By Annice Sevett
As a graduate student in a MLIS program, I was encouraged by many to attend ALA Annual (or any conference), especially given the centralized location of Chicago for this year's conference. Given that the conference was right in the middle of my last semester of graduate school, I was hesitant to take the time off from school to attend. However, going to ALA Annual was the best decision I made. While attending the conference as a student can be overwhelming and may seem a bit irrelevant, it is the best time to attend for the first time.
Before the conference, I took a number of steps to ensure that I made the most out of this opportunity. I took advantage of the New Member Round Table's mentoring program, and I was paired with an individual who had attended numerous conferences before. This provided a connection within the field and assured me that if I had any questions I had one person to ask who had experienced the conference before. I attended an ALA preparation webinar where I learned some helpful tips about what to bring, how to schedule your conference, etc. Finally, I did some scheduling before I left, getting a feel for the types of programs I may want to attend. The key to attending ALA Annual as a student is to go into the conference feeling prepared. It can be overwhelming being with thousands of individuals who are employed in the field, but by feeling prepared you will be able to make the most out of the conference.
While in Chicago I took advantage of everything the conference (and the city) has to offer, including sessions, exhibit halls, social events, deep dish pizza, and even the Blackhawks Championship Parade. The best thing about being a student at ALA Annual is having the freedom to attend whatever sessions you would like. Though I focused on attending programs with a public library focus because that is the area I am interested in, I tried to attend a variety of programs to learn what type of things librarians across the field are doing. I attended smaller programs, IGNITE sessions, author talks, and saw Alice Walker speak in the auditorium, among other things. These sessions taught me what was going on in our field and confirmed my decision to enter it. Although I had no specific sessions that I needed to attend for a job, the choices I was able to make in terms of attending sessions that appealed to me made my ALA experience worthwhile.
Lastly, being able to network with those working in our profession made me aware of the kinds of things going on in our field. You never know when the person sitting next to you on the conference bus has a great idea or amazing insight to share. The things I learned at ALA Annual cannot be learned in a classroom or even at an internship. They can only be learned by being at a conference with 20,000 library professionals eager to share and learn. The conference provided me with more passion for this area of study and is the highlight of my graduate school year.