Experiencing ALA through an ALCTS Travel Grant

by Madeline Kelly, George Mason University

Image of Madeline Kelly

I always swore I would never go to Vegas. The flashing lights, the crowds of people, the prickling desert heat – to someone who cherishes the peaceful, green quiet of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Las Vegas sounded like a bewildering, exhausting destination. A place to be seen in movies, but not necessarily experienced, first-hand.

Enter the American Library Association.

In January 2014, I was selected as the winner of the ALCTS Jan Merrill-Oldham Travel Grant, a scholarship that would send me to the ALA Annual Conference. As a relatively new librarian – and someone working in the field of preservation – the grant represented a huge opportunity for me to attend a major conference and network with my fellow preservation folks. Las Vegas or not, I’d be a fool to pass it up; and so it was that I found myself making hotel reservations, plotting out a five-day conference schedule, and boarding a plane westward.

Prepared for a dizzying array of events and vendors, particularly in the exhibit hall, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Annual Conference less daunting than expected. Long lines, sure – and huge mobs of librarians – but nothing scary or uncivil. Just an enormous, well-organized gathering of good-spirited, passionate stewards of information. After figuring out the shuttle buses and waiting through the registration line, I was good to go.

In the five days I spent in Vegas, I attended as many sessions as I could, eager to learn from those around me. For starters, I attended the opening and closing general sessions (after all, I wanted the complete ALA experience) and walked away with a greater appreciation for videogames and B.J. Novak. I attended the New Members Round Table Conference Orientation, where I settled my pre-conference nerves in the company of other newcomers. I attended the ALCTS President’s Program celebrating the power of introverts; and fanned the flame of my international aspirations at the International Relations Round Table panel, “Leaning International.” I got to see Lois Lowry interact with Jeff Bridges; learn how to make cheese in under an hour; and hear first-hand from Paul Rusesabagina about the horrors of the Rwandan genocide. When it comes to programming, ALA doesn’t disappoint – it dazzles.

More importantly, I was able to attend several sessions that applied directly to my work in collections assessment and preservation. I attended five meetings of the Preservation and Reformatting Section (PARS) of ALCTS. First, the Preservation Administrators Interest Group (PAIG) introduced me to the bulk of the preservation crowd, plus taught me about training opportunities for conservators; a cooperative model for preservation in Cincinnati; and the possibility of shutting down library heating and cooling systems regularly without (gasp!) imperiling the preservation environment. The PAIG meeting also included a lively and entertaining debate about the future of the preservation administrators, and a chance for me to ask my first question of the conference.

From there, my educational whirlwind continued: At the Digital Conversion Interest Group Meeting, I learned about strategies for outsourcing the digitization of analog video. At the Preservation Metadata Interest Group Meeting, I learned more about BitCurator, an open-source suite of digital forensics tools, and how various libraries are incorporating it into their digital preservation workflows. At the Digital Preservation Interest Group Meeting, I learned about data management instruction; and at the Promoting Preservation Interest Group I learned about statewide grant opportunities for preservation, and how others’ have used them to further the cause.

Finally, I ventured outside of PARS and attended the Collection Evaluation and Assessment Interest Group Meeting (of the Collection Management Section of ALCTS). For the past year, I’ve been working solo on a program to systematically assess my library’s holdings on a subject-by-subject basis. The Collection Evaluation meeting turned my isolated venture into part of a larger picture, as I learned that the University of North Texas has taken a similar approach in assessing their own holdings. My work is now infused with new ideas and alternatives, in a way that only conversations with others can provide.

In the end, I attended 14 events totaling 21 hours of programming. I met librarians from across the U.S. and Canada, working in all kinds of libraries in all sorts of roles. I walked away with 13 pages of notes, several action items, a handful of business cards, four books, and a renewed sense of purpose. Collection management (be it assessment or preservation) is a rich field and ALA was a precious opportunity for me to learn directly from the experts. More than that, it was a chance to be part of the wider library community in person – something we all need from time to time. Attending ALA was a challenging and rewarding experience, and one I wouldn’t have had without help from ALCTS. Moving ahead, I hope to apply what I learned and pay forward the opportunity I received.

My trip to Las Vegas was surreal, and I hope it’s the first of many such librarianship-themed adventures.