By Mark H. Danley, Ph.D.
I was pleased and honored to receive the New Members Round Table 3M Scholarship to attend the ALA Annual Conference. While this 2009 conference was not my first ALA Annual experience, it was an especially good one. Attending the conference encouraged me to analyze not only my own activities, but also broader issues regarding how, and under what circumstances, librarians benefit from professional conferences.
I arrived in Chicago on the morning of Thursday, July 9 after an overnight train ride from Memphis. I spent most of Thursday morning resting, as I got little sleep on the train. I was anxious to start my conference activities, however, and by Thursday afternoon I was ready to get moving. Conference sessions did not begin until the following day, but my first concerns were logistical. At most conferences I prefer to pick up my registration materials the afternoon before the first day of actual sessions so that I will not be distracted the following day when I am looking forward to more substantive activities. I pre-registered several months prior to the conference, but found that I could not use the express registration areas in the hotels and had to go instead to the on-site registration in the conference center. While it was a bit far from my hotel, I was anxious to get that matter out of the way. I arrived at the conference center, faced a few problems communicating that I was a librarian and not a vendor, but finally found the right registration. I wonder whether I would have been more easily deterred was I not accustomed to attending large national professional conferences. I cite this experience, not to criticize or draw attention to the personnel of the on-site registration area, but to serve as a useful example of the logistical glitches that one must be prepared for during large conferences.
From Friday through Monday I attended a variety of sessions and committee meetings. When I reflect on my experiences, several things stand out. The library profession overall consists of a diverse array of specialties and fields of activity, but the intersections between those fields of activity are legion. As a result, it is easy to find yourself drawn to, and engaged in, conference sessions of multiple ALA divisions. Specialization need not equate to compartmentalization. I mention this because my activities at ALA Annual crossed the purviews of different divisions (ACRL, ALCTS and LITA), sections and roundtables, and included educational programming, large and small discussion sessions, and committee meetings. Rather than finding the variety of subject matter overwhelming, I found it intellectually invigorating1.
My first principle activity on Friday was the PCC NACO/BIBCO trainers meeting. I needed to attend this meeting because as authorities cataloger at University of Memphis I coordinate the Tennessee NACO Funnel Project (our state’s contribution to the Name Authority Cooperative Program of the Program for Cooperative Cataloging). One of the agenda items was the revision of NACO training materials, something very important to Tennessee’s cooperative cataloging efforts. Even though I am not a NACO trainer myself, I nevertheless have to pay close attention to updates of training materials since I often arrange training and help institutions maintain their membership during times of downsizing and staff turnover. I had the opportunity to talk directly with Program for Cooperative Cataloging colleagues, whom I had previously only corresponded with by e-mail and telephone conversations, and I found these meetings rewarding. This experience is a perfect example of one of the oft-touted benefits of conferences – face-to-face interaction that brings a new vitality to one’s intellectual interaction with peers2. Although I have attended other ALA Annual Conferences, this was the first time I had the chance to attend the PCC NACO/BIBCO trainers meeting.
My time at this meeting also highlighted an important dimension of conference attendance for many academic librarians. When attending a large conference, one cannot always look over the program and choose which sessions to attend only on the basis of personal interest. Often our job or institutional commitments mandate which sessions we have to attend. I would have benefitted from attending the meeting and meeting my colleagues, but the fact remained that I had to attend this particular session because of my university’s collaborative commitments. In fact, one of the reasons I enjoy working at University of Memphis are the very opportunities I have to participate in statewide collaborative efforts. Yet, when I analyze my conference attendance and think about the reasons why I attend various sessions, the interaction between my individual interests as a professional and my role in larger institutional commitments comes to mind.
