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Archive for the ‘conferences’ Category

Inspired by a very thorough piece in the Guardian newspaper today by Kate Sang I wanted to reflect a bit on my own problems attending academic conferences.

Decades ago I was a young and healthy academic, about to start a computer science PhD. I could attend conferences in their full form: going to all sessions, all days, including meals and socialising.

Shortly after that I fell ill, at just age 22, with a neurological illness very similar to multiple sclerosis. It took some years for me to be diagnosed with cerebral vasculitis, but by then I’d had to drop out of that science PhD. Fortunately I retrained part-time as a historian, picking up three more degrees, including PhD. My disease is incurable, progressive in my case, and is treated lifelong with chemotherapy drugs and steroids to reduce brain inflammation and slow damage.

I can’t work in a paid form due to my illness. It is severely disabling. I sleep for much of the time, sometimes up to 18 hours a day, every day, due to the brain damage and inflammation. And even when awake I am often very confused and can only work for short periods. Near the end of my history PhD I could only work for five hours total a week, in one hour chunks maximum, spread over many days. But I finished the PhD. And I am now active as an academic. I publish academic journal papers, undertake new research projects, and speak at conferences and attend as an audience member. I have an honorary research fellowship from my university, though costs of attending events etc. are paid by myself.

Whereas 25 years ago I could attend a conference in its entirety, now I have to pick at most one or two days, with a day of rest in between. I will also usually have to be modest in my expectations re the number of panels to attend.

Firstly there are the practical issues of getting to the conference. I’m typically travelling with a wheelchair, which usually makes connections by train etc. difficult. Normally if I am flying to a venue it is far easier to get a taxi – albeit costly – from the airport to the hotel. But this only works if it’s within reasonable and affordable travelling distance. A few years ago I was invited to speak at a book history conference in Germany, which would have been very good for my research interests and academic networking. But the venue was far away from the airport I’d be using, and a taxi trip would be quite impractical in journey time and cost terms. Nor could I rely on being able to access trains. So reluctantly I declined the invitation. Fortunately I was asked years later if I would like to contribute a piece to the conference’s collection of essays. I submitted my piece, and the book is due to be published in a month.

Even on the spot physical accessibility is a major concern. I normally now use two sticks, but when at a lengthy academic event I need to use my manual wheelchair – with husband along to help push – to manage to last the day. And getting into and around academic venues can be highly problematic.

One thing I should praise is I’ve found conference organisers usually very helpful in helping my husband attend as my carer. He shouldn’t have to pay, since he is just there to push me around and help me navigate obstacles like doors etc. He is also an academic, but in a very different field from me. So he’s not there to listen to the talks. Most conferences allow him to attend for free. That is enormously helpful, and not something I expected. We still have double travelling costs, but not paying double conference fees does ease the cost for us to a certain extent.

Though against that positive experience very few academic conferences offer daily registration fees. At least in my field – humanities – you typically have to pay for the full conference or nothing. And with me often only attending half or even a third of the conference this makes them particularly costly for the time and benefit that I’m going to get in return from the event. Sometimes I do get a reduced attendance fee though. I am particularly grateful to a recent conference organiser, who given how little I was going to be there, let me attend for free. And my husband as well of course. Thank you Drew!

Once there, if a venue has stairs to reach talks I cannot possibly attend. Sometimes organisers move rooms, which I am very grateful for when it happens. But it’s not just about the room where the talks take place, but also about getting into a toilet, and getting to meals. I have severe bladder incontinence from my brain damage, which in particular causes huge problems with urgency and frequency. I need to go to the toilet a *lot*. Having a wheelchair toilet beside the room is good, but if I have to go constantly during the talks – as has happened – it can be very awkward.

One conference that I regularly attend relocated to a ground floor room, with a toilet beside it, which is good. But the meals including lunch were elsewhere in the building, and I would not be able to get there, without major difficulty. It was far easier for me to stay trapped in the room during the lengthy lunch break, while my husband fetched food for me. This cut down the vital networking with fellow academics I could do, though thankfully some historian contacts specifically sought me out at these times, and had lengthy chats with me in the room on my own. Likewise the book stands of academic books to buy at this conference were upstairs. No way could I get there. So again husband was dispatched, with iPad, to take photos for me to browse, and also to bring any specific titles of interest down to me to look at. In this instance the Brill publishing rep actually came downstairs to take the order from me directly. He was keen to help, but it was still frustrating for me not to be able to browse through all the books in person.

