Exploring the Wide World of Librarians at ALA

By Jan L. Hebbard, Outreach Archivist, Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia Libraries

[Disclaimer: This is a late reflection post. Writing this, I have not only attended ALA but also SAA – and am nearing the end of our cohort’s journey together. That said, many observations in this post stem from all of my experiences in the past months, not just my trip to ALA. Read with caution!]

Attending the American Library Association (ALA) conference was overwhelming! Though our group discussed at AAM the size of ALA (which I am told sometimes draws an attendance of up to 25,000), I don’t know that I could have prepared myself for what I encountered in person. The size of the conference meant there was an impressively large program with many, many sessions to choose from. But, that size also meant that these sessions were sometimes many football fields distance from each other – making it difficult for me to move quickly enough to get to all the places I would have liked. In the end, the time crunch between sessions forced me to reevaluate the sessions I most wanted to make it to, prioritize, and then consider other topics of interest located nearby.

In terms of content, I will confess that ALA was the conference I was most interested in attending with the Collective Wisdom LAM Conference Exchange cohort. Working in outreach, I have always admired the work of public librarians who seem to provide some of the most essential services to their patrons and who cater to the widest group of people – different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, and income levels. One of the sessions I attended spotlighted the work of the Los Angeles Public Library and their growing program to guide patrons through the U.S. immigration process. More than just helping patrons fill out preliminary forms in the process, they had gone so far as to hire dedicated staff members who were trained to assist patrons in court, acting almost as lawyers. I found it inspiring that an organization could identify the needs of their community and go so far in trying to meet those needs. The session also reminded me that libraries are civic hubs – maybe one of the only places where all kinds of people can connect and share resources. So, I left the session with a renewed purpose – wanting to hone in on the audience and needs of that audience served by my institution – not a bad takeaway.

This conference was more than just public librarians – and that was the other striking part about ALA, the amazing diversity under this large professional umbrella. I think ALA has this in common with AAM – there are so many kinds of libraries, just as there are so many different museums and types of jobs within the museum field.  You end up with a greater diversity of people and sessions to represent that diversity. I spoke with several attendees who told me that this was either their first ALA, or the first they had attended in a number of years. It gave me the impression that this conference was a mecca for some – THE place to go and check out, see and explore. For others who had been in the profession for a long time, they voiced that this was a conference with a lot of offerings but in their experience those offerings stay consistent from year to year, so attendance every year isn’t necessarily worthwhile. Or, there are more targeted conferences that apply to them that force them to pick and choose which years ALA attendance makes sense. That sense of prioritizing and spending limited professional development monies wisely is something I heard from many people – really at every conference we have attended. And more than money, there is also the factor of time. I can say that having attended just AAM and ALA, those two weeks out of the office put me into a time crunch in my everyday work life. Finding a balance where you can take on opportunities for professional growth and enrichment, but can still stay on course with the everyday is challenging.

Another session I attended discussed how to make significant structural changes within an organization. Although all of the speakers were in leadership roles within their organizations, they offered some interesting tips and strategies for leading from any position to effect change. I think a session like this is in a way timeless. I’ve seen this session at many conferences and with good reason – always striving to make your organization better is something I think we all aspire to. That said, I noticed more sessions than I expected about this topic, along with cultural diversity within the profession, and inclusive collecting. These topics cropped up at AAM and SAA as well – so it is interesting to see that trends in session topics are shared across the sectors.

Conversation circle at ALA 2016

Participants at the Collective Wisdom Conversation Starter session at ALA 2016

In addition to attending ALA, members of our cohort also presented a session. We had discussed a proposed framework for the session in a virtual meeting but left the nuts and bolts of planning to do in person at the ALA conference on the night we arrived. After a big Italian dinner, we found a spot on the patio at our hotel and sat down together to sort out a plan. And I will say, the tough thing about having a group of bright people full of ideas all in one place is trying to make sure everyone has a chance to talk but is also ready to listen! In the end, we decided to utilize the main questions posed to us as a cohort at the outset of our LAM explorations as a framework (a great suggestion from Sofia) for a round of discussion. We decided, wisely I think, that we were still too early in our own LAM journey to feel that we could speak as experts of any kind and instead we asked those who attended the session to let us learn from them. I’m pleased to say our session was well attended, and that the attendees were as diverse as our cohort – representing the fields of libraries, archives and museums, and many of them in cross-sector positions. Needless to say, they had a lot to share and members of our cohort did a fine job moderating the discussion rounds and taking great notes. At the end of the session we promised to put all of our notes together and collected business cards so that we could follow up and send out that information to attendees.

I think our listening session was definitely a highlight of ALA for me. The planning and execution of the task brought our cohort closer together. It helped me to better understand the unique personalities within our group – both the challenges they sometimes posed, but also all the gifts that individuals brought to the collective. And in the end, we created a document (kindly compiled by Stephanie Allen) that we can use moving forward to reflect back on this conversation at ALA. A conversation that revealed there are already non-librarians attending this library conference and that many of them, just like those of us in the cohort, are straddling the worlds of different sectors trying to find their own balance.

Our group also had the chance to meet with some members of the Coalition to Advance Learning during ALA. I recall one question thrown out by a representative from the group – she asked if those of us in the group not in the library field would consider attending ALA in the future, on our own dime. I think for me the answer is no – or at least not regularly. I do see the value in stepping outside the box and attending a conference hosted by another sector. I walked away from ALA with lots of great new ideas and perspective. At the same time, I know that in real life outside of this fellowship I am bound by limited monies for professional development and have to make the most of those dollars. I think rather than attending ALA every year, or every so often, I would prefer the idea of infusing people from different sectors into a shared conference. Or, as I proposed during our discussion, thinking of ways on the state or regional level to convince library, archives, and museum conferences to converge – hosting in the same city at the same time, and maybe providing an attendance level that allows to cross between/across these conferences. I think in that way, you could feel good about going to a conference in your field but also about having the option to explore those outside the field – all on the same travel dime. And though I doubt many cities could hold the attendees of ALA, SAA, and AAM at one time, I think this idea could work with smaller organizations.

So these are my much delayed reflections on the 2016 ALA conference. I will say that upon my return to the University of Georgia Libraries, I was scolded by my colleagues for not bringing home more bounty from the free book tables at ALA. Obviously, I still have a lot to learn.