstimulated.

Given what I did (which involved walking at least a million literal and figurative miles) and saw over just a few days, it’s no surprise that exhaustion caught up with me on the final, notoriously fabulous night of SXSW Interactive. The fact is, the beauty of the historic house we rented near the University was also a gift of happiness I had yet to fully experience. There’s happiness to be found in company, and also in the solitary mulling over of things after a deep dive into a sea of knowledge.

SXSW is a magnet and compass of zeitgeist, things to come, curiosities, and wisdom. When it comes to summing up what I gleaned from this astounding and staggering experience, I light upon a few themes (so far) I encountered time and again: Make life better, laugh and smile, embrace authenticity and ignore that old puffed-up ego, cross-pollinate the wisdom of different folks and fields to make unexpected connections, amass varied strengths, and remain curious through and through.

During these final days of SXSW, I attended a session on interactive, networked paper; learned from the funny folks at about using humor and memetics to deliver authentic messages; traded ideas and schemed with volumes of smart librarians from across North America; sampled more excellent food-truck fare; danced my legs off to noodledom at a party dedicated to beloved New Orleans; found inspiration for the creative process from the funny account that musician and author Nick Cave gave of his life; discovered tools for infusing work with fun and happiness; gawked in the exhibit hall; grokked Matthew Inman’s ( call for humor infused with purpose; and laughed some more with Fred Armisen of Portlandia and Saturday Night Live.

What’s the purpose of all this variety and fun? Why should library lovers make the SXSW pilgrimage? Many of the Librarylander conversations I enjoyed before and at the conference focused on just this. SXSW is currently one of the best places to encounter genius ideas for today and tomorrow from everywhere, while sharing what we librarians have to offer with other thinkers, doers, helpers, and influencers. We’ll suffocate in the echo chamber, and respiration requires both exhalation and inhalation.

My brain has much to synthesize and wrap itself around in the days to come, but a few select impressions keep cycling deliciously up through my mind the day after my first South By experience:

  • Riding up the escalator with SXSW genie Andrea Davis just before the closing session, and savoring the sweet moment as she encourages those riding down to share spontaneous high fives.
  • Meghan Sitar’s bold move to get a photo of Neil Gaiman with two SXSW LAM library tattoos.
  • Digging an ongoing riff throughout Austin with a “sync tank” (to steal a term from the work life happiness session) of profound and passionate library lovers, while marveling at a fabulous circus of sights and sounds.
  • An impromptu concert on an Austin street durng SXSW. Photo by Aspen WalkerHappening upon a crew of young musicians who set up generator, lights, and instruments in front of a vacant building to serenade the streets and cast big gorgeous shadows, after emerging from dinner with four ladies I adore: Stacie Ledden, Mel Gooch, Cindy Fisher, and ALA’s own brilliant Tina Coleman.

There’s something to be said for humble, joyful spontaneity, as well as for experiences that are formal, grand, and planned. SXSW offers both and what really counts here is the journey. If you go, or connect with someone who did, I hope you catch the infectious, mind-opening happiness this ride brings.

ASPEN WALKER is the manager of the Castle Pines and Lone Tree branches of Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries.