My ALA: what I saw, did, and learned

So, this post is my attempt to recap some of the experience of attending ALA 2013. It was my very first big library conference, and I’m really glad I was able to go.

I think the main thing I came away from the conference with, was the a sense of rejuvenation. It’s hard sometimes, when we’re in the middle of Summer Reading (FOR EXAMPLE) to remember what on earth we’re doing here. But I feel like I ended up learning a lot, and gaining a sense of camaraderie, almost.

I attended from Friday to Monday, driving up from Indianapolis on Thursday night. I was staying with some friends in Oak Park, which meant taking public transit in and out. I had been worried before I went about feeling overwhelmed by the number of people who I didn’t know. That did happen once or twice on Friday, but overall, what I felt was more amazement at the sheer number of people who cared about the things I do.

I went in to the conference center Friday morning, arriving a little later than I expected. There were a few sessions I had been interested in that I missed, but they weren’t high on my priority list, so I wasn’t bothered. I registered and then looked around a little. For some reason, I thought that the exhibit hall was open during the day. When it turned out that they didn’t open until 5:30, I was left with a big empty gap in the middle of my schedule.

So I ended up going to a session called “Gun Violence: Community Voices and Library Responses.” It gathered together a number of community leaders from around Chicago, all of whom are working to decrease violence. The main speaker was a Catholic priest, Fr. Michael Pfleger, who was very eloquent (if a bit loud–he really didn’t need the microphone!). His main message was that we all of us have to stop accepting the status quo and start demanding real changes. That’s boiling it down quite a bit and doesn’t capture the whole flavor of his speech.

Then the other panelists gave a short outline of their work and framework. After that, we broke into groups and each panelist was paired with one of the groups. We were supposed to come up with a practical plan that could be developed.

This was an interesting session, and I thought the format was a sincere effort to make it more than just a “come and feel better about yourself for attending” affair. I’d be interested to hear how well it pans out.

After that, I ended up going to the exhibit hall right at 5:30, which was not in character at all (crowds, eep) but oddly enjoyable. The rule I made as far as ARCs go was that I had to be interested in the book already, not just grabbing it because it was there and looked cool. So I headed over to the Scholastic booth first and stood in line for a few minutes to get a Dream Thieves ARC. Talked to a few fellow line-standers, and heard that Greenwillow had Bitter Kingdom ARCs. I ended up with three total, all books I wanted to read, which I count as a win.

Later on, I went to another panel, this one at the Sheraton, called “Bleak New World: YA Authors Decode Dystopia“. It was a pretty impressive lineup, with Lois Lowry, Veronica Roth, Cory Doctorow, and Patrick Ness. I thought all of them had excellent things to say, especially Cory Doctorow and Patrick Ness. But Veronica Roth became my hero when she answered a “What about the booooyyyss?” question with grace but also making it clear that expecting boys to read books with girl protagonists is not actually that unreasonable.

I had hoped to meet up with a Twitter friend at this session, but between not getting her phone number in time and the number of people there (which I guess I should have been prepared for, but wasn’t), it didn’t quite work out. However, I did have a nice conversation with the librarian next to me, who encouraged me to go ahead and join ALA.

When the panel was over, the shuttle service back to McCormick Place had ended. So I walked over to the Green Line to get back to my friends’ place. To be honest, I was glad when I saw a few other ALA attendees doing the same; it was a little intimidating to try to find my way through an unfamiliar (big) city at night. I do wonder a little at the decision to schedule such a big session at a venue so far away from McCormick Place, after the shuttle service had ended.

I had been hoping to get down to McCormick Place in time for the session “All About ARCS: The Ins and Outs of Requesting, Using, and Abusing Advanced Reading Copies“. However, due to train difficulties, I ended up being a little late. I did manage to get there for most of it. I thought all of the points raised were great ones, and it was an insightful, thoughtful look at the way people use and mis-use ARCs.

There are a number of uses that are perfectly fine, from passing them on to patrons or friends, using them as prizes, or ultimately recycling them. But selling them, or adding them to your collection isn’t. One of the points raised was that you can use them as a teaching moment for teens or other patrons, to make the process of publishing more transparent.

