I’m hoping to write three posts about the recent UXLibs conference but time, family and training course preparation may prevent that ambition. That’s why I’m deliberately carving out time for this most important one first, about keeping the conference going on its second and concluding day: Friday 24th June 2016, the day we woke up to the reality of Brexit.
It was while I was lying on a table as my osteopath was busy cracking my neck that I first realised that the EU referendum result would be announced on the second day of UXLibsII. My first thought was warning UK delegates that they’d need to organise a proxy or postal vote, my second was what the heck were we going to do should the British public vote ‘Leave’. It seemed entirely possible to me given the dreadful negative campaigns from both sides. We really needed to think about how it might impact the conference, especially given the fact that many of its delegates are from all over Europe. But life and incredibly detailed conference organisation got in the way of any planning on this particular score, bar a few inconclusive texts and chats with my co-organisers Matt Borg and Ned Potter.
Fast forward to drinks in the Mercure’s hotel bar at 1:30am on Friday 24th June. I decide its definitely time for bed and once in my room switch on the TV to discover that my worst fears seemed to be coming true. In something of a merry stupor I decide to stick to Plan A all the same and prepare slides of ten photographs together with funny captions from Day 1. Once done I can’t help but keeping watching the drama unfolding on TV. Quickly I realised that these new slides were not going to see the light of day. After a fitful sleep with regular wakings to check on the catastrophe befalling my country I know we need a Plan B.
Ned, Matt and I agree to meet for breakfast away from the hotel in order to discuss our options away from the other delegates staying there. ‘Can I be as political as I want to be?’ I ask Ned. He is firm in his belief that I should be, so firm that it gives me confidence for the first time that somehow we’ll get through the bleak day ahead. We all agree that any jokes and banter would come across as glib and out-of-place. Ned is also certain that none or very few of our UK delegates will have voted Leave. We owed it to the majority to support them. I suddenly know what I’m going to say even though I don’t have the actual words as yet.
Half an hour later. I’ll never forget seeing Bryony Ramsden’s teary eyes as I was busy zooming around trying to set up the rooms at the venue. Once I dropped off in a room (whatever I was dropping off) I came straight back and gave her the biggest hug. We both needed it. It was the first of many hugs that day. Attendees were now arriving all the time bewildered, upset, confused. Devastated. But I couldn’t let it overwhelm me. Basics attended too, I took myself off to sit alone amidst the filling up venue to write my Day 2 Welcome on my phone.
9am. I feel strangely calm as I go towards the podium. Maybe its because the words just flowed as I tapped my short speech into my phone. Maybe its because I have the 100% backing of Matt and Ned. Most of all though its because I know it is the right thing to stand up and advocate for what I believe in on this the darkest day I can remember. We may have been the number 2 trending topic on twitter on our first day but this was only a 150-person strong conference on UX in libraries. In those terms this was to be a ridiculously insignificant speech, but for the sake of that obviously distressed audience before me and more especially for myself it suddenly felt like the most important thing in the world.
This is what I said (with a fair amount of emotion and shaking):
‘Today is not a good day.
I’ve worried for several months about this moment in case unthinkably it might go the way it has gone. I am devastated. Everyone I speak to is devastated. This is a victory for fear, hate and stupidity.
But as Donna said yesterday when describing her experiences in Northern Ireland – ethnographers have to get on with it. WE have to get on with it. Perhaps it’s a good thing that we will all have less time to dwell on what has just happened. Perhaps it’s good that we’ll be busy.
What I do know for a fact is that we have to be kind to each other today however we might feel. Let there be hugs. Let there be understanding.
For me one of the most precious things about UXLibs is the networking and sharing we enjoy from beyond the UK. The collaboration across countries, the realisation that despite the different languages, cultures and traditions that we are all the same and can learn so much from each other.
But it’s too soon to be cheerful. It’s too soon for silver linings.
Today is not a good day.’
My address was very warmly received. And any subconscious fears I had about going non-neutral evaporated. Many hugs followed – thank you Matt, Ned, Georgina, Ange, Chloe, Frankie, Emma, Eva, and anyone else I’ve missed. We all picked ourselves up and got on with the business of another very full conference day. And we got on with it together, undivided.
We had also originally planned for the conference close to be a repartee-filled fluffy chat between myself, Matt and Ned in front of the audience, but there was almost unspoken agreement that instead I should now sum up alone in a low-key manner. I needed to celebrate the success of the conference and highlight some of the key things we had learned but I also wanted to end with one more political – no, social – statement. Before Friday 24th June I had always described myself as English or British, but something had died within me. I was ashamed. I was angry. I still I am. So I ended with 4 words: “I am a European‘.
In a way the second day of the conference was a massive distraction from reality which is why I think my morale plummeted so severely as soon as I left the conference bubble and I started to realise exactly what we had lost and specifically what the result meant for society first, and the economy second.
The community formed and strengthened at UXLibsII felt like it was almost entirely in spite of the referendum – our working brilliantly together regardless of country border or ethnicity with a commonly agreed aim. As French delegate Nathalie Clot later put it to me in an eloquent email:
“Brexit or not, European cooperation will go on, with all people of good will.”
That is something worth fighting for.