Thursday, July 23, 2015

ALA Annual Correspondence From a Small Town Librarian, by Chris Wilkes

As a librarian from a small, rural library, it is easy to become isolated from the larger library world. The “rockstar” librarians, big, urban libraries, and innovative ideas that are seen on the pages of Library Journal and American Libraries every month seem an otherness, something that I do not encounter in my daily work life. My perception of this otherness pervades my view of the American Library Association itself. Although I am a member of ALA, I have a difficult enough time using its website, let alone understanding the many divisions, roundtables, and committees. Besides bringing back new ideas to my library, I had hoped my attendance at my first ALA Annual would give me a clearer picture of the library community and my place in it.

For the most part, the conference shattered my perceptions about this otherness. I found attendees and vendors approachable throughout the conference. I met a couple of LJ Mover & Shaker’s and even met a former Executive Board member of ALA when both of us were resting our feet. It was those moments where I heard another attendee say they had difficulty marketing their programs or they were running successful programs on no budget that gave me most confidence that I was not on an island.

In a couple sessions, I did perceive a divide between larger suburban and urban public libraries and smaller libraries. I attended one presentation talk about their large library system that had more money for marketing than my entire library’s materials budget. There also seemed, from the sessions I attended, to be a lack of understanding that buying new things can improve your library’s circulation and attendance. [Editor’s Note: This is not just a public library thing. Lots of us forget that our perspective isn’t the only one.]

Walking away from ALA Annual, I still sense a certain separation between myself and the larger ALA bureaucracy. Even though most meetings were open to members, I do not feel that my attendance at these meetings would have changed my opinion. At the NMRT 101 and RUSA 101 sessions, the message was to get involved. I’ve taken this message to heart and I hope to join a committee (or at least attempt). I cannot really complain about the organization if I only play a peripheral role in it.

One of the unexpected outcomes of attending ALA was that I have begun actively to question my role within my library. I think this self-reflection started when I was asked in an Unconference to state my preferred pronoun. I was immediately confronted with identity. As a white, male librarian, I very rarely thought about how my gender, racial, and social background can affect a reference interview or staff interaction. To some degree, I had thought such conversations were academic and were separate from my role as a librarian. I hope this new awareness will allow me to recognize barriers in my daily interactions with patrons and staff.

Similarly, I began to question my library’s role within our community. My community has a very small minority population and there is almost no visible LGBT presence, but my library could do more to serve their needs. I doubt these thoughts would have occurred to me within my small, conservative community without being a part of ALA Annual during Pride weekend or without seeing the praise that the Ferguson Library has received. My library has already taken steps to start adding more LGBT books for all age levels in the week since I’ve been from Annual.

My first ALA Annual left me both exhausted and rejuvenated. Besides bringing several new, innovative teen and adult programs as well as new marketing strategies back to my library, the most important outcome of my first ALA Annual is that it challenged my perception of my role in the library community.

Chris Wilkes is the reference librarian at the Tazewell County Public Library in Southwestern Virginia. Despite having a robot for an avatar on Twitter, where he tweets as @irobotlibrarian, he promises he’s a really real person. Maybe.

1 comment:

  1. The first conference is a,ways the most difficult. Judging what you want to do, how you can commit within the ALA structure, what your own message is, these all play a part in what happens next. Good luck!