Lessons from ALA 2014

By Christopher Kowalczyk

Anyone even remotely connected to the world of libraries is patently aware of the competitive nature of the current librarian job market.  Networking and connecting with the profession are touted as major keys to success in landing a job or advancing a career and while there are countless articles devoted to both, the recent ALA Annual provides a perfect backdrop for a quick reflection on some of the lessons we can take away from conferences and other professional events.

Think of the conference as a job interview. Most of us recognize that there are numerous formal networking and job search help sessions including the wonderful work done by the Job Placement Center. What many people don’t consider is that every interaction with another librarian or information professional is a potential job interview.  Having a short elevator speech prepared for when someone asks about your job or interests can help make a good first impression. Even if you are not actively on the job hunt, someone will inevitably ask about what kind of library you work in or the work you do and the confidence of a cogent reply is much better than a stumbling one. Remember that even if the person you meet is not from a currently hiring library they likely know of one or will be one in the future and every interaction counts.  I’m sorry to say that this often also includes what we wear and how we present ourselves. While obviously no one is suggesting that one must wear a suit and tie in the Las Vegas heat, your appearance still speaks volumes and dressing appropriately should be a given.

Don’t just network with the hiring libraries, directors, and administrators. The most informed and well-connected librarians are often students, recent graduates, and those looking for work. The reason for this is that they are the ones who are out surfing the internet for jobs, staying connected to peers, using social media to reach out and network with others, and reading articles like this. Yes, it’s great to have contact with that library director at that big California University, but remember that she is just one person out of thousands and library-land is a huge place. If you really want to stay on top of the trends for hiring, networking, new trends, and job openings, the unemployed and recently hired are the people with whom you’ll want to keep in touch.

Get out of your comfort zone. So often at conferences, we tend to focus on their own areas of work or expertise. While this usually provides us with useful tools and ideas we can apply back home, this approach can also leave us with little opportunity to grow in other areas. If you are an academic librarian, consider attending gaming related events as I did with this year’s Opening General Session with Jane McGonigal and the ALA Play event featuring myriad games from around the world. Both of these sessions were great events for broadening my understanding of what is possible in the library profession and how libraries can affect real change in communities. Adult services librarians might consider attending a session on zines, comics, or story times; you might be surprised how applicable these ideas are to your own work. Not only does this sort of stepping out help broaden our understanding of the profession and our fellow librarians, but it can also provide us with unique perspectives and ideas that do turn out to be surprisingly useful in our seemingly unrelated fields.

Get social. Many of us fill our conference schedules with sessions, meetings, and formal networking “events”, and these are great resources to learn about library happenings and culture. However, many people forget that librarians are, despite stereotypes to the contrary, very social people, especially when we are amongst our own kind and can let our hair down.  Many of the best networking opportunities are after the conference hours, over coffee, dinner, or drinks.  While many of the social events at ALA, for example, are noted on the schedule and are sponsored by great organizations (a huge thank you to all of the social event sponsors at ALA this year!), many of the best networking opportunities are impromptu activities with people you just met. An invitation to lunch or other social activity can lead to long term collaboration and friendships, both of which are vital to our professional growth. This is not to say that you have to be a nonstop party hopper, but libraries really are about communities, and building them, even just amongst other librarians, requires the sort of personal interaction that doesn’t always take place at a formal event session or round table.

Get out of the conference and see a library. Although you can learn a wealth of information about libraries and new ideas by attending sessions, sometimes you just have to get out and experience other libraries first hand. Every conference is also an opportunity to do just that, by attending a formal open house or just an impromptu visit at the local library near the conference. This year, the University of Nevada Las Vegas was gracious enough to invite librarians to see their progress on a long term renovation and improvement project. Besides hearing about the work being done at another library, such events offer great networking opportunities as well as unparalleled access to areas that the public usually doesn’t see. For current students and job seeking librarians, these open house events also offer the chance to examine the work environment for various kinds of libraries in which you might be thinking about working. Even if a formal open house isn’t being offered as part of a conference, consider making a stop at the local libraries and introducing yourself, you’re virtually guaranteed a warm welcome and an opportunity to learn something new. 

Offer your services. Networking, for many people, narrowly means finding others who can further careers, collaborate on papers, or help promote a cause. Networking should instead be seen as the building of a cooperative effort between parties. It is not just about getting in touch with others and finding out what they can do for you. What we often forget is that one of the best ways to be actively involved is to simply offer our services to other individuals or groups. Each of us has unique knowledge and talents that we can apply to a variety of endeavors and simply offering them to help with a project or participate in a committee can lead to a better understanding of our profession and our areas of interest. This helps us not only develop our relationships and networks, but also, and perhaps more importantly, makes us more well-rounded and capable librarians.

Christopher Kowalczyk is a recent graduate from San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science and is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Idaho State University.