Lessons from ALA 2010

By Cindi Trainor |

Three years ago, at the ALA Annual Conference in DC, I wrote this blog post. I was a month into a new job and trying to find my way into the impenetrable depths of the seemingly endless ALA.  My past experience in other associations told me that Woody Allen was right when he said that eighty percent of success is showing up: associations like ALA and its chapters and divisions depend on volunteers to get business and planning done, and there are never enough volunteers.  So, looking back, what have I learned?

Lesson 1. ALA is humongous; find a niche within that feels comfortable.  In 2007, I joined four divisions, because I had no idea where my home should be.  I joined LAMA to reflect my status as a new library administrator; RUSA because I was the Coordinator for Research & Instruction; ACRL because I worked in a university; and LITA because of my previous connections with technology.  I ended up attending more LITA programs than any other, and since then have not only made LITA my home within ALA but have changed positions at work and am in charge of technology in our libraries, so LITA is a good fit.

Lesson 2. It’s really not about who you know, but if you don’t get out and meet new people, it may as well be.  As I wrote in June 2007, I’m an introvert, and showing up in a crowded room full of people I don’t know--or worse, people whose names I know and would like to meet--can be an excruciating experience.  Sound like you?  Well, get over it.  Like any industry, we have our celebrities, but when it comes down to it, we’re all regular people whom no one outside our industry would stop in an airport for an autograph.  Generally, librarians are very nice people who want to share experiences and information.  Just walking up and talking to someone at an event is a great way to make a connection.  There is always someone you can learn from and someone who can learn from you.

Lesson 3.  Navigating a huge conference is an art.  At any given time, there may be several programs I’m interested in attending.  Social tools like Twitter, UStream and CoverItLive allow us to peek in on more than one session at once, or to read archived content later.  Location-based social tools like Gowalla and 4Square help us to find one another in a geographically dispersed area.  Most of us have cell phones these days; be sure to share numbers.

Lesson 4. Ask!  After three years of attending ALA conferences and LITA committee, task force & board meetings (in-person and virtually), there are things that still make me go “huh?”  New committee members--me included--can feel intimidated when attending a meeting when others around them seem to know exactly what’s going on.  It’s ok to ask!  What does that mean?  Why is this done that way?  Can this change?  Is there a better way?  Our industry is undergoing huge change; many libraries’ very existence is threatened.  Change, whether we like it or not, is our currency, and it should be our association’s, too.

Lesson 5. “Vendor” is not a bad word.  ALA is a non-profit association, and most of us work in libraries that are non-profits as well.  Vendors, the word with which we paint anyone to whom we give money, are often for-profit entities, but this does not automatically mean that they are villains.  We should see them as business partners, not overlords, and take the opportunity afforded us by trade shows such as ALA to speak with them in person, whether to give kudos or voice unhappiness.  My experience with vendors at ALA is varied: this year, I was wowed by a major automation purveyor, cheered by putting face to name at another software vendor, and infuriated by one seller of library equipment.  That said, I do agree with the spirit of Sarah Houghton-Jan’s post urging librarians not to put up with arrogant behavior of library businesses.  A company’s bottom line is no excuse to act unethically or treat customers poorly.

Lesson 6. Don’t be rude.  I’m hesitant to include this lesson, but here goes.  Sometimes, things don’t go as well as we hope in a session.  Sometimes, there is a tantalizing bowl of free chocolate or stack of purple tchotckes at a booth.  Sometimes, people will say things with which you don’t agree.  All of these things are normal parts of navigating the huge ALA-scape; please, let’s treat each other with respect.

Did you attend ALA last week?  Was it your first, tenth, twentieth?  What lessons would you share with TechSource readers?