by Beth Heins
I was delighted and honored when I was notified that I’d been selected to receive a 3M/NMRT grant to attend this year’s ALA conference in New Orleans. As a Supervising Librarian at a busy, small public library, both time and money had become increasingly scarce resources at my workplace, so receiving the grant was a very welcome event. In addition, I’d never been to New Orleans, so I was excited about the opportunity to support such a unique city that had survived so much in the last year.
As soon as I received the conference session information, I spent several hours planning my course of attack. I knew I was interested in reference, readers’ advisory, public library funding, and management tracks. I also signed up to be paired with a conference mentor.
What I didn’t anticipate at all was that I was going to wind up completely changing my job before I went to the conference. I’d been working in a small public library for four and a half years, and when I saw a job opening that would combine my library experience with my background in software support, I went for it. As it turned out, I finished working as a public librarian right before ALA, and I was going to move to a new state and start a career as a systems librarian at an ILS immediately following ALA. Not only did I have to stave off a nervous breakdown, but I also had to completely re-do my conference plan of attack! Since I hadn’t yet started my new job, I was really struggling with trying to choose sessions that might be useful to me in the near future.
When my conference mentor contacted me, I explained that my needs had changed radically, but she was still able to help me with some big-picture ideas for selecting sessions. I was looking forward to meeting her, but unfortunately, she had some last-minute issues arise and so was unable to attend the conference. I was impressed that someone from NMRT contacted me, offering to try to find me a replacement mentor at the last moment, but since I’d been to ALA once before, and because my mentor had been so helpful, I decided I’d be okay without one.
Thursday and Friday, June 22-23, 2006
I wanted to make the most of my New Orleans experience, so I flew in on Thursday, arriving about 9 pm. I was impressed with the amazing efficiency of the transportation from the airport, and was checked in and walking into the French Quarter by 10 pm. I don’t usually venture out in strange cities quite so late, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to look at the city that night.
Friday I spent the morning in the welcome air conditioning at the Jean Lafitte visitor’s center, run by the National Parks Service. Then I headed over to registration, and struck up a conversation with a librarian on my way over. I sat with another librarian at lunch, and met still more on the way back to my hotel! That night I met many librarians I know from various mail lists, and found it particularly interesting to talk to several locals. It was sobering to hear the extent to which their lives and libraries have been affected by the hurricanes last fall.
Saturday, June 24 2006
On Saturday I had big plans to attend multiple sessions – in fact, I had a few sessions in each time slot that I wanted to hit. I’d also signed up to work at NMRT’s resume review service, and wanted to stop by my new employer’s booth. I considered attending the NMRT conference orientation session, but because I already had a good plan of attack, and because I’d attended an ALA annual meeting before, I decided not to go to the session.
Of course, when I found out my first session was cancelled, I wondered if I’d have learned how to be a bit savvier if I’d attended the orientation! I quickly selected a different session, but then left it when I realized it was directed at school libraries. Then I picked a different session, hoping that the third time was the charm, but about 5 minutes into it I realized I’d stumbled into a planning session for next year’s conference – I’d misread the sign at the door. At that point, I felt a bit trapped and stayed through the session. I was genuinely interested in the topic, and hearing about what other people thought would be of interest to next year’s conference attendees was actually quite informative, but I think it’s a pretty backward way of gleaning information.
I was able to tour the exhibit hall, visit my new employer’s booth, scope out the location of the NMRT resume review service, and get a quick lunch before plunging back into the conference. I was scheduled to work at the NMRT resume review booth from 1-2, and I had two appointments during that time frame. (I also met informally with a third person when I had a five-minute gap, but she was encouraged to make a full appointment and come back later.) At first I felt a bit nervous critiquing the resumes, but I realized I did have a lot to offer – I’ve been involved in hiring paraprofessional staff multiple times, I’ve been involved in hiring at non-library jobs in my past, and I often review resumes for friends. I was candid with the people I met with, and felt that we were able to generate some ideas and focus for each of them. It was a rush to be so directly involved with someone, especially after feeling lost in the crowd all day.
After reviewing resumes, I went back to the exhibit hall, then went to a great session featuring Alex Award winners (the Alex Award is presented by YALSA to ten authors whose adult fiction will appeal to teens). Neil Gaiman was the main draw for me, but I found that I really enjoyed hearing from the other authors as well – they were all incredibly enthusiastic about having their works made available to teens.
Sunday, June 25 2006
On Sunday, I felt like I was really hitting my stride. I attended three sessions, one poster session, two social events, AND volunteered for booth duty. The focus of my day was various aspects of technology and users – I learned about what the top trends are right now, how Millennials are interacting with information and technology, and got to see some wikis being used by librarians to share information with each other. I spent an hour at the NMRT booth and was impressed by how many people dropped by to check it out. We encouraged them to attend the social event planned for that evening, and handed out many flyers about the organization. I also dropped by the 3M booth to meet some of the people working the booth and talk to them about the grant I received. It was great to get to see them and thank them in person for the grant. Since there were still sessions I wanted to go to, I was happy to meet them and then head back into the fray. That night I attended the NMRT social which was a ton of fun – by then I’d met several people for the first time, and had gotten to meet in-person many people whom I’d only known electronically before. It was great fun to get my plaque in front of such a friendly crowd.
Monday, June 26 2006
At this point, I felt like most of the head of steam I’d built up had vanished. I was tired but still had plans for sessions that day, and managed to drag myself to the conference center one last time. I was so glad I made the effort, because the session on technology and culture that I attended was very interesting. The fact that I disagreed strongly with some of the presenter’s assumptions and statements only made the session that much more energizing! The final session of the day that I wanted to attend was on copyright – I didn’t think it would factor much into my new job, but I have wanted to enhance my copyright knowledge for quite a while, so I was happy it was offered at the conference.
Overall, I spent a whirlwind five days in New Orleans. Everywhere I went, I met librarians, and I so enjoyed learning about their diverse careers – from the solo librarian at a tiny public library, to the director or a combined school/medical/public library system, every conversation I had reminded me how diverse and challenging a library career can be. The sessions I attended really helped me think about where libraries are headed technologically and socially, and went away from each session with a list of resources and ideas to investigate. I left New Orleans inspired to participate further with NMRT, so I can help other librarians feel the excitement and enthusiasm I found at ALA 2006, thanks to the 3M/NMRT grant.