Saturday began with a visit to the 3M booth in the exhibits, per the terms of my award. It was a pleasure to meet the company’s representatives, and I thanked them for their support. Some of my other activities on Saturday related to my membership and involvement with the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). I attended several RBMS committee meetings. While I am not currently serving on a committee, it is common for non-members to attend meetings of various committees in whose activities they have an interest; I wonder if it is too easy to forget that. In fact, most committee meetings are open and welcome to visitors, not just as a matter of collegiality, but also as a hope for more vital and diverse opinions when discussing matters of import. With university travel budgets declining, the inability to commit to several conference trips, each costing at least $1000, is a major deterrent for academic librarians pursuing appointments to ALA committees. Yet, in my experience, the inability to serve on a committee should not deter one from engagement with the organization, its work, and its goals. I have taken an interest in the RBMS Membership and Professional Development committee, owing to its efforts, to investigate how to extend RBMS activities and events beyond the physical limits of the section’s preconference. ACRL, the parent organization of RBMS, has considered the necessity and utility of committee members doing work remotely3. I believe it must continue to do this unless it wishes to confine itself to the contributions of only those with large institutional travel budgets - a small enough group even during better economic times and likely to be even smaller today. Although my own institution’s financial limitations prevent me from committing to attend multiple ALA conferences in the future, therefore precluding me from serving on any committee, I believe I could still contribute to the actual work of the committee that interests me. Too often colleagues and observers believe the primary motive for academics to serve on ALA committees is to get something to put on their curriculum vitae. Indeed, a recent study indicated that some academic librarians are driven to conference attendance by this motive4.
I, however, advocate that our primary impetus for committee work should be that we find the work and its effects valuable. Doing work, and therefore creating value, does not necessarily require a formal appointment to a committee. If you find a committee of an ALA division or section whose work you care about, do not deter yourself if you cannot volunteer to serve on the committee because of economic considerations. Volunteer to do some needed work regardless of whether you are committee member or not. Much work can be done remotely, and seeing its effects is worthwhile. I acted on my interest in RBMS’s efforts to increase the reach of its activities by advocating the importance of establishing better contacts with state library associations. To act on that idea requires work to determine the most appropriate contacts within state organizations regarding special collections matters. In turn, I am helping the RBMS Membership and Professional Development Committee to determine which state library associations have subunits that deal with special collections issues, so that the committee can better pursue the particular outreach effort that I personally believe is important.
On Saturday afternoon, I attended the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS) session on an introduction to Resource Description and Access (RDA), the new cataloging code projected to replace AACR2. National conferences are often where collaborative projects invite discussion of efforts that will affect the entire profession; the RDA-related sessions offered by ALCTS at recent ALA Annual conferences exemplify this. The presenters at this session focused on tangible aspects of using the new code. I found succinct explanations of comparison and contrasts between descriptive practices in AACR2 and in RDA very useful. However, a good part of the session was spent with a presenter showing people, link by link, around the actual web resource. While I appreciate the effort, and am sure others found it useful, that part of the content was less useful to me. Since I had not yet had a chance to explore the exhibits, I left the session to spend some time in them. This choice raises another important issue. I wonder how many new attendees realize that it is quite common to see people coming in and out of sessions in progress. In many ways, this is understandable behavior. ALA Annual is obviously a huge conference; in fact commentators directing advice to new attendees often focus on its size5. To get the most out of the conference, one must be assertive in ferreting out the sessions and activities that will be the most beneficial as an individual professional. And while some “how to go to a conference” pieces remind the newcomer to read programs carefully6, the fact remains that even when attendees plan carefully and presenters are the most assiduous and well-prepared, sometimes a session is simply not what one might have expected or finds useful. At a large conference people will always have schedule conflicts, such as two committees that meet at the same time or two sessions each on topics of equal importance. I think that most professionals understand that at a large conference some people will inevitably come and go throughout a session in progress and do not mind, as long as everyone observes basic courtesies that should go without saying (e.g., sitting near a door if one has to leave early, leaving as quietly as possible). In my own experiences, while presenting at national and regional conferences, I have noticed people coming in after sessions begin and others leaving before it ends. I have always viewed it as just a logistical consequence of a large conference.
Another session I attended on Saturday afternoon was the Western European Studies Section (WESS) of ACRL Special Topics and Social Sciences & History Discussion Group. My interest in WESS programming again testifies to the interconnections between different areas of librarianship and scholarship in my professional work. Although I work as a cataloger, one of my primary research areas is the history of books and reading, and I also advise graduate students in British history at the University of Memphis and in an online program at Norwich University. Therefore I must keep up with the current trends of increased access to primary source materials and continued analysis of their use. I have benefitted from WESS programs before and find that they integrate presentations from active scholars in the humanities with presentations by librarians and other information professionals quite well. The program I attended included two scholars and a vendor representative. The latter talked about the historical significance of a new digital primary source material product. The participation of vendors in scholarly sessions is always certain to raise some issues, but the vendor representative in this WESS session managed to discuss the academic significance of her company’s product without turning the talk into a sale presentation. I found this approach commendable and believe it demonstrates that vendors and scholars can sometimes collaborate in intellectual endeavors, despite the clear profit motive that lays behind the former’s activities in the broader sense. Saturday evening was filled with many pleasant experiences meeting up with friends and colleagues from other institutions whom I had not seen in quite a while. Like many attendees, I also benefited from the chance to explore some of Chicago’s great nightlife.
