A New Role at ALA Annual
I’m in Chicago in order to attend what must be my 20th American Library Association annual conference. I have lost count of how many annuals I have attended. My first was Los Angeles in 1983 when my family began accompanying my mother, who is also a librarian, to the conference for our summer vacation. LA was just the first of many other conferences. I also went to Dallas, New Orleans, New York, Atlanta, San Francisco (a couple of times), Chicago (also a couple of times) and several others that I have since forgotten.
ALA meant only one thing to me when I was growing up: free stuff. I looked forward to the seemingly endless rows of exhibits that promised loads of goodies to bring home. At first one of my parents would accompany me up and down the aisles but I was eventually allowed to walk through the exhibits by myself. As long as I met my parents at the previously established meeting time, I could spend as much time as I wanted looking at all of the books. At the time, it never occurred to me that I might one day attend the conference as a librarian.
Not long after I started library school in 2002, I asked my mother (as I did every year) if she was going to attend the annual meeting in Toronto. After she replied that yes, she was planning to attend, I remember imagining yet another experience of walking up and down the exhibit aisles filling my bags with swag. Then it slowly dawned on me that the upcoming conference would be an entirely different experience–I would be attending ALA as a soon-to-be-librarian. I would actually have to go to meetings and presentations!
My experience in Toronto was completely different from any of my previous conferences. I spent a lot of time walking or riding the bus from one meeting to another and I barely had time to go to the exhibits. People sometimes say that they find ALA overwhelming and before attending my first conference as a librarian, I didn’t really understand what they meant. How could a place full of free books be overwhelming? Toronto thoroughly disabused of this idea. Just figuring out which meetings and presentations to attend can take quite a bit of time and energy.
Now I am once again attending ALA in a new role. As a doctoral student, only a few of the meetings mesh with my particular research interests. This means that I feel quite a bit of pressure to attend all relevant meetings even when they are scheduled at the same time. I am constantly looking at my printed schedule to make sure that I don’t miss anything. The exhibits are, of course, secondary.
Before becoming a librarian myself, I had no idea that there were many librarians out there who were quite disappointed with ALA and its work. My mother always seemed recharged and energized for her work after attending a conference. Of course, this is the essence of some librarians’ problems with ALA. What does one get out of being a member other than the conference?
For me, being a member of ALA reminds me that I am part of a larger community. Before returning to school, I worked in a small theological library — a setting that is very different from a public library. By reading through my American Libraries every month, I was reminded that even though my library had a specialized mission, we were still part of the wider library world. Now that I am a student again, I feel even further removed from librarianship. Attending this conference has helped me remember why I am in a library and information science doctoral program. When I am in the McCormick Center, surrounded by 27,353 other librarians, I recall that my research is not just for my own edification but that it will also aide the profession as a whole.
By attending the conference, I am reminded that even though I no longer work in a library I am still a librarian. I still have one more day of running around the conference center to attend meetings and racing through the exhibits. And, like my mother, I hope to return to New Jersey from this conference recharged and energized for my classes in the fall.