Sometimes I attend conferences with multiple streams of talks on at once, in many rooms, even a dozen and more in one case. For these conferences I will always try to let the organisers know in advance which specific panels I want to attend, to make sure I can reach them ok on the day, and rooms can be swapped in advance if need be. But that only works if the messages are passed on correctly at the other end. At the SHARP 2016 book history conference in Paris, at the Bibliotheque Nationale, I’d checked all the talks in advance, and was assured by the organisers that I would be able to reach them. When I got there on the day I found a panel I very much wanted to go to was up many stairs, in a building without a lift …

But perhaps the worst aspect for conferences for me as a disabled academic is how intensive they are, and how crammed the days are. Often they start at 9am or even 8am, and continue until 6pm or 7pm, with a packed set of talks running throughout those periods. Very tiring in brain concentration terms, and much stamina needed to get through. I understand organisers are trying to fit as much in as possible for attendees. But it is exhausting, even for fit and healthy academics, who can find it wearing. For me it’s impossible to attend even a full day of this. So sometimes I’ll have to choose morning or afternoon, or if I am lucky afternoon and evening. Or I need to try to factor in some sort of rest time, which is difficult in a venue that I don’t know well, crammed with conference goers. I remember at an Ada Lovelace event in Oxford a few years ago that I went back into the main lecture theatre – then deserted – during lunch, to have a bit of a rest, and quiet time to myself, while everyone else socialised out in the lunch area. That quiet time refreshed me enough mentally to allow me to stay for some more talks in the afternoon.

I know that it’s unusual for someone to be as bad as me health-wise and still want to attend academic conferences. But the problems that I have described aren’t unique to me, and some of them – especially issues of fatigue and mobility issues – will be shared by other academics. Not all of these academics will be so obviously disabled. I remember that when one conference I mentioned above was moved to a ground floor venue this turned out to benefit quite a few other attendees, who would not have said anything before. So more accessible venues can benefit a wider academic population.

In practical terms I’m not sure how much longer I can keep attending academic conferences. And if I do it will have to always be done in a modest way, within my limitations. With travel costs, and logistical challenges, there is a trade off between costs and benefit. I will have to continue to decide if it is worth it for me. But for now it is. I just hope not to run into too many practical challenges in future conferences …

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A week ago my husband and I attended the 2017 Worldcon, this year held in Helsinki, Finland. It’s taken me a few days to write up my thoughts, but better late than never.

Every year the Worldcon – the World Science Fiction Convention (also covers fantasy, horror etc.) – is held in a different location. Often it’s in North America, so it’s quite exciting if it’s elsewhere. I was last at the Worldcon in London a few years ago, and was determined to go again if it came back to Europe. Two years ago I was a site selection voter for Helsinki, and delighted to be able to go there.

The venue this year was the Helsinki Convention Centre – the Messukeskus. As a Finnish convention the programme of talks had a substantial Nordic content, including some talks in the Finnish language. And it had a massive turnout from Finnish members. Normally a Worldcon held in a non English speaking location gets around 3000 attendees through the doors over the five days. This one had over 7000, including a vast number of local memberships sold in the weeks before the con. This caused problems for overcrowding in a venue which had been picked based on the smaller numbers. Rooms were over full, queues too long, corridors jam packed. But the con organisers took drastic action, and limited new members after the first day. I can’t remember this being done at a Worldcon before, but think it was a good decision, and it was effective in reducing the problem.

However even in such a huge event with thousands of attendees it did feel remarkably intimate. Even though we’re not active participants in the fandom scene we did keep running into the same people over and over again, including fellow Scots. It actually reminded me of being an undergraduate student at St Andrews in Scotland, where you could rarely walk into the town without running into someone you know … On that subject I met an online UK friend at the con – we hadn’t arranged anything in advance, but he saw one of my tweets saying which talk I was going to next, and was able to come and find me, and we had a great chat. I also had a very memorable breakfast chat with a US fan from Illinois.

As well as taking drastic action to cope with the overcrowding issues the con, as is usual for Worldcons, was highly organised around making it accessible. For example at registration on the Wednesday we – including me in manual wheelchair – were able to go straight to the special access desk, thus avoiding the longer and winding main queue. But there were still some problems. Lifts were probably too few for the numbers needed, and often busy, both in the main hotel building (which shared part of the convention complex) and elsewhere in the convention centre. Particularly problematic for us was a huge ramp in the main convention centre, which we had to get past to get to the main trade and exhibit halls. I could never have wheeled myself up there. And there were frequent problems with people walking along looking at smartphones, and threatening to walk into wheelchairs which could not just step easily to the side to avoid them. Very much a modern malaise of course.

Because of my neurological illness, similar to multiple sclerosis, I had to alternate days of total rest with days at the con. So allowing for flights there and back I could only attend the con on Wednesday and Friday, with total sleep days between. Luckily the hotel was quiet – because of my wheelchair and mobility issues we were allocated a room in the on-site Holiday Inn. This let me come back to the room and rest between panels, and manage as much as possible.

Before the con I studied the programme – released online some weeks in advance – to see likely things I might hope to get to. There were hundreds of talks to choose from, in ten or so parallel streams over five days. I tend to prefer panels with multiple members over individual speakers, unless I’m confident the one speaker will be good. And I always hope to have a variety of subjects covered in the panels I attend. My plan was to attend on the Wednesday and Friday, but also marked up Thursday and Saturday possible events, in case I was stronger on those days. We were flying home on Sunday afternoon, so after checking out from the hotel were going to head straight to the airport.