After that, I went to two Book Buzz Theaters, Random House and HarperCollins Kids. Random House didn’t have anything specifically interesting to me, but it was good to hear about their upcoming releases. The HarperCollins session reminded me again that I’m very impressed by the talent at both the main imprint and Greenwillow (especially Greenwillow, because MWT). I picked up a couple more ARCs there, The Peculiar, and Chaos of Stars. There were several more I want to keep an eye out for.

I ate lunch and then had a lump of time before the USBBY program, which was the next thing I really wanted to go to. I ended up going to the “90 Second Newbery” session. It was a lot of fun, since James Kennedy is a very dynamic speaker, and the entries are pretty impressive. Some of them are funny, others just very well crafted. This was also a nice session, since I bumped into one of my fellow YA Fiction Cybils people, the other Maureen!

Then it was time for the last thing on my Saturday schedule, the “USBBY Program“, which Elizabeth Wein was speaking at. I thought her talk, which focused on her growing up in England and Jamaica, was quite fascinating. It wove in strands of nostalgia and a sense of place and wanting to belong, of being homesick for a place which is maybe not even real. As a Winter Prince fangirl, I also loved seeing the pictures of Alderley Edge over the years.

After the program, I went up to say hello, which I was kind of nervous about, but turned out to be really nice. And Sondra, of Sonderbooks was there too, so I said hello to her while I was at it.

I got up way too early, to go to the “YA Author Coffee Klatch“. I actually ended up sitting at the same table with the other Maureen again, which was fun. I thought the idea was really nice, and I would probably go again. However, the assortment of authors was a bit miscellaneous and while there were quite a few (37, I think), each table only got to meet 7 or 8. I wonder if there is a way the room could be divided into (very rough) genres, so that people had a change to meet the authors they were really interested in? Plus, some of the authors seemed to be entirely focused on pitching their next book, which was cool in that I heard about some books I wouldn’t have otherwise, but was not the main reason I personally was there.

After that, I went to one of the most thought provoking, and also slightly infuriating, sessions. Called “Junk Food, Beer, and Books: Intellectual Freedom in a Commercialized World“, it was presented by Susan Linn. It presented a powerful case for limiting commercial toys and sponsorships in children’s services. It’s something that I’m personally very much in favor of. At the same time, I felt that Linn was not really fully aware of the pressures and realities of public librarianship. This was especially apparent in the Q & A session, when one librarian pointed out that we are asked to provide information and materials without judgment and Linn’s response (as best I can remember) was that parents should be given full information, so we could view it in that light.

I did think that she presented a lot of useful information about the value of hands on creative play and the link between loss of creativity and media-linked toys. When we play with non-media-linked toys, the meaning resides in us, not the object. We’re able to create it, rather than passively accepting what the character says, does, or thinks. She also pointed out that the Google preschool has no screen technology at all, and that this was a very conscious choice on the part of the Google executives. Fascinating stuff, but I wished that they had added a librarian to the session, to link what she was saying to a more grounded sense of the realities of public libraries right now.

My next thing was the only circulation related program I could find in the whole conference, the Circ Services/Access Services Discussion Group. It was more of an actual meeting than the other panels I’d attended, and I was a bit intimidated by the fact that everyone else there was way more important than I am. But then I ended up saying something twice, so maybe not all THAT intimidated? Regardless, I liked hearing some of the things that people were interested in and concerned about. I don’t know that I’ll stay in circulation forever, but I think it is frequently undervalued and I wish that could change.

Then I went to a session called “We Are the Champions: Programming for 20s and 30s.” It was done by three people from the Sacramento Public Library and focused on their Alt Library programs. I found the concept really fascinating and they had a lot of sound, practical ideas for other people to apply. But the thing I found most fascinating was that it was completely packed. I mean, every seat filled, people sitting on the floor and standing in the doorway. For some reason, this was really inspiring to me–you can’t tell me that the young librarians of the world don’t care. And it was also funny that as the previous panel departed and the attendees for that panel entered, the median age of the people in the room plummeted from about 45 to about 25.

