Collective Wisdom Impressions: ALA Edition, An Ethnographic Study of a Library Conference

By Stephanie Allen, Collection Manager of Ethnology, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, University of Oklahoma

Collective Wisdom group at ALA conference

Reuniting in person and sharing ideas at the ALA conference in Orlando

The trip to Orlando, FL for the ALA (American Library Association) Annual Meeting was my second conference trip with the amazing set of people (a subset of eighteen library, archive, and museum professionals), who make up the Collective Wisdom cohort. At the AAM (American Alliance of Museums) Conference in DC, I had found it difficult, as a museum person, to step back and objectively analyze the experience. However, in Orlando, I found myself better equipped to be an outside observer and “conference anthropologist,” engaging in an ethnographic study of not only how my librarian colleagues go about their normal work but also how they put on a conference.

If I felt overwhelmed by the 6,000 attendees at the AAM conference in DC, the ALA conference, with closer to 20,000 people, was insanity. And yet it was amazingly organized. I was extremely impressed by the logistical organization needed to manage everything from session placement to shuttle bus schedules at a conference that was so large.

Several specific observations I had were:

  1. The exhibition hall. The exhibition hall was not only huge, ALA has some great free swag! In fact, the opening reception for the Exhibition Hall was rather like a Black Friday sale, except instead of TVs and X-Boxes, the librarians were after decorative socks, margaritas in glowing plastic cups, and of course, BOOKS! As a lover of books myself, this was an absolutely amazing phenomenon to me. Museum conferences usually do not have the financial support (such as that represented by large publishing companies) that would allow them to give away that much free product. I actually had to stop myself from continuing to pick up books so I would still be under the weight limit on my checked baggage for the flight home.
  1. Obsession with ribbons. Librarians are obsessed with conference badge ribbons. I could not get over how popular those ribbons were! There were some folks who, like baseball cards or beanie babies, just wanted to collect them all. Some had so many they hung down to the floor! I’m not sure if it was a status symbol or perhaps a way to proclaim how active they were in the organization, but I have never seen a cultural phenomenon quite like that at a conference before.
  1. Member support. ALA does a fantastic job of providing all kinds of support to its members at their annual conference. Whether it was through organized group physical fitness activities, a series of cooking demos (for when you just need a break from the conference), sessions geared towards the emotional and physical well-being of attendees, what amounted to an engaging library-themed treasure hunt, or any number of other ways, ALA really provides amazing support to its members, providing them with a nice break from the normal day-to-day grind. Professional museum organizations could really use to follow their lead.
  1. The conference app. I know some folks had problems with the app, but I found it amazingly useful. Not only could you organize and save sessions of interest, you could download PowerPoint presentations and handouts from the presenters ahead of time, check on the shuttle schedule, and look up attendees and presenters. In fact, I accessed the app so often that I frequently drained the battery on my phone. The one complaint I had about the app was that the scanning function for the QR codes did not seem to work on my phone. I think it was a compatibility issue with Apple products, but it seemed like a fun idea and an easy way of storing and managing contacts from the conference without having to sift through 100 new business cards.
  1. Community response and engagement. ALA does a great job of responding to and interacting with the wider community of their host city, not just the librarians that work there but the wider community as a whole. I feel like this reflects a general trend I’ve noticed that positions libraries in general and librarians specifically as both advocates and activists for their communities. After the tragedy in Orlando the prior week, the ALA conference responded by not only holding a memorial and other talks, but sponsoring a blood drive and providing ribbons and buttons for attendees to wear to show their solidarity with the families of the victims and the Orlando community at large. While AAM does sponsor pre-conference projects that enlist the aid of conference attendees for projects aiding local museums, they do not engage in any other outreach or community engagement with regards to their host cities. Despite my respect for the organization, I cannot help but feel that if such a tragedy were to happen prior to an AAM conference, there would not have been anywhere near the same level of organized response. I feel like AAM could learn a great deal from ALA in this respect.

Based on the many and varied recommendations of my fellow cohort participants, I found a plethora of interesting and relevant sessions to attend that included discussions on linked data, compensation challenges in the non-profit sectors, intellectual property issues tied into metadata, professional development opportunities in the library field, and staying professionally energized and motivated. Despite the goal of our cohort that revolves around breaking through cross-sector boundaries, I still found myself surprised that I discovered so many sessions that were directly applicable to my job. While overall I did not have this problem, I did run into at least one session that really exemplified the structural barriers we put in place to restrict cross-sector collaboration: specialized jargon. One of the sessions I attended on Linked Data, while billed as a LAM session, only included library professionals in the talk and then used so much specialized jargon that I felt like I was only understanding one in ten words. This is why the work of our Collective Wisdom cohort is so important. We have the ability to point out these shortcomings of our respective fields and how we interact with one another to hopefully incite change.

Finally, I wanted to mention the session “Conversation Starter: Libraries, Archives, Museums – Better Together,” which was presented by the Collective Wisdom cohort. I thought the session was a great success. We structured it as an informal conversation, with participants split into two larger groups of 15-20 people, and framed around three overarching questions about 1) the pressing challenges facing libraries and the field; 2) types of training, knowledge or skill development needed to address the challenges; and 3) ideas for how the LAM sectors can work together to address the challenges. . If we were to do this over again, I think breaking up into even smaller groups of 5-8 people would facilitate an even more organic conversation about professional development and continuing education topics. We did get some great feedback; some general trends coming out of the conversation included: the need for training on how to be a good advocate for an institution, training on general topics such as management, and the need for more skills-based training across the board in all LAM institutions.

To conclude my extensive ramblings, I had an amazing time at the ALA conference in Orlando, FL. Not only did I get to attend some interesting and engaging sessions, I got to know my fellow cohort members and members of OCLC better; I learned more about how an organization such as ALA works; and finally, I got to covertly study librarians in their natural habitat. Whether they were donating blood, collecting conference ribbons, or attending sessions, they were all willing to chat about what brought them to the ALA conference, and they were all interested in the important work our Collective Wisdom cohort is engaged in. Perhaps by the time I disentangle my brain from everything I learned in Orlando, I’ll be ready for the Archives Records Conference in Atlanta, GA. Until next time!