The first panel I attended was “Uses of Fantasy” in the Academic track, a 90-minute academic panel looking at research into audience responses to the Hobbit trilogy of films, especially in Finland. This was a fascinating start to the con for me, an academic historian who researched historic reading habits for my PhD. But I also increasingly dabble in cultural history, including in the modern era. The speakers were a mix of prof, post doc and PhD student, all interesting. All very different in presentation styles, but well linked. There was much amusement among the audience about Finnish attitudes to Hobbit films: essentially huge disappointment! And there was a lively Q&A session at end. I asked my first question of the con, and another questioner was also a Scottish lady.

My second panel looked at the processes behind the Helsinki Worldcon bid, from original idea through to the con of now. This had three speakers, somewhat variable in quality, indeed one I wish had spoken less, and given the others more space. But it was an interesting insight. I was also greatly amused by the tartan tammie wearing Finn on the panel with a Scottish twinge to his accent – turned out he’d done his language residency in Edinburgh, and clearly still felt close to the country. Nice!

I had hoped to attend more panels on the first day, but in the end couldn’t keep going for so long. So my next panel was on the Friday, looking at Caribbean SF. This was in a large room on the ground floor, and I was pleased to see that the chaotic queuing of the first day had improved. Again because of the wheelchair I got a seat at the very front. Originally this panel was intended to be three Caribbean authors including chair, but a 4th author was added. This was very very good – a rich insight into the language, culture and society of the islands, and what makes Caribbean Sci-Fi and Fantasy writing unique. Each of the writers – including luminaries Karen Lord and Nalo Hopkinson – talked about their own writing approaches. And, yet again, there was a lively Q&A at the end. I asked for tips re starting points for new readers of Caribbean SF, and got many useful suggestions.

Because of the still somewhat busy talks and corridors – even after steps had been taken – we didn’t try to attend a panel more often than every two hours. This gave time to get from the previous panel to the new location, ready to queue again. As a wheelchair user I was usually seated first, but it was still sensible to get there before things got too hectic. Both my husband and I had “Access” ribbons on our Worldcon membership badges – him as my assistant – to give us priority access through crowds etc.

My second Friday panel looked at the James Webb Space Telescope, one of many astronomy talks at this year’s Worldcon. The speaker in this case was NASA public affairs officer Jenny Knott. So not a scientist, but I think she coped pretty well with questions. It was rather unfortunate that this talk was scheduled directly against another astronomy one about Mars, but both my husband – whose day job is in space technology research for the European Space Agency etc. – and me preferred to try for the telescope one. Much of the talk was a pre prepared video explaining the science behind the telescope and the plans for its launch and deployment. The rest of the time was a lively Q&A. Many people, including me (on my 4th question in successive panels), asked about the risky aspects of the mission, and about testing etc. It’s using a lot of new technology; if things go wrong it will be very hard to fix long distance. The speaker couldn’t answer everything, but again I think she did pretty well, and offered to put people interested in knowing more in touch with NASA scientists who can help more.

I had intended to go to a panel on Finnish steampunk, but went for lunch instead, and another look around the trade hall. So after that I looked in the programme book to see what else that might be on imminently that could appeal, and ended up in a panel on “Writing for Video Games”. This had five writers for video games, including three writing for interactive fiction company Choice of Games. I’m writing interactive fiction games myself at the moment, and have been interested in them for 35+ years; so am always hoping for inspiration re my own writing, which made this panel ideal. It was an interesting discussion, well balanced among the panel, and touched on lots of issues, including the role of the writer, developing a character, and agency. Again it wrapped up with a lively Q&A. I was trying not to ask a question for a 5th panel in row, but gave up after 5 mins. I asked the panel for their thoughts on how easy it was for amateurs to get into this field, based partly on the long tradition of amateur writers in interactive fiction in particular. This led to further questions, where audience members were asking for more details of free / open source systems like Inform 7, Choice Script etc.

Note: both of the last two panels mentioned above can be viewed on YouTube. Because both were in room 208 they were some of the few recorded and streamed on the Internet for viewers long distance.

I should also comment on other aspects of the con. I’ve already mentioned how easy registration was for us. In a large part this was because of the access desk, but looking across to the main registration queue it seems to have been remarkably efficient for people in general too.

The Trade Hall is always a Worldcon highlight for me, and I was there on both days. The Trade Hall was quite small this year in the number of traders, I think. There were many Finnish language books on sale, which was nice to see, even if I couldn’t buy them to read myself! Also there were several sellers of steampunk items. I could easily have bought an amazing watch and some goggles …

The Exhibits Hall was rather sparsely filled, certainly in comparison with London. There were lots of posters, but for me from my wheelchair position they weren’t always easy to read. We did like some of the displays though, including Discworld figures, and a huge Discworld Great A’Tuin turtle.

All attendees get a registration pack, including a souvenir book and various bits and bobs. I was particularly pleased to see that the souvenir book – a large format paperback – includes good articles about the history of Finnish SF and F. And as a real bonus we got a specially published collection of Finnish weird fiction in paperback form in our registration pack. This would be good enough for me in itself, but it also had the bonus of having lists at the back of it of Finnish SF and F – both short stories and longer novels etc. – available in translation in various languages worldwide. More for me to read!

