ALA Annual 2013: Cherry on Top of a First Year Librarian Experience

By Kimberly Miller

As a new librarian and first time ALA-attendee, I prepared for ALA Annual 2013 the same way many of my counterparts across the country surely did: by soliciting advice from my more experienced colleagues, from numerous online guides available through professional associations like ALA  and NMRT, and from some of my favorite librarian bloggers. Now, on the other side of the ALA Annual experience and as I celebrate my one year anniversary as a professional librarian, I have my own observations to share. Upon reflection, I am struck by how much the themes that appeared during my first trip to our profession's largest conference mirrored the experiences and strategies used in navigating my first year as a librarian.

Mentorships are valuable, but one size does not fit all

Mentorship relationships are a popular suggestion for integrating new librarians into both the work of the profession and large national conferences. Several groups, including NMRT, provide mentorship matching for the duration of the ALA Annual conference. Prior to my trip to ALA, I decided to sign up for a conference mentorship through ACRL. While I have found the mentorship program at my library to be instrumental in my sanity and development, providing me with a friendly guide to navigating my first year at our university and in the profession, I was unsure how mentorships would be beneficial in a conference setting. I was quickly paired with an established librarian whose previous work experience and interests not only paralleled my own, but who serendipitously anticipated my interest in exploring committee service within the structure of ALA. Although our schedules prevented us from meeting in person at the conference, our email exchanges before and after the conference provided me with much-needed context for additional integration into the ALA experience.

While the structure and depth of my mentorship experiences have varied, each filled gaps that may have been difficult or uncomfortable to fill otherwise - namely providing inviting, personalized encouragement to proceed deeper into the profession. And although some mentorships can lead to lengthy, profound professional and personal relationships, short-term, goal-driven mentorships can fill valuable needs as well.

Establishing goals can help turn down the "noise"

A frequent comment I hear from both fellow new librarians and first-time ALA Annual attendees is, "There are just so many possibilities and so much to do. I'm not sure where to start or how to make sure I don't miss anything." Fresh excitement and a desire to do it all is a sure way to reduce your effectiveness as a librarian and as a conference attendee. Establishing goals and determining priorities is, perhaps, a new librarian's best tool for turning down the "noise."

I have yet to meet a librarian with a single area of responsibility; we are all multi-taskers who fill multiple roles and responsibilities. As a new librarian, the multitude of responsibilities can be overwhelming. Therefore, goal setting, whether institutionally formalized or personally implemented, is an essential strategy for prioritizing and juggling multiple projects. This is about establishing goals based on position responsibilities, promotion and tenure requirements, and professional interests. For me, goals are essential for filtering out the "must do" projects (e.g., managing our library's instructional objects) from the "would be nice to do" projects (e.g., assisting with display cases as part of the library's marketing committee).

Goal setting and prioritizing continued to be vital for me throughout ALA 2013, as I was torn between balancing my various professional roles (both in technology leadership and my subject liaison area) and my personal interests (there's a cooking stage at ALA Annual?!). To walk away from the conference feeling as if I accomplished something, I identified what I considered to be the ALA Annual's number one asset for me as a new librarian: a large network of interesting, diverse, and knowledgeable librarians. Therefore my primary conference goal was to meet, engage, and connect with as many of my fellow librarians as possible. After identifying this goal, it was easier for me to prioritize key sessions like discussion groups, committee meetings, and social receptions related to my areas of interest where I was more likely to extend my professional network.

With the multitude of options available in the library profession generally, and at ALA Annual specifically, you are sure miss something. However, within the framework of established goals and priorities, you will not wrap up your first year as a librarian or your first ALA Annual conference without some concrete accomplishments to show for it.

Trying something new is easy if you're willing to jump in

Sometimes, however, with a single focus on our own professional roles and responsibilities, it is easy to become comfortable in a particular role or silo of librarianship. Most new librarians enter the profession with energy and interests that are paired down over time. As the novelty of a new job wears off, it is easier to focus on one's own individual job, department, library, or type of library. However, even within these established rhythms it is important to remain open to discovering new connections and ideas from disparate sources of inspiration.

Nowhere has jumping into a new activity, group, or experience been easier for me than at ALA 2013. While goal setting helped establish a basic framework for my time at the conference, how I chose to meet those goals left a range of new activities to try. As a one of the many self-described introverts in our profession, I find it easiest to sit back and enjoy traditional conference presentations while considering how the experiences of others could inspire or impact my work. However, opportunities to jump into new experiences like NMRT's Association Option's Fair, ACRL's Instruction Section committee meetings, and LITA's Emerging Technologies Interest Group discussions were fruitful in discovering new ideas, extending my professional network, and identifying opportunities for further engagement with the profession.

Pack light, wear comfortable shoes, and prepare for blisters

Although initially this tidbit of advice seems very conference-specific, there are definite implications for new librarians more generally.

Yes, at ALA 2013 there was indeed quite a bit of walking, both at the conference itself and around the city to various social and cultural opportunities. And in the end, no amount of Band-Aids or blister blockers could save my feet. However, dealing with these challenges, pushing through discomfort, and remaining alert and mobile enough to change plans on the fly (as well as a willingness to learn the local public transportation options) led to greater discovery and enhanced engagement in the full conference experience.

I found the ability to stay nimble, think on my feet, and remain mentally mobile enough to jump in where I was needed led to the greatest serendipitous opportunities in my first year. Of course, there is discomfort and a distinct possibility of growing pains along the way, but, blisters heal and professional roles become comfortable and broken in.

As a new librarian and a first-time conference attendee, it is important to pack snacks and enjoy the ride. Your experience is what you make of it!

Kimberly Miller is Research & Instruction Librarian for Emerging Technologies, and Psychology Department Liaison, at Towson University's Albert S. Cook Library. She can also be found writing for Library Tech Talk and recently finished a series as a First Year Academic Experience Blogger for ACRLog.

Works Cited

American Library Association New Members Roundtable.ALA 2012 Annual Conference Tips. 10 July 2013. PDF file.

"Association Options Fair (NMRT)." 2013 ALA Annual Conference. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 July 2013.

Newman, Bobbi. "Updated ALA Survival Tips and Packing Suggestions for #ALA2013." Librarian by Day. 04 May 2013. Web. 10 July 2013.

"NMRT Mentoring Program." American Library Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 July 2013.

"Resources for First Timers." 2013 ALA Annual Conference. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 July 2013.