Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why I Went to ALA Annual (But May Never Go Again)

Ah, ALA Annual. I’ve been having such mixed emotions while watching my Twitter stream fill up with #ala11 from all parts of the library universe. Attending ALA last year, in DC, was a highlight of my librarian life, so I'm a little jealous of first time attendees, but not too much. Of course, there were plenty negatives last year – weather, some smarmy sales reps, the crazy-making level of email solicitations – but (if you’ll forgive the cliché), “I wouldn’t trade [that experience] for the world.”

The truth is that for me, attending ALA was a lot like going to Disney World or Las Vegas. There was an ever-present, big crowd – especially in more popular sessions or on the exhibit floor – but like Disney, I didn’t mind it so much since I felt like we had a lot in common. There were many opportunities for swag: in Vegas, it was booze or food, at ALA it was ARCs and canvas bags. All three attract celebrities – Blue Man Group vs. Neil Gaiman vs. Mickey Mouse. My point is that, like Vegas or Disney, ALA Annual was really just a fun vacation for me with the bonus of making a few professional connections. I’m glad I attended, and if it’s really convenient I might go again, but I don’t think I’ll seek it out. (Caveat: This isn’t true for all librarians. I’m good friends with someone who chaired a book award committee, and ALA conferences have been important to her career.)

I don't feel this way about all the conferences I’ve attended: there are actually a few I seek out again and again. State & regional level events are easily reached and have a lot to recommend them. When I was a librarian in Vermont, I attended every Association of Vermont Independent Colleges event that I could. I’ve started to attend Ohio workshops now that I'm more comfortable getting around. My favorite conference, though, is one that isn’t targeted at librarians at all: World Usability Day (WUD).

WUD was founded in 2005 as an initiative of the Usability Professionals Association (UPA) to ensure that services and products important to human life are easier to access and simpler to use,” (from their website). On WUD, there are locally sponsored events literally all around the world. It’s always in November, so it’s only happened five times so far, but of the five I’ve attended three. To be honest, WUD has had more influence over my professional practice than ALA Annual will ever have. Every time I dream up an outreach event or create an electronic resource or even plan an instruction session, I always try to make sure what I’m doing is “easier to access and simpler to use.” I know I’m a better librarian for it, and I wouldn’t have this perspective if I’d stuck to librarian conferences.

Here’s my advice to you: go to ALA if you can, but don’t worry too much if you can’t just yet. Instead, figure out what conferences/professional organizations are nearest to what you do/want to do as a professional librarian but that are outside of librarianship. That might be Book Expo America, or an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference, or even Comic-Con. It’s good to remain rooted in librarianship, but going to conferences outside your immediate area will take your career where you might never have expected to go.

So, what are some of your favorite conferences? Library-oriented, or otherwise?

I appreciate the feedback I’ve gotten so far, so please let me know what you think. Next week I’ll be writing about how I’ve made connections with other librarians online and why I think it’s important to use a variety of methods. Also, I’m hoping to start having guest posts on a regular basis. I’ve got a few people who have agreed to write something for me, but do you have recommendations of who I should ask? Do you want to volunteer yourself?

Until next Wednesday…


  1. I brought so many ideas back from Dragon*Con! and I went to the first Podcamp Boston and made connections there from outside the library profession that were really valuable. Someday, I want to go to PopTech in ME.

    This is the first year in the last 10 that I haven't attended ALA. It's mostly been a working conference with lots of meetings. I rarely had full institutional support for this volunteer work. With no extra money for cabs and meals, maybe ALA was more like a spa vacation for me - I walked everywhere and ate a lot of vegetables and cheese at vendor receptions, resulting in weight loss, every time! I've been to Chicago 5 times and have yet to see Millennium Park or the Art Institute.

    Not attending this year is in part financial, but I've reached a stage in my career where I need a break. I want for other up&comers to take advantage of serving on committees (and it's nice having a personal life again!)

  2. Thank you - this is very timely for me. I've never been to ALA, and I'm struggling with my feelings of jealousy (and planning a little Twitter-vacation). Someday! That's my mantra.

  3. Beth, I'm jealous about Dragon*Con. I dream of going to a comics &/or gaming convention some day.

    Kirsten, you're welcome. It took me until my 7th year as a librarian to finally make it to ALA, so "Someday!" is a great mantra.

  4. This is great advice! I am really intrigued by WUD - I'm going to need to keep an eye on that.

    I've only been to one ALA conference (Chicago 2009), and will probably only seriously consider going again when it's back in Chicago because I just don't have the funds to travel much further. I wasn't particularly wowed by the sessions I chose, but the exhibit hall was quite an experience! I can't say I did much networking, but that was my first library conference, and guess I was more comfortable that time around.

    I have had better luck with sessions at the two SLA conferences I've attended, and this year got a bit better at networking thanks to stepping up my Twitter engagement.

    The organization I work for usually exhibits at our statewide library conference, so I spend more time hanging out at the booth than in sessions.

    I need to start investigating non-library conferences!

  5. Thanks for this, Jessica! I've always wondered what it's like. It's amazing that I've been in libraries for 15+ years and have never been to one. The closest I got was Day of Dialog at OLC a few years back, and it was great. I really hope to attend OLC this year too, especially since I'll be presenting a webinar for them this summer.

    There will be a guest post coming to your inbox from me soon!