Overall I’m delighted with our time at the con. I could only be there on two proper days, though my husband managed four days. We both had a fantastic time, very rewarding, which in particular has left me with a legacy of much new fiction and non fiction for me that I now want to read. We got to visit a fantastic city – the Finnish people were extremely welcoming – and had a wonderful break. I hope it’s not too long before the Worldcon comes back to the Nordic countries, but this was a wonderful experience. Thank you.

Oh and for a glimpse of Helsinki, rather more so than the Worldcon itself, my husband has uploaded quite a lot of photos from his wanders, especially on the days before the con started.

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I’ve been spending much time in the last week in the 17th century, transcribing a lengthy poem about a corrupt court judge at Melrose in the 1680s. Doing that reminded me of the talk I gave in September 2013, at the conference of the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland, held in Inverness. I thought it would be nice if I put the PowerPoint slides from that online, so have done that – link here. It was a 20-minute talk, as is usual for academic conferences, so I was limited in how much I could say. But I covered a lot in the time allowed.

My talk was titled “Glimpses into a time of turmoil: examining the regality court records of Melrose, Roxburghshire, 1657-1706”, and was based on the dissertation for my taught MPhil degree at Dundee. I studied the voluminous local court records for Melrose regality, and had a fantastic time. I have ancestral connections in Melrose, going back to this period, and lived there myself for part of my childhood. And as a disabled student it was a perfect project: the records are largely transcribed already, so I could work on them at home, as able to.

In the process of the research I built up a gigantic database of court cases, pursuers and defenders. The index of people’s names recorded is online already, as part of my Melrose one-place study. There were probably only about 2500 people living within the court’s jurisdiction at this time, making the vast numbers of people recorded as using the court quite astonishing.

The slides don’t record everything I said in the Inverness talk though. For example there’s a detailed slide of the many debts murder accused John Halliwall weaver in Gattonside left in 1673 after escaping prison before his trial. I explained more about Halliwall’s story verbally on the day, not on the slides. He escaped on horseback, after a court officer let him out of jail to help him sell ale!

I’ve also spoken about the 17th century court records to the local historical society in Melrose, many years ago, in a well attended talk in the town.

There are so many other stories I want to share about the Melrose community from these records. For example a g… uncle of mine was judge of the court from 1657 to 1665. Well he was, until he was charged with “striking and hurteing of Robert Mott, servitor to John Bowar, portioner of Eildoune”. His own court fined him £10, and he lost his job. But that, and more, is for another day!

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Two weeks ago I was in Paris, partly for holiday, partly to attend the annual SHARP book history conference. SHARP is the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing. Its conferences are held each year, usually alternating between North America and Europe. I’ve been to SHARP conferences four times now, since 2005, and always find it a rewarding experience. I’ve written up my 2016 experiences below, mainly to have a record for myself for the future. In a nutshell I had a great time, and was inspired as usual, but had some wheelchair accessibility issues, and other concerns about the conference venue. If you want to read on feel free, but note it is long!

This year’s conference, per the usual format, was held over three main days, with over 100 panels of usually three talks, up to eleven panels simultaneously at any given time. In addition there was a day of postgraduate talks and activities. The conference was held at the Bibliotheque nationale de France and the university site BULAC. This conference would turn out to have the biggest attendance yet of any SHARP conference so far. In addition the conference was bilingual, including live translation in place for the audience at key talks.

I could only go to the conference on one day. I have a neurological illness, similar in day to day symptoms to multiple sclerosis, and am limited in how long I can attend any academic event. I am also very weak after any event, and need to rest, preventing any chance of attending on successive days. I usually bring my wheelchair if possible, to help me last longer. Sadly wheelchair accessibility at sites varies, but usually we manage pretty well. As usual, I contacted the conference organisers before registering. This was partly to check wheelchair accessibility, but also to ask if my husband could be admitted free as my helper. I can’t wheel myself around, and having him there to help me through doors etc. and manage meals etc. is enormously helpful. Usually conference organisers are happy to do this, and that would be the case this time too. We intended to attend the Paris conference on the Wednesday, including the digital showcase, but had to wait for the final programme, released just before the event, to be sure. A drawback for me was the conference being split across two sites, with a long walk/push between them – fine for fit and healthy people, not so great for me in a wheelchair. So we were keen to stick to the one venue. Fortunately I found enough talks I wanted to go to on one day at the main BnF site. Ideally we would have been there for the opening panel at 9am, indeed earlier to allow time to register. But with the logistics of getting a wheelchair across Paris by taxi we aimed instead to get there for 9.45, when we would meet a BnF staff member to guide us in with wheelchair, negotiating the lift etc.

The conference started on the Monday, with postgraduate sessions, before starting properly on the Tuesday. I followed the tweets from conference attendees over the opening days – many more tweets than I’d ever seen for any previous SHARP conference. From the tweets it was clear that many people were struggling with heat, in unusually warm weather for Paris (up to 36C). This made me extra relieved that I was only aiming to attend on the one day, in a modest way.

