Jumping in the Deep End: an ALA Conference Overview

By Mackenzie Brooks

The 2012 ALA annual conference was an adventure made of many personal firsts for me. Not only was it my first time attending an ALA conference, but it was also my first major presentation, my first trip to California, and my debut as a comedic actor! Here’s an overview of my conference experience, and a few hints, suggestions, and strategies about preparing, scheduling, socializing, and presenting:

Since this was my first large conference, I spent a lot of time preparing to make the most of the experience. I read blog posts, attended webinars, consulted Google Maps, and filled my conference scheduler to capacity; I felt ready to conquer the conference!  I won’t say the preparation wasn’t worth it, but there were certainly things preparation couldn’t prepare me for or teach me! You’ll want to find a balance between secondary and primary research while gathering conference data. There’s a lot of existing information about the conference and its location that you can use courtesy of ALA (thanks to the Local Conference Information Committee). If you find gaps, definitely share or crowdsource those overlooked areas. For example, some librarians created a Google Doc to list all of the alternative food choices available for those with dietary restrictions. Try not to rely mostly on review and recommendation tools like Yelp, you can also find value in comments from local conference attendees since they’re speaking from personal experience.

Don’t feel too committed to your schedule; of course this doesn’t apply to your presentation or committee meetings, but otherwise, be sure to embrace flexibility. Pausing to take care of your body will be more productive in the long run. Maybe you really wanted to see a session in a distant hotel, but the blister on your foot is keeping you from making the trek. Take the time to find a Band-Aid and your foot will be much more willing to don those heels for the Librarian Wardrobe Walk-Off! I added multiple sessions for each time slot so I could have a backup plan if my first choice didn’t work out. Another benefit of overloading your conference scheduler is that you’ll get an email notification when the handouts and slides have been posted after the conference.

People will tell you their favorite part of ALA is the socializing; whether it’s catching up with old friends or making new ones, make room for social experiences. If you have one, be sure to write your Twitter name on your badge; that is if you want to avoid that puzzled stare from people who only know you from the internet! I know it’s hard to think of adding another account to your internet rolodex, but Twitter is worth it. It’s not only a good way to meet people it’s also perfect for conferences. You can keep up with other sessions, make lunch plans, and live tweet sessions so librarians at home can follow along.

My primary purpose for attending was to give a presentation titled "Building a Library Lab for Emergency Technology - No Research Programmers Required" with my co-presenter Margaret Heller. The presentation, which was based on research done during my last semester of graduate school, included a theoretical and practical explanation of library labs, copious examples, and recommendations based on our personal experience at Dominican University Library. If you’re interested in the presentation slides, they’re available on the ALA Connect Conference Scheduler

As a first-time presenter, there were plenty of opportunities for anxiety: I worried about our awkward time slot (4pm on Monday); I worried when I saw the interested attendees jump from 5 to 150; I worried after seeing really good presentations and not-so-great ones; I worried after seeing a presentation on a similar topic that I was leaving out important points; I worried that I practiced too little, but also maybe too much.

The anxiety I felt seemed silly after the fact; the presentation went well and received a positive response. Although it’s possible to gather presentation advice from seasoned veterans, I hope you find my perspective, as a new librarian, useful. Here are a few tips to consider:

1) Present with a partner: you’ll have someone to bounce ideas off of, and if you can present with a librarian with a little more experience, you’ll having a fantastic conference mentor right at your side.
2) Pick your own hashtag: you can track your topic in the stream. Set up a service to track tweets about your presentation before it starts. Twitter is also a good way to advertise your session and remind people of the location and time.
3) Remember that your audience wants you to succeed: Librarians like learning new things. If you present your material in a friendly, positive manner, your audience will respond in- kind.
4) Seek participation: we included time for asking questions as well as a think-pair-share activity. Sure, half the room left as soon as we announced homework, but the people who stayed made great contributions.
5) Have a sense of humor and be creative: in a pre-conference brainstorming session, I came up with the idea of opening with a skit and stuck with it. We used the skit as a hook to get people interested in the session. Sketch comedy is definitely out of my comfort zone, but soon enough I found myself putting on yellow rubber gloves and throwing around a lot of science puns!
6) Follow up: respond to questions you receive online and/or in person and post your slides promptly and circulate them.
Hopefully this overview will encourage you to submit a presentation to the next ALA conference, especially if you’re a new librarian. ALA is what you make of it and your perspective is valuable regardless of your experience. So take the jump!

Mackenzie Brooks works in Collections Management at Loyola Health Sciences Library near Chicago and graduated with her MLIS in 2011. She can be found @mackymoo on Twitter.