By Cesar Garza
McAllen Public Library, McAllen, TX
I was struck by something on the cover of this year's American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference directory, a fact other attendees may have overlooked: this was ALA's 129th annual conference.
During the conference, at the New Members Round Table (NMRT) awards reception, I was recognized with a plaque commemorating my receipt of a 3M/NMRT Professional Development Grant. Another fact struck me: this grant was first awarded in 1975.
When all was said and done, on account of an award that goes back 35 years I was able to attend a conference that goes back 129 years. The sense of history here is palpable. It’s powerful, too, but not as powerful as the focus on the future that brought me to Washington, D.C. in the first place. The 3M Grant is about development, promise, and potential. And the point of an ALA conference, as I see it, is to understand the ideas and trends of today in order to shape the libraries of tomorrow. In both cases, you do well by looking forward.
This being my first ALA conference, I began the adventure by looking around. In a venue as colossal as the Washington Convention Center size is all relative. The exhibit hall seemed to stretch on for miles, booth after booth, and yet it’s my meeting with 3M's Rob Noirjean that I remember. On the morning of my first day at the conference, Rob showed me around the 3M booth--not huge, but beautifully staged--and introduced me to a few of his colleagues. It was a short meeting, a small moment, but it set a positive tone for me for the rest of the conference.
Later that day, and in the days to come, I attended sessions that had some compelling ideas to share.
One session was presented by two branch managers of the Halifax Public Libraries in Nova Scotia, Canada. They talked about their efforts to engage impoverished and marginalized teens. The audience was a decent size. Although there were more vacant seats than attendees in the room, nothing diminished the enthusiasm with which these two librarians told their stories (a hungry teen, for instance, phoning the library to ask if there was anything to eat there) and their strategies (using food for a program on physical and social enrichment).
Another session I attended was the public relations forum led by the insightful Stephen Abrams, a marketing vice president at Gale Cengage Learning. Mr. Abrams framed the communication practices of libraries today by posing this question: Is your library an event? A small question with big, complicated answers. The idea is to present your library to customers as a beneficial experience, and the experience you convey depends on what you promote and how you promote it (i.e., through social networks). (Mr. Abrams’ PR Forum presentation is available online here).
I encountered the "experience" theme again in a session on designing digital experiences for library websites. The panelists here emphasized creating customer-centric websites that are visually engaging and easy to click through. The concept of user experience (UX) design is crucial, since it emphasizes arranging the elements of a website to optimize how a user interacts with it. A bigger question was how to integrate a library’s digital presence (its website) with its physical presence. One idea was to use flat-screen televisions to display upcoming events and to stream cover images of newly returned books. Bridging the divide between the digital and physical library is a challenge ripe with opportunities for creativity and innovation.
Opportunity, creativity, innovation. This is what I loved about the 129th ALA Annual Conference. I suspect that for novice and veteran attendees the experience was the same: it’s like stepping into the zeitgeist of the library world. You step in dwarfed by the venue, the crowds, the beautifully staged booths, and, especially, the ideas. These ideas ultimately reach you rooted in details--the hunger of a teen, the event of a library, the image on a website--altogether reminding you how big the small things sometimes are. I am genuinely grateful to 3M and NMRT for awarding me the chance to experience this for myself.