Wednesday arrived. It was another extremely hot day, but luckily we had a scary but trouble free taxi ride across the city to the BnF. We met BnF staff member Isabelle who took us into the building, including via the lift. I was quite surprised at how much security there was in the BnF building, but in the circumstances it’s sensible. We registered us both with no problems – because my husband was recorded as a full attendee (albeit paying no conference attendance fee) this meant he got an identity badge too, which was good to have. At registration we ran into a St Andrews book historian we know, which was nice, then wheeled through to the auditorium foyer where the publishers stands were, and also the venue for many coffee breaks. Here we had our first hiccup with the building: an awful lot of doors to go through, which had to be opened wide. Again I was grateful my husband was with me, not coping on my own, though other conference goers rushed forward to help too, which was extremely kind of them.

We found the Brill publishers stand and managed to buy the book I wanted – a recently published St Andrews book conference proceedings, bought at SHARP at quite a discount. It was nice to see another familiar face with the Brill rep there, who we’ve seen before multiple times at SHARP and St Andrews. Then time for a quick drink, before heading off for my first panel at 11am.

Here we ran into more problems. The BnF is a very long building, and it was a very long walk to the salle Jules Verne where our panel was. I couldn’t have walked that distance, even when I’m on my feet and coping well. So thank goodness for the wheelchair. Though it was not always easy to wheel on heavily carpeted floors. Of course heavily carpeted floors are good for sound proofing, in a library environment. There were lots of “Silence!” signs around as we travelled along, past many quiet reading rooms.

The Jules Verne room itself was problematic. I had to get out of my wheelchair to get through the door. Even more troublesome was noise coming in from people speaking outside in nearby corridors, seemingly on three sides of the room. This was very distracting for audience members, and very distracting for the speakers, who often tried to raise their voices to be heard over audible conversations we could hear and follow from outside. This was not a great setting for an academic talk. Also seating in the room was poor for the audience trying to see the slides at the front. Much of the audience couldn’t see the PowerPoint pictures being shown by the speakers, with fellow audience heads in the way. Again not a great arrangement of room for what was needed.

Having said that, the talks were fascinating. This panel was about 18th century libraries, so bang on topic for me who completed a PhD on Scottish reading habits in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I particularly enjoyed Jason McElligott’s talk about book thefts in 18th century Dublin. Partly this was for a personal reason: I have Dublin ancestry, and my ancestors would have lived in the city then. I doubt they ever set foot in Marsh’s Library, though I wouldn’t put it past them handling stolen books! But I also enjoyed it because it gave a different perspective on reading and book collecting tastes at the time. I actually commented on this in the Q&A section after the talks, suggesting to Jason that he could use the detailed lists of books stolen to reassess Irish reading tastes at the time. It’s quite likely that it would give a different picture from conventionally studied records like library catalogues and bookseller adverts.

After this it was lunchtime. So first was a long wheel back to the grand auditorium foyer where lunch was served. Here was a particular delight: individual take away cardboard lunch boxes, with handles, full of sandwiches, salad or pasta, fruit and a drink. It was a great way of giving out the food tidily, but also meant attendees could carry their lunches easily to wherever they wanted to eat in the building.

The Digital Showcase of book history computing projects is usually held on the middle day of the conference, and I was keen to get it. One project on display I was interested in had no-one there to talk to about it, and the information board was all in French, which stumped us somewhat, though we tried our best to read it, my husband even resorting to a simultaneous translation app on his iPad, photographing sections of the information board, and then letting the app try to spot the words and instantly translate. Quite magic, but a bit limited. However I was relieved to get to talk to Jan from St Andrews – another familiar face – about Book History Online. I’d recently noticed some gaps in its coverage, and wanted to know more about how the resource – an online bibliography of book and library history – is compiled. I came away much wiser. I’m sure it will be a useful resource for me to use in future. Fortunately although it is subscription only I can access it through my honorary research fellowship at Dundee University.

After this we made our way to the next room. And here problems were manifold. The next panel we were going to, about shipboard publications, was in the room designed PLK1, in one of the outside towers, outside the main BnF building. Fortunately we had studied the maps to know how to get there. But even once there we couldn’t get in the door. And the building’s security guards didn’t have a clue what was going on, or why we were wanting to get in that door. Eventually they phoned someone inside the building to come and open it from inside, but it was chaotic. And once inside we had to get to the first floor, with no lift. And my wheelchair. I had told the conference organisers in advance which specific panels I wanted to go to, but I believe there was a breakdown of communication at their end, and they didn’t move this panel to a more accessible room. Fortunately I’m not wheelchair bound, though very weak at attending a long day of academic conference. Most helpfully my husband was willing to carry the wheelchair up and down stairs, while I struggled with my sticks. So I was able to get to the panel I dearly wanted to attend. But this should never have happened. Once inside the room we were joined shortly by two of the speakers, who weren’t sure if they were in the right place, and wondered if anyone else would find the room! Fortunately more people did, and there was a good audience by the time the panel started. Though there was no trustworthy looking wifi in this venue for audience members to use, including no access to the main BnF wifi network. I ended up connecting to something that looked somewhat dodgy, but would hopefully let me live tweet. That wasn’t a great situation to be in.

