Reference and Instruction at ALA Annual: My Experience with the ALA Ambassador Program

By Amanda Grundmann

Usually when I see calls for mentors or volunteers on the NMRT list, I do not feel like I have much to contribute. This is because I generally still consider myself a new professional, and not quite ready to use my experience to help others who are just starting out. However, when I saw the call for volunteers for the ALA Ambassador Program at this year's Annual Conference in Chicago, I started to reconsider this attitude. They were looking for volunteers who had attended three or more ALA Annual conferences, and Chicago was to be my fourth. I have certainly learned a thing or two since my first annual conference, and perhaps the fact that I was not that far removed from being a first-time attendee myself, and could remember the experience, would work in my favor.

The ALA Ambassador Program is managed through the ALA Membership Office and is coordinated by Tina Coleman and Paul Signorelli. According to Signorelli, The Ambassador program, managed through ALA Membership, is one of those great membership services designed to make life easier for ALA Annual Conference attendees. It's a wonderfully simple and effective idea: experienced professionals volunteering to help their peers navigate a wonderfully large and at times overwhelming conference. Experienced conference attendees who volunteer for the program sign up for shifts at any of several service points around the convention center. ALA Ambassadors staff the information kiosk in the registration area and the Membership Pavilion inside the exhibit hall. This year, three new services were introduced: Roaming Ambassadors, who wore identification badges and walked through the exhibit hall answering questions; First-Time Attendee Concierges, who staffed a new First-Time Attendee desk and provided more targeted services to first-time conference attendees; and First-Time Attendee Mentors, who led one-hour orientation sessions for small groups. I decided to volunteer with these last two new services, to help first-time attendees get the most out of their conference experience.

It occurred to me about halfway through my shift at the concierge desk that what I was doing was a lot like reference and instruction services for conference-goers. The most common question at the concierge desk? "Where's the nearest bathroom?" of course. Beyond the basic directional questions like how to find the bathrooms and where a particular session's meeting room was located, we did have several more in-depth queries. Some people wanted advice about how to find sessions related to a particular interest or type of library, and a few wanted to know more about getting involved in ALA. I found that these questions used the same kind of thinking-on-your-feet skills that you use at the reference desk. My shift on Saturday afternoon saw a constant stream of people approaching the desk, and it seemed that the service was a popular one.

My first-time attendee mentor shift on Saturday morning, on the other hand, was similar to a library orientation or instruction session. I met with a small group of first-time attendees to provide an orientation to the conference and tips to make it easier to navigate, along with a brief tour of important places in the convention center. Attendees signed up for these sessions in advance through the conference scheduler. I found that planning and carrying out the session was similar to one-shot instruction sessions that I've led, in that you need to have an idea of the material you want them to learn but be flexible for individual circumstances. Since my session was on Saturday instead of Friday, the people who came to my orientation had already explored some of the resources that I had wanted to show, such as the conference scheduler, mobile app, and exhibit hall. However, just as I would in a one-shot instruction session, I made sure to ask my mentees what they wanted to get out of the session at the beginning so I could target it more directly to their needs, and I was able to find some things to show that were new to them.

Because the first-time concierge and mentor services were new this year, they were not completely without snags. I had eight people register on the conference scheduler for my mentor session, and only two showed up. I found out later that there was some confusion with the sign-up sheets and people weren't sure what time they had signed up for. I also think some people weren't sure where they were supposed to meet. In addition, I had prepared my orientation around having access to a computer to demonstrate some of the online tools, but there was no computer at the concierge desk. Luckily my library instruction experience prepared me to deal with unforeseen computer access issues and I was able to adjust. At the concierge desk, I was expecting everyone to come up to us with specific questions. I did not realize that first-time attendees were told at registration to check in with us, so I ended up giving more impromptu one-on-one orientations than I was expecting.

Despite these challenges, this was a highly rewarding experience and I am glad I decided to volunteer. I've often found that helping patrons at my library's information desk is energizing and boosts my mood, and I found the same to be true of helping my colleagues navigate the convention center and the conference as an ALA Ambassador. A highlight for me was the woman with a ticket to the ALA/Proquest Scholarship Bash that she couldn't use, but wanted to leave with us specifically for the use of a first-time attendee. We were able to offer the ticket to a student who was very appreciative of the chance to attend this event, and it felt great to facilitate that. I was also impressed by how popular the concierge service was. When I had my mentor session on Saturday morning, there was no one scheduled at the concierge desk. When I ended our tour and came back to the desk, I had a rush of questions as soon as people saw me there and it was hard to get away even though I wasn't "officially" on the desk at that hour, and wasn't even wearing my ALA Ambassador badge ribbon. I hope this popularity means that the service will continue next year. I encourage those of you who are experienced ALA Annual attendees to consider volunteering next year, and those of you who are new to the ALA Annual conference to make use of these valuable and useful services.