On Sunday I turned back again to sessions related to my cataloging work and attended another RBMS session, the MARC for Special Collections Discussion Group. I have always found the RBMS discussion groups beneficial. First, they manage to achieve an ideal balance between structure and freedom. The discussion sessions have an agenda with defined topics, yet do so without inhibiting the vitality and dynamism of an open debate. Second, they offer an opportunity for educational activities in the special collections field for people who may not normally be able to attend other RBMS functions. While RBMS sponsors a program at each ALA Annual Conference, most of RBMS’s educational offerings are at the section’s preconference prior to ALA7. Not everyone who is interested in RBMS, however, can afford to attend both the preconference and ALA Annual. Yet the RBMS discussion groups held at ALA Annual ensure a variety of opportunities for intellectual exchange on rare books and special collections issues in addition to the preconference. The vitality of discussion groups at the ALA Annual Conference also highlights distinctions between a face-to-face discussion with multiple voices and asynchronous discussion, such as online list-servs and blogs. Anyone considering how and in what form professional organizations should foster discussion should consider these distinctions8. That afternoon I attended the RBMS-sponsored program “Documenting Tragedy: Special Collections on the Front Line and on the Front Page,” which was about the role of special collections, especially university archives, in crisis situations and tragedies involving academic institutions. As a Virginia Tech alumnus, I was especially interested in Virginia Tech’s contributions from the special collections faculty regarding their role in documenting the April 16, 2007 shootings. My interest in this session went beyond being a loyal Hokie, however, as I found observations on the relationship between university public relations and archives during an institutional crisis applicable to my own university’s disaster and crisis-management planning. This session exemplified an experience nearly all conference-goers hope they have – the discovery of something directly applicable to a tangible need faced at one’s home institution.
On Sunday evening I had the pleasure of attending the New Members Round Table (NMRT) awards ceremony. Everyone was very gracious, and I wish to reiterate my thanks to the roundtable, its officers, and the members for supporting my attendance at the conference. Talking with everyone and making new friends at the reception was fun as it has always been in previous years. A number of us went out afterwards and continued a spirited and substantive conversation on a wide variety of topics that affect our lives and work. That experience reminded me of a truism that other conference attendees have often articulated: some of the best conference sessions are not conference sessions at all. In other words, some of the most rewarding opportunities to exchange ideas and be reinvigorated intellectually come from relaxed, informal get-togethers over meals and drinks with friends, old and new.
On Monday morning and late afternoon I finally spent more time in the exhibits. I second the advice of many experienced conference-goers that allowing for time in the exhibits is essential. One never knows what one will find, and the chance to examine products close up and question vendor representatives is always valuable. As librarians and scholars we need to apply our critical thinking skills not to only help our patrons and students, but to evaluate vendors’ claims about their products and services and their cost-effectiveness. Talking with vendors in the exhibits hall of a major conference offers this perfect opportunity.
Another session I attended on Monday afternoon was the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) program centered on a discussion and debate over Library 2.0. I found this to be a distinct improvement over LITA’s programming at the 2008 ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim, where the program consisted of a panel discussion on contentious and controversial topics, which ended abruptly without an opportunity for discussion and questions from the audience. This year the LITA program allowed time for questions, comments and open discussion – something I think is essential if a professional organization is going to represent explicitly their programs as “lively"9.
On Tuesday, after another run through the exhibits before they closed, it was finally time to head to the Amtrak station for the train back to Memphis. I returned to University of Memphis reinvigorated and well armed with new perspectives and experiences that I hope to apply in many different areas of my cataloging work and teaching. I cannot express enough gratitude to NMRT and 3M for their support of my activities at ALA. NMRT has some great people in it, and I encourage everyone to get involved and support NMRT, ALA’s other roundtables, sections, and divisions, and other professional library organizations.