Thankfully the panel was really interesting, and worth the struggle up the stairs with a wheelchair! The three speakers all spoke about different aspects of shipboard writing. I was particularly agog at the story of the New Zealand troop ship magazines being saved thanks to a Dunedin librarian with much foresight requesting in the 1920s that the magazines be sent into the library, for posterity’s sake. I also found the stories of emigrant ship magazines moving, giving a sense of community to people setting out on new lives. For example it was touching that these magazines, compiled by the emigrants themselves, referred to the ships as ‘home’. All the talks were well presented, and on time, and followed up with a lovely Q&A, with good cross-panel discussion from the panellists, as well as participation from the audience.

I had originally intended to attend a third panel of the day, on archives and book history. But what with the extremely warm temperature combined with our struggle up and down two flights of stairs I decided to leave early. So we called a taxi, and were picked up at about 4pm outside the BnF.

All in all I had a rewarding day. I’m not totally sure about the suitability of the BnF as a conference venue. Not just for my problems with wheelchair accessibility, but also due to relatively poor signage, widely spread out lecture rooms, and quite a lot of noise coming through into at least one of them. That room also had problems for people trying to view PowerPoint slides on screen. And we had wifi problems in the other room too. But we were made very welcome, and the lunch was superb. And, as usual, I found attending even the one day of SHARP incredibly stimulating intellectually. Even from just the two panels attended I have lots of fresh ideas to apply to my own research and writings, and feel inspired.

I’m not sure when I will be back at SHARP’s annual conference again. Probably when it is back in Europe. Health permitting. But I look forward to it. Meanwhile I have great memories of my time in Paris, including a day at SHARP 2016.

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I’m just back from attending the morning sessions of today’s Distinguished Lectures in Computer Science at St Andrews given by Maria Klawe, fifth president of Harvey Mudd College. The lectures run all day, but due to my MS-like illness I could only attend the morning sessions, not the whole day. However I greatly enjoyed my time there, and wanted to note my thoughts while I can still remember them.

The venue was the Byre Theatre, St Andrews’ town theatre, in the main auditorium, providing ample seating for current St Andrews computer science staff, students and alumni who had been invited to attend. My husband and I were both there as alumni, from the 1990s. I had to use my wheelchair today, and thank Aaron Quigley and others for arranging a suitably accessible venue. I had a very good view from the back row. Indeed one member of staff joked that I had the best view in the house!

The theme of today’s three lectures was “CS for all”, exploring issues relating to widening computer science education and participation at school level, undergraduate level in universities, and in active research, including disabled people. We attended the first two lectures, which each ran for an hour.

The school-level one, “Computing for all in K-12 education” was particularly interesting, looking at initiatives – often outside academia itself – to widen computer science and particularly programming education for school-age children in America. I was particularly struck by the statistics showing how few computer science teachers there are in US schools, and especially in New York, with just 23 out of nearly 10,000 teachers. No wonder the subject is under-taught in schools. Anyway Maria discussed lots of positive initiatives for change underway, which were encouraging. And there was an active Q&A session afterwards. I was particularly heartened that almost all the people asking questions were women, very encouraging for gender equality. I wasn’t planning on asking a question, but something Maria said triggered me off, and I asked if there was evidence that these various school-level initiatives are leading to increased interest in computer science at university and similar levels.

The second lecture, on university-level education, also appealed to me. When I studied computer science as an undergraduate between 1990 and 1994 I was a tiny minority as a female student. So any steps to widen things are welcome. This was a good talk too, although I would personally have liked more detailed coverage of the various initiatives to widen accessibility. I was left often wanting to know more, as was my husband. I also wondered just how well some of the initiatives might translate to a UK setting. It seems to me, and I may have this wrong, that university level education in the USA is far more flexible than in the UK, with more flexibility in terms of which subjects you specialise in. Whereas in the UK it is normal to apply to a specific honours programme from school. This is particularly the case in England, with three year honours degrees, but even in Scotland, with its extra year for flexibility. And it isn’t always possible to switch later. My future husband and I – both undergraduates at St Andrews between 1990 and 1994 – wanted at the end of our first year to switch to joint honours computer science and astronomy, both quite unaware that the other was trying to do this at the same time. But the university authorities had just scrapped that honours degree combination, so we were told no, and I opted for just computer science, and my husband physics and astronomy. Though if we’d applied straight to do this combination from school we could have done it. Whereas in the USA I get the feeling that things are more modular and more flexible, and e.g. there is more room for people to move to computer science from other subjects later during their degree programmes.

This talk ran for quite a long time, leaving little time for questions, but there were interesting ones. I was particularly amused by the discussion of funded versus self-funded PhDs. After leaving computer science I switched to history, studied to completed PhD level. There is virtually no public PhD funding available for humanities students, meaning there is a much stronger tradition of e.g. history students self-funding, usually part-time. This is rarely in my experience done for employment purposes and to lead to increased salaries, but more for personal development and an intellectual challenge. But it does lead to a very different research environment from hard sciences like computer science, where the balance is more towards full-time funded PhDs going on to academia or industry.

