With ALA coming up this weekend, my work is particularly busy. Add in a pile of essays to grade and some students to meet and books to buy, and the work starts piling up. On the other hand, I know more about British Islamic hip-hop and whether it’s haram or embodiment education and its relationship to feminist theory than I did a couple of days ago, and one never knows when that information will be just the thing to make me a hit at a cocktail party.
Sometimes I ponder just what I get out of ALA attendance. Technically, I don’t have to go to ALA conferences, though some sort of national or regional professional participation is more or less a requirement of my job, and I can most easily fulfill that requirement through ALA, or rather ALA divisional participation. It also seems to me that a lot of newer librarians don’t have much good to say about the ALA and its conferences. ALA business is so arcane.
I always seem to feel like an outsider, even though I’m always busy. I’m typically on the maximum three committees at any given time (right now an ALA committee, a division committee, and a section committee), and yet ALA is so huge that my maximum active involvement is such a tiny part of the picture. Who does feel like an insider, I wonder? Perhaps the ALA Councilors and the top officers. I’ve burrowed comfortably into my RUSA home and don’t look out much.
It took me a while to find something useful to do. I was on a couple of committees early on with people I really liked, but we didn’t seem very busy. I had a great time going to meetings and chatting with people, but not much came of it. Since then, I’ve tried to work only on committees that get things done, and I’ve felt much better about it. I’ve worked a lot with RUSA guidelines, which some people ridicule or ignore, but I think the RUSA guidelines provide useful touchstones for public service training, and it’s important that they be as good as they can be. Part of the satisfaction I get from ALA attendance is the actual work produced.
One of the greatest professional benefits I get is definitely psychological. I feel better getting away from my own library for a few days and talking shop with other people from around the country. Don’t get me wrong, I work in a great library, and I have a great job, and I have many thoughtful and talented colleagues, but my library often has a closeted feel. Perhaps because of all the resources and the talented colleagues, there’s a tendency to look inward rather than outward. Nowadays I can get a feel for what others are doing from reading library blogs, but until very recently conference attendance was one of the only ways to get a more immediate feel for what other libraries were doing than the traditional library literature offered. It also helps me get a perspective on my own library and job. Our library has problems just like any other large institution, and some of the more insular librarians obsess over them, but after talking to other librarians and hearing about other libraries I usually come back thinking about the positives rather than the negatives.
There’s also the socializing, which is sometime personal and sometimes professional. Some friends from library school and I have a regular Saturday night dinner at a nice restaurant, which is always enjoyable. There are also the more professional social engagements. This year I’m considering going to the OCLC Blogger’s Salon, for example, even though I have no idea what to expect, and don’t necessarily identify as a library blogger. Also, since I’m pretty shy, entering a roomful of strangers is always daunting. Regardless, usually when people get together who have little in common except being librarians, the discussion turns to libraries and librarianship, and I learn something new that’s useful in a way hard to quantify.
I know a lot of people attend the programs, but I’ve never gotten much out of them. My learning style is to sit in a room alone reading or playing with software or something, preferably with some good music playing in the background. Usually whatever people are speaking about I’ve already learned. The discussion groups, on the other hand, are often engaging.
I’m not sure if I have a point in this. It seems to me that some newer librarians wonder why they might attend ALA at all, especially since there are other conferences they might go to. Smaller conferences certainly have their appeal, especially because you can focus on smaller topics and talk more about relevant subjects. But the gigantic nature of ALA has its appeal as well, because so much is going on that you can satisfy almost any librarian urge.