Stranger in a Familiar Land: Circling Back to ALA

By Kenn Bicknell, Digital Resources Librarian, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority Library & Archive

Tom Clareson talks to Collective Wisdom Cohort

Tom Clareson of LYRASIS gives the Collective Wisdom Cohort a sneak preview of the results of the Mapping the Landscapes cross-sector needs assessment.

Although firmly entrenched in my native sector, our conference in Orlando was my first attendance at ALA Annual in well over a decade.

After leaving public libraries 10 years ago, I began attending the SLA annual conference geared toward “special” libraries — corporate, governmental and other specialized information centers — in addition to specialized conferences not part of a professional organization (e.g. Internet Librarian, Computers in Libraries).  Although folks working in those settings do attend ALA, it skews more toward public and academic libraries overall.

It is always wonderful to see public libraries folks and academic libraries folks sharing the same conference with programming that is appealing to both, often in the same session.  Many librarians do not veer out of their career lane in a particular sub-sector, so the mashup at a conference is stimulating.  Perhaps there is more cross-over amongst museum professionals (e.g. transitioning from a history museum to a science museum), because there are fewer jobs to choose from?  I have no idea, but I would be interested to find out.

The breadth and depth of the conference is amazing given the price being considerably lower than the smaller sizes of AAM and SAA.  Once you slog through all the sections, divisions, roundtables, interest groups, receptions and awards sessions, there is still a lot there to explore.  I should have told the non-librarians reviewing the program ahead of time, “If you see an acronym, avoid it.”  Rule of thumb: it’s probably a business meeting of a division / roundtable / interest group.  While they can definitely be interesting, there is likely some concurrent programming content of greater value to someone not a member of ALA.

I always enjoy wandering around the Exhibit Hall, especially when I have no reason to be there.  I run into former colleagues and chat with people that I wouldn’t otherwise interact with.  Earlier this summer, I posted this article in our Reading Room section of our WebJunction Cohort site regarding how an art historian is using museums to teach police officers about visual perception.  At the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt booth, I saw a book titled Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life, and I began tapping it to trigger my memory of where I had been made aware of this concept, and why the author’s name seemed familiar.  The sales rep turned to me and said, “Yes, that’s right” in response to my unvocalized question, “How do I know this book?”  Psychic or just very tuned in, she had heard the NPR interview as well, and she and I, and a couple of random librarians there also, had a wonderful discussion about libraries, museums, and our cohort (many cards handed out!).  Best of all, this was on the last day of the exhibits, and I was able to pick up a copy of Visual Intelligence for $1, as well as two copies of opening keynote speaker Michael Eric Dyson’s book, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America, also for $1 each.  Only later did I discover that both copies were autographed.  Book people. Gotta love ’em.

I was so impressed with ALA’s response to the tragedy that preceded the conference.  The memorial service was deeply moving and the speakers didn’t pull any punches sharing their perspectives on gun control measures.  Many librarians are extremely committed to and live for the communities they serve, and have anguished over those who have lost their lives to gun violence or taken their own lives in acts of despair.  I don’t think many people outside the professional realize that we wear a lot of non-information hats:  counselor, confidante, mentor, substitute parent figure, friend to the friendless, and ear to the person who has no one to talk to or no one who will listen.  An outsider would be amazed at what ALA pulled together in a matter of days in response to the Orlando tragedy, but this is what we do.

I found the programming to have improved since my prior attendance, but it could be that I am now more involved in buzzy topics (e.g. emerging technologies, community engagement and strategic collaborations) than I was before (cataloging and classification, technical services workflow).

I enjoyed our LAM Coalition Conversation Starter program, especially the cross-section of attendees that showed up.  I also appreciate the resourcefulness and flexibility of our group:  Moving the furniture around to support our discussion circles and channeling the conversation through our prompted questions.  One of the attendees said it was the best session she attended at the conference.  This is a rather heady observation, and speaks to the desire for more interaction and conversation in programming, given the limitations on how rooms are set up for being talked “at.”

I attended the #BlackLivesMatter: Documenting a Digital Protest Movement program which provided much food for thought.  It was sponsored by the Rare Books & Manuscripts Division of ALA’s ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries). LOVED. IT.  The digital archivist from Princeton University could have just as easily delivered his remarks at SAA, but it was empowering to see him and his co-panelists speak at ALA with an audience of dedicated professionals engaged in community building every single day.  They not only discussed the “how” and the “why” of collecting digital assets of lasting historical significance in real time, but talked about the impact of these activities (with lots of cross-sector appeal and application).

On the flipside, I attended the Digital Humanities Interest Group Meeting where approximately 30 people were discussing a mission statement for this relatively new venture, and if/when/how they should evolve into a more formal ALA “Section” or become part of a larger “Division.”  Only two of those present were not from academic libraries, and the conversation focused entirely on resources emanating from those collections.  While I knew that the group sprung forth from ALA’s ACRL (see above), I was still quite surprised to see that it was made up of college and university librarians discussing projects by college and university librarians at (wait for it!) colleges and libraries.  I am personally aware of many digital humanities initiatives taking place outside of academia.  Public libraries alone are engaged in dozens of high-profile digital humanities projects.  Many of these are all the more interesting because they involve multi-type library collaborations or cross-sector partnerships.  I hope to rejoin ALA and monitor what is taking place in this group, if not shake things up a little bit.

Returning to the size and scope of the annual gathering, I embrace that many librarians delight in excess.  (Why merely provide someone with the answer to a question when you can hammer home your point with an additional 27 references as well?).  There is something for everyone at a large conference, from broad topics to granular specifics and case studies, and many ALA attendees obviously enjoy the continuing education and professional development of conferences, as well as celebrating their profession and its importance in society.

However, we should explore how the pursuit of excellence in one’s chosen subfield of expertize amongst so many possible specializations may lead to “self-siloization.”  Are the libraries, archives and museum professions discussing that in light of the increasingly blurred distinctions between the three subfields? Is the general trend of the library workforce en masse to embrace a future of more nimble generalists — or rather more deeply experienced specialists?  How might different perspectives on those questions be reflected in how long someone has been working in the profession or in what capacity?  And are those conversations taking place in the museum and archives fields?  Something to think about as we shift gears and head toward Atlanta.