Anyway I’m really glad that I went, sorry I’m missing the last talk. Many thanks to Maria and the organisers for such an interesting event. And for opening it to alumni like me and my husband.

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My husband and I are both graduates of Computer Science at St Andrews. Because of this we received invitations to go to a day celebrating Internet founding father Dr Vint Cerf who is to get an honorary degree this week from the university. The day had a large number of talks running from about 10am through to about 8pm at night. Because of my MS-like illness I couldn’t attend the whole thing, and we ended up having to choose between the morning session and the evening to drop. In the end we decided to come for the afternoon and evening sessions. I would have to use my wheelchair to last the day, but the venue is good on accessibility grounds, and I was given a university guest parking permit, which would allow us to park in a disabled space directly opposite the venue.

We got to St Andrews about 1pm. There was a slight hitch getting our visitor parking permit, because the front door to Computer Science wasn’t staffed, and the secretaries we tried phoning were all at lunch. But eventually it was sorted, we got parked, unloaded the wheelchair, and wheeled into the venue. We were even in time to grab a sandwich or two from what was left of lunch before the talks started at 1.30pm.

The first afternoon speaker, Julie McCann, was excellent, talking about embedded systems. She covered a lot in 45-50 minutes, in a lively and interesting talk. This was followed by 10 minutes of questions, before a brief comfort break.

I had to go to the toilet an *awful* lot due to my MS-like illness, which was a problem. We usually left while questions were ongoing, so I could beat any queues. But I lost count of how many times I had to go. On the plus we were at the back of the lecture theatre, with an easy way out, in a space left for a wheelchair user. And one of the students helping was very attentive at helping us get through the lecture theatre doors, both out and in. But it was a menace! But we just got on with things. At least I was able to go, and was comfortable.

The 2.40pm talk with Lars Eggert had to be somewhat curtailed for time – he had perhaps put together too many slides for the time available. But he gave a good potted history of the Internet, which I enjoyed. I was at university as a computer science student in the early 1990s, and am a little vague about earlier Internet history, so always appreciate a recap.

4.10-5.10 was a panel with all the speakers and chairs of the day, all sitting together on the stage, taking questions. I asked the second question, which was answered by four of the panel, for ten minutes or so in total. I was curious to know what difference it makes to be researching a subject – the Internet – which is in many ways ubiquitous now, and well-known to the public, who have a perception of it, and thus resulting expectations. That’s different from just about any other earlier aspect of computing history, and I wondered what the implications are for how academic research in the field is conducted. The answers from the panel were diverse and insightful, and there were many other interesting questions asked. I think this might have been my favourite “talk” that we attended, because it was so wide-ranging in its scope, and fascinating.

5.10-5.30 was another break. I’d just settled with my husband, when I spotted my former PhD supervisor come in. So I wheeled over and said hi. I had to leave a full-time funded Computer Science PhD at St Andrews in 1996, after struggling for two years with worsening ill health, after my progressive MS-like illness struck at just 22, just as I was starting the PhD. On the plus after leaving St Andrews I later retrained as an academic historian, picking up three more degrees, including PhD. But it was hard to leave St Andrews. So it meant a lot to chat to my former supervisor. I also filled him in on what my husband – who did complete a Computer Science PhD at St Andrews – was doing work-wise.

Then on to the evening session. 5.30-6.30 with Jon Crowcroft was fun, perhaps a little rambling in places, at times skipping too much over some of the really intriguing bits, which could be frustrating. But it was entertaining, and enthusiastic, and we really did feel as though he was a real hacker, albeit an academic one, who’d seen a lot over the years.

Then it was Vint Cerf at 6.40. He talked about the problems of preserving data and software in a digital age, which echoed many of my views. He also proposed a technical solution, though it raised a lot of questions in terms of whether there would be the political will or economic support for it. I would have liked to have followed this up in questions, but Vint was having some trouble hearing the questioners, and with me at the back, even with microphone, it might have been difficult practically. As it was there were plenty of interesting questions asked. He received very generous applause at the end, and a birthday cake (it’s his birthday today) from Fisher & Donaldson. Plus we all sang happy birthday to him.

The room was packed. It is a big lecture theatre, in the new medical building, and most seats were taken. It was a very impressive turnout, and the audience seemed to be enjoying things a lot, and were engaging a lot in the Q&A sessions, which were very lively and interesting. As well as my PhD supervisor we caught up with various other friends and lecturers at Computer Science, and had a great time. I wish we could have attended all the talks, but we had to make a tough choice. As it was I think it was a very worthwhile visit.

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Last year I attended for the first time – but not the first time the conference had been held – the St Andrews Book Conference, as I blogged. Because of my MS-like illness I can only attend for a little time: at most a day there, and then a day of rest, and then back for the final morning. But if I’m weaker it’s just one day there. Yesterday the 2015 St Andrews Book Conference started, and I was back again for a single day. The theme this year was “Buying and Selling”, and I was among the speakers on the opening day.

