Sunday, July 7, 2013

It's a Point of Contact: The Importance of ALA Annual

Looking forward to ALA, I thought I would have a ton to say about it on my blog.  And I do--I just don’t want to provide a pointless rehash of the sessions I attended and vague descriptions of the people I met.  I have to keep my audience in mind--a habit I am striving for--and that means providing entertaining relevance.  And maybe a little ranting.  


I suppose that general impressions of such a major event  are not to be despised, since I’m a first time attendee and a major conference is always quite the bouleversement.  But I don’t want eyes to glaze at this, of all times.  Because if there was ever a time for you to be excited about the fact that I’m a librarian, it’s now.

ALA taught me that I’m going to take my MLS and smash everything.  Based solely on the sessions that I attended, I am going to integrate immigrants into my community, rescue homeless LGBTQ teens, turn 20-somethings’ library ‘mehs’ into ‘MMMMs!’, and transmit the love of truth and justice down through the generations in delicious four-color funnybook format.  I’m going to schmooze charmingly, make great professional friends, speak French as if I’ve been doing it every day, and stare Cory Doctorow right in the mean mean FACE every freaking day!

I sound like I’m joking.  I’m not.  As far as ALA would have me believe, I am capable of all these things.  ALA took one set of PLA jumper cables, set me in a puddle of LGBT Roundtable, and turned on the overly-loud-and-earnest Brandon Sanderson juice.  And I met Gene Luen Yang!  ALA completed my life.

I know this euphoria will wear off, but I think that periodic jolts of this energy will keep me flying through my career.  I want to live up to the expectation those librarians, newbie and veteran, up on the stages and panels lit in me.  It doesn’t even look that hard to BE them!  I can do that!  I can talk for 15 minutes about Librarians LOUD!  I can!

Look, I had an amazing time.  I need to thank my three great library-buddies, Esther Jackson, Natalie Bennett and Bryan Sajecki.  I wouldn’t have even been able to go if they hadn’t invited me to tag along with them.  The car ride was hilarious.  Our shared hostel room was chill.  Wandering around Lincoln Park was lovely.  And knowing, even when we split up to go to the various sessions that interested each of us, that we’d be reuniting in a few hours to chatter about what we learned and who we saw and how dumb some things were and what we wanted for dinner...well, that took the whole thing beyond level of ‘professional development.’  Thank you for sharing it all with me.

I also really have to say that it’s not as overwhelming as everyone makes it out to be, this big conference.  Maybe it’s just me and my experience with comic-cons and weekends at Times Square, but the people-crush stress actually struck me as rather mild--moderate at most.  If I can offer any tips to feel merely whelmed: familiarize yourself with the layout of the venue; be aware of where you’re going and when you have to be there; and remain flexible to avoid stress if things don’t work out as you planned.  Sometimes it’s good to deviate from the schedule if opportunities to network or schmooze come up.

In fact, I only got stressed out on the occasions when I was forced to deviate from my schedule against my will due to transit issues, and this brings me to my major gripe with ALA as an organization: they seem not to have given any serious consideration to the needs of lower-income attendees such as little old moi.  My main evidence is the utter lack of transit support for anyone who might have chosen to stay outside of the handful of high-priced hotels ALA recommended for our use.  My friends and I chose to trade off proximity for the economic benefit of staying in an affordable hostel in the Lincoln Park area, only to find it very difficult to navigate to the conference on the first morning we tried; even after we had it all figured out, the trip took about an hour, and we were spending significant amounts of mental energy trying to piece together alternate routes that might cut the commute down.  

Look, I know you can’t provide every attendee with curbside limo service at a thing like this.  But some nod in our general direction would have been appreciated--like a warning among the first-timer material that the commute from outside the immediate city core will take an inordinate amount of time, or an insert among the other transportation materials about the closure of a key metro station along the way.  (That would have saved us one mega venue-overshoot, but to be fair, I guess, the city of Chicago didn’t do a great job making that clear either.)  And would it be that onerous an undertaking to poll prospective attendees on their intended accommodations and say, “Gee, if these guys are choosing to stay somewhere that cheap, maybe we should spare them a little time and money by providing a shuttle to that area”?  Perhaps more attendees would then choose to stay in the littler, cooler neighborhoods of a given city, better spreading the librarian love around our conference site.  (Every bartender and drunk bystander we informed of our profession was endlessly fascinated.  I quite enjoy the “You need a master’s degree for that?!” conversation.)

It wasn’t so bad, in the end, and I love public transit, but I’m just kind of offended that our economic bracket was so low on the list of concerns.

If at all possible, go with friends.  Look up buddies from your LIS program if you’re not particularly close to current co-workers.  Yeah, it helps keep costs down, but that’s the smallest part of it.  My friends and I had such a wonderful time; we built in-jokes, proudly represented our field, fed off each other’s excitement from good sessions and relieved each other’s boredom from bad ones...I’ve already covered this territory, but it bore repeating.  Don’t go alone!

Now, besides recounting my trials and triumphs at this year’s conference, I would like to talk about the importance of ALA.  I’m very aware that what I’m about to write is pretty touchy-feely, maybe naive, and definitely pro-status quo.  There are lots of things wrong with ALA, and groups like ALA Think Tank on Facebook do a good job of articulating them and providing alternate voices, a chorus of which I hope to be a part; but I also happen to think that the annual conference is where the best of ALA comes out.

So...what is the best of ALA, its importance?  What does it reach beyond its bureaucracy and occasionally out-of-touch policies?  The excitement, the ideas, the sharing, the opportunities for expression. It’s a point of contact, where librarians of all shapes and sizes bump up against each other and where intellectual osmosis works its wonders.  It’s the availability of easily copycatted ideas, because when it comes to making our libraries work, there’s no such thing as plagiarism--or at least we’re all more willing to cite our sources than the average high school paper-writer.

It’s a point of contact, again.  The engaging that members of our profession do with another city each year, making a positive impression on a population--the engaging of the profession as a body with a city as a being.  Actually I would like to see this done more self-consciously in future.  Let’s paint Las Vegas librarian.  I don’t want a single gambler to be unaware of what’s going on around their slot machines next June.

Jiff--the world's most photogenic dog!

It’s a point of contact, for small photogenic dogs and brash cynical hipster chicks and a forlorn representative of the National Library of Qatar and a transitioning MTF teen and blue-collar Muzzy executives and a self-published Beowulf comic creator and OA aficionados and Snowden apologists and an interactive robot and and and and and...

ALA, I hope to join you in painting Las Vegas librarian next year.

Lincoln Park, you've been painted librarian.

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