By Andrea Mullarkey
For people who have never been to a professional conference their first ALA Annual can be overwhelming. Even for people who have been to smaller conferences it can take some work to navigate Annual successfully. For this reason NMRT sponsors two orientation-type sessions, Conference 101 held on Friday from 1-2:30 and Conference Orientation held Saturday from 8:30-10 am. The Friday afternoon session tends to be the larger event and this year that tradition held. With over 185 people in a room set for 100 there were conference-goers sitting on the floor, standing in the back, and spilling out the doors. Saturday morning was less crowded, but both sessions were jam-packed with good information and tips from a panel of conference experts including Greta Bever, Assistant Commissioner of Chicago Public Library, Kay Cassell from the ALA Membership Committee, Ron Jankowski, ALA Membership Development Director, Alice Knapp from the Exhibitor Round Table, Scott Muir of the ALA Conference Committee, and Emily Prather-Rodgers, NMRT President-Elect.
Panelists shared the microphones and took turns answering some of the burning questions of first time conference attendees. A lot of time was spent giving advice on how to plan your time. Attendees were advised not to worry too much about arriving at a session late or leaving early and the panelists were unanimous that it was ok to leave a session if it just didn't meet your expectations. They recommended that when planning your time you should try to have a back-up session in mind, preferably something located near your first choice so you could switch rooms if necessary.
Another suggested alternative for unexpected openings in a schedule was to visit the exhibit floor, which Alice Knapp described as a cross between a learning lab and a carnival. The panelists were all enthusiastic about the exhibits and talked about how much you can learn from the vendors, even if you don't have money to spend on their products. The opportunity to see how the philosophy of library service becomes real in the products in the exhibit hall and the possibility of making friends with the vendors are as exciting as the large quantity of free books, tote bags, and other swag for the taking.
With the large number of scheduled programs and events and the enormity of the exhibit floor, plotting a schedule can be tricky. Multiple panelists recommended using the conference program to map out your time in sessions and in the exhibit hall. They recommended that you make the program your own, throwing out the parts you wouldn't use, marking the sections most important to you, and taking careful note of pages 68-69, which includes a list of acronyms, and pages 70-79, which lists sessions by content area. Other panelists were fans of the ALA Annual Conference app and the online scheduler. Whatever tool they recommended, all of the panelists suggested that you make a general outline of the things you consider "must-do" and things you want to do and then remain open to changing your mind. Scott Muir recalled one of his favorite conference memories, a serendipitous meeting with someone who has since become a friend. Not being too attached to a particular schedule made it possible for him to continue a conversation he hadn't planned on starting, much to his benefit.
In that vein, many of the panelists spoke to the benefit of the relationships you can make at conferences. Ron Jankowski made the point that ALA may be tens of thousands of members large, but for most people the important thing is the relationships they build with people who will shape their career. To that end, the panelists all encouraged conference-goers to make an effort to meet people they might not otherwise. Go to sessions or programs outside of your usual areas of interest, attend discussion groups which are designed to spark conversation, wear ribbons on your badge announcing your interests and affiliations, try not to eat meals alone, participate in organized or informal social events around the city of Chicago, and offer to share a cab with other folks trying to get across town in a hurry. Kay Cassell offered the pro-tip that if you end up in a cab with someone who can expense the trip, they might even pay your share of the fare.
All of these strategies can lead to opportunities to get even more involved. All of the panelists encouraged new ALA members and conference-goers, students, and job-seekers to speak up and share their opinions. It was clear that even conference veterans wanted to learn from new professionals and benefit from their perspectives. Greta Bever in particular encouraged session attendees not to underestimate their skills or value. She told the story that when she first was asked to get involved in an ALA committee, the Election Committee, she worried aloud that she didn't know anything about elections. She was told, "You're perfect!" The panelists suggested that attendees go to committee meetings and reassured them that almost all are public meetings (the ones that aren't are marked in the program book and on the scheduler). If you want to get involved, it really can be as simple as introducing yourself to the chair of the committee and saying you want to help. Kay Cassell recommended that it is wise not to be too picky at the start, particularly if you want to join a very popular committee. But all the panelists agreed that simply showing up, offering to help, and delivering what you say you will, is a sure-fire way to deeper engagement with the profession.
Acknowledging that the orientation sessions are only 90 minutes each and the conference far too large to address all aspects in such a short time, the panelists were quick to point out other useful resources for new conference-goers. Ron Jankowski touted the Ambassador program and encouraged people with questions to look for Ambassadors, who all wear "ASK ME" buttons. Other panelists recommended asking the people nearest you, whoever they may be. At a conference filled with librarians, surely someone would want to help. Other ideas were to tweet your questions using the #ala2013 hashtag, stop by the first-time attendee concierge desk, and visit the Networking Uncommons. And Emily Prather-Rogers continued what she described as a "somewhat scary tradition" among NMRT leadership of sharing their personal phone numbers with session attendees. She told everyone that if they got desperate they could text her and she would find them help, demonstrating once again the commitment of NMRT leaders to smoothing out the first-time conference experience for everyone.
In the end, the conference orientation sessions were a useful introduction to ALA Annual Conference, a good way for conference newcomers to network with each other and make connections with representatives from divisions and round tables, a good introduction to the city of Chicago, and an encouraging conference launch for first-time attendees and new members.
Andrea Mullarkey is a Collection Development Librarian at Berkeley Public Library and Chair of the NMRT Orientations Committee. You can find her on Facebook or Twitter @mullarkea.