Again I had to use my wheelchair, in a very old building. But again the conference organisers were very accommodating, holding the conference talks in a ground floor room with a disabled toilet nearby – which sadly I had to use alarmingly frequently, as my MS-like problems were playing up quite badly on the day. My husband was permitted to accompany me as helper, so he could fetch food and drinks, and help me manage the wheelchair around. And we were made to feel very welcome. St Andrews staff and students were also extremely attentive, often checking if I needed food or drink to be fetched. Very kind.

I had a lot of good chats during breaks over the day. The first was with a St Andrews book history PhD student who I’d been in touch with after last year’s conference. We chatted about shared experiences like writing a PhD thesis – which she’s doing at the moment. And I also got to meet a German book history professor who recently invited me to write a book chapter for a collection he’s editing. That was particularly useful – he was able to fill me in more on the publishing process, and I came away feeling very positive about the project, and the chapter I’m currently in the process of writing. Another contact was with a fellow Dundee history graduate, who is going on to postgraduate study. She read my PhD thesis as part of her dissertation work – wooh! And I had a great chat near the end with one of the professors who I’d asked a question after his talk, and he’d asked me one after mine. He was particularly struck by my brief passing evidence of a Scottish chapman – seller of cheap print, to relatively poor customers – carrying French language study books, which would conventionally have been assumed to be of more interest to the wealthy and elite. And we chatted about much else beside. All good.

Organiser Jan and St Andrews prof Andrew opened the event at 10.45, then the first session ran from 11-12.30. This session had three talks covering often the issue of debt and credit in early bookselling. One particularly interesting talk was by economist Jeremiah E. Dittmar, proposing an economics-based statistical analysis of lots of book prices, teasing out trends. This proved to be quite controversial, but was entertaining nevertheless, and certainly something different. I asked my first question of the day at the end of the session, the first of many I asked, and would have asked more, had time permitted.

The second session of the day ran from 2-3pm, with two talks. I particularly enjoyed the talk by French/TCD professor Jean-Paul Pittion, looking at the stock of a 1660s French bookseller. There was much he said I could relate to my own research from the 18th century, and it was nice that he gave us handouts of photocopies of the original book stock inventory to study. He was quite surprised to find a few women among the customers, thus revealing their reading interests, so I commented – as he probably knew already – that many women readers at the time would have been hidden in the records behind male relatives (husbands, fathers, sons or brothers) going into the bookshop for them. And I wondered which women might be more likely to go into a bookshop on their own then, which led to an interesting discussion about salon culture in Paris filtering through slowly to the provinces at this time, and these women going into the provincial bookshop being trend setters to a large extent.

My panel started at 3.30pm. Each speaker spoke for 20 minutes, Magdalena, then me, then my Dundee University history colleague Martine, then we had about 25 minutes for joint questions at the end. I sat at the table to give my talk, with a PowerPoint zapper to change slides. It was all going well until the PowerPoint screens cut out halfway through! Jan thought they had maybe overheated. I said that’s fine, I can go on without slides, though you will all miss my Fife map 😉 So I proceeded, even holding up my Fife map printout so they saw what they were missing! But a few minutes later the St Andrews team got the visuals working again, so my visuals including Fife map were go once more. The talk came in just under 20 minutes, and I covered almost everything I wanted to. Then I returned to my wheelchair, before wheeling up at the end after Martine’s talk for a group Q&A. We all had lots of questions from the audience. For example I was asked about literacy rates in Scotland, the price implications of the copyright trials and subsequent price drops for bookseller business viability, rural book supply, and someone else asked about chapmen and others and where they got their books from. All are questions I can usefully feed into my subsequent book chapter version of the conference paper. We didn’t have overlapping questions though, because each talk was quite different. But I had a question for Magdalena, and it was a very fun Q&A all round.

After a brief break next up was the wine reception. Originally this had been going to be in the St John’s House garden, but they moved it into the main conference room, and overlapped it with the final session. We were filled up with drinks – wine (red or white) and beer on offer – before the first speaker, then offered a refill after him, and a refill after the next speaker, and a refill after the third one! Some people took everything on offer! I stopped the wine after the second glass – was already feeling quite light headed. I’m amazed the audience managed to come up with coherent questions afterwards. The last session was a lot of fun, talking about book collecting, including bibliomania, incunabula and libraries. There was a fantastic talk to close by Daryl Green a Rare Books librarian at the University of St Andrews, talking about skulduggery among the St Andrews university academics – including a principal! – in the 19th century, and possible deliberate theft by them of manuscripts. He illustrated his PowerPoint with animated images from The Ninth Gate, one of my most favourite movies, all about a book collector and various bizarre characters. Which provided much amusement. As did his visual casting of the 19th century St Andrews academics, for a movie version.

Things wound up a little before 7pm when people were relocating to the Vine Leaf. We headed off then, saying goodbye to various people. I had a lovely day, but was pretty tired after, and will be resting solidly for the next two. I’ve emailed the organisers and prof Andrew my thanks. I really appreciate them holding the conference on the ground floor so I can attend. It also clearly benefited some other people there, who either needed to use the disabled toilet quite frequently, or were rather wobbly on their legs.

I’ve since followed up by sending LinkedIn requests to a number of people I met and chatted with. Great contacts made. Great ideas sparked. And yes I will have to write another book chapter by September.

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