By Zara T. Wilkinson
In 2010, while I was a library school student at the University of Pittsburgh, I attended the ALA Annual Conference in Washington, DC. Because I attended the program on-campus and lived in Pittsburgh, Washington, DC was a short road-trip away. Three classmates and I decided to carpool and share a hotel room. We attended meetings that sounded interesting, sat in awe as Toni Morrison gave the keynote, and trawled the exhibit hall for free books, pens, and tote bags.
Annual was an amazing experience – but also overwhelming. There were thousands of librarians, all in one place. There were committees and discussion groups and divisions and roundtables and sections. There were speakers, events, and food.
After attending Annual, the ALA Midwinter Meeting should have been a piece of cake. But, although I had heard that Midwinter would be smaller and more manageable, planning my conference activities made me nervous. Because this time, things were different. This time, I wasn’t a student.
This time, it counted.
In 2012, almost exactly two years after I finished my MLIS, I started my first full-time library job. Less than six months later, before the shiny newness or the imposter syndrome had worn off, I attended Midwinter 2013.
The most striking difference between attending Annual as a student and Midwinter as a professional was not that other people took me more seriously now that I am a “real” librarian. I can’t say if they do, but I can tell you that at both conferences I experienced nothing but kindness from others. But the truth of the matter is that I took myself more seriously at Midwinter.
That makes sense, I think. Midwinter was, in a sense, my national debut as a professional librarian: my first chance to network, to become involved in ALA committees, and to think about my future scholarship in the field in the form of my own conference posters and presentations. Unlike my student trip to Annual, I knew I couldn’t simply be a spectator. I was fortunate enough to have my employer fund the conference which meant they expected it be beneficial to me, my career, and my library. With that in mind, I set out to make Midwinter the best experience it could be.
First, I made a list of divisions, roundtables, and sections that I might want to get involved with someday. I’m a new librarian, so NMRT made sense. I work in an academic library, so ACRL did too. I am responsible for instruction and collection development in several of the humanities including English Literature, so the ACRL Literatures in English Section seemed like a good fit. On the reference and instruction side, I might understandably want to work with RUSA or LIRT in the future. For every group I listed, I added a session to my schedule. Between business meetings, discussion groups, and socials, this wasn’t at all difficult. My goal was simply to sample as much as I could, so that I would have a better idea of where I might not only fit in but thrive.
Once I had chosen those sessions, I went back through the schedule and added a few others that sounded interesting. I made sure to include some wild cards: meetings that sounded interesting but that weren’t as relevant to me professionally. For example, I went to a meeting of the ACRL Women and Gender Studies Section - even though I am not the Women’s and Gender Studies liaison for my campus - and attended the Library Boing Boing session. I wanted to leave room for surprises.
But as varied and interesting as my schedule was, it was still a bit too passive. I was determined not to be the mere observer I had been at Annual. As a librarian on the tenure track, I am expected to contribute to the profession on the regional, state, and national levels. I need and want to get involved in ALA, and I have been told over and over again that the best way to get involved is to start saying "yes."
In the month or two leading up to Midwinter, I made sure to keep an eye out for volunteer opportunities at the conference and beyond – things to say "yes" to. When I saw the announcement on the NMRT listserv, I volunteered to write this article for Footnotes. The chair of a discussion group emailed the LES listserv and asked for volunteers to help out at the discussion group meeting at Midwinter. I replied, thinking that I could use the experience taking minutes, and I ended up leading the meeting. During the conference, I introduced myself to people I found interesting. When I found a meeting or discussion group I liked, I spoke to an officer or chair and asked if they were looking for committee volunteers.
The evening I returned from Seattle, I joined a section of ACRL because I liked the discussion group I attended. The morning I went back to work, I had my very first committee appointment waiting in my inbox. I hope that another will follow shortly. I brought home ideas and conversations, and I met some great librarians who are doing great things.
Not too bad for a Midwinter debut. I like to think so, anyway.