Personally speaking, I don’t even do programming for 20s and 30s–actually I don’t do programming at all. But I am 25 and therefore squarely in that age bracket, so I went because I thought it might be interesting. There were some good questions, and I wish I had stayed to ask mine, which was about how their programming might apply or not to people who have children, since that seems to be the predominant group at Library #1. However, there were quite a few people staying to ask questions, and so I ended up not hanging around.

After that, it was purely fun, as I got to meet up with Karyn and, as an extra surprise, Sarah from the SLJ Printz blog. They were both really lovely, and we basically spent 45 minutes nonstop talking books and libraries. In a way, this was my favorite part of the whole conference, as it’s so lovely to meet people that you’ve only known online and really enjoy them in person. Afterwards I started to worry that I had talked too much (does anyone else get anxious AFTER a social situation? please say I am not alone) but I had a great time and therefore am trying to squash those feelings as silly and implausible.

I was trying to meet up with a friend who just happened to be in Chicago that weekend, but alas, it didn’t quite work out.

I went in early again, for the “New Adult: What is it, and Is it Really Happening?” session, done by Liz Burns, Sophie Brookover, and Kelly Jensen. I really enjoy all three of them on Twitter–smart people who love books and libraries! And I thought they did a marvelous job of talking through some of the complexities and issues of New Adult, without ever condemning the idea or the readers. There was a lot of food for thought there, and I really really wish I had been able to stay for the Q & A session, because just the one or two questions I heard were very on point and sounded like they were going to lead into some great discussion. If you’re interested, there’s a resource page here.

However, I did skip out a little early, because I wanted to make sure I got up to the exhibit hall for Elizabeth Wein’s signing. And I’m really glad I did. The line ended up being QUITE LONG, and I ended up being towards the front. Plus, I met a really nice librarian from the DC area and we chatted books for the 40 minutes or so that we were waiting. And then I got my (US paperback) copy of Code Name Verity signed and handed Elizabeth Wein a Hershey bar and maybe accidentally traumatized her a little (okay, not THAT badly, but it makes for a better story that way). The five of you who have already read Rose Under Fire should get that. In short, it was kind of awesome and fun. Also, in fairness, I almost cried when I realized that she had underlined the title in red ink.

However, there was an incident that happened while I was standing in line which pointed out how rude/clueless some people are. I’m sort of grouping this separately because it could have happened at any big signing. So I was standing behind the above-mentioned nice librarian, right in front of the table where the Disney Hyperion lady was selling copies of CNV and handing out ARCS of Rose. A woman–yes, a librarian, yes, a full conference attendee–came up and reached in front of me and grabbed a copy of Rose. I leaned back a little, which in retrospect I wish I hadn’t done. The Disney Hyperion lady said something like, “Excuse me?” and the woman said, “Oh, I haven’t heard of this one, and I want to read the back before I decide whether to stand in line or not.” Now, I kind of get this. There’s a lot going on and no one wants to stand in line for an hour for a book that they might not like. But 1) if you don’t know anything about it, that’s probably a sign that you in fact do NOT want to stand in line and 2) there is this thing called Google. The Disney Hyperion lady essentially said, “No, if you want to look at it, you need to stand in line,” I assume partly because the woman could have walked off with it, and they had a limited number of ARCs. (I did not take one; I’ve already read Rose and have the UK copy.) Regardless, it really smacked of a lack of manners and understanding to me. We all shrugged it off and rolled our eyes a little–it certainly didn’t dent my enjoyment. But still.

Anyway, that was the last thing on my schedule. I ate some ice cream and had a nice walk with my friend, and then I headed home.

So what did I learn? Well, in terms of practical tips, a couple of things. First, comfortable shoes really are a good idea. I don’t know what the average venue for ALA looks like, but McCormick Place is HUGE. I mean, HUGE. I was aching and sore with my comfortable shoes. Can’t imagine what the attendee wearing 6-inch platform stilettos felt like. Second, plan a schedule but don’t become wedded to it. Things change, and sometimes you end up going to different sessions than you meant to. Identify what’s most important and stick to that. Same goes for the exhibits. Don’t take a bunch of free stuff that you don’t care about and will just have to haul home again. Find out what sessions are being held in different locations and what you’ll need to do to get to them. These are all pretty common sense things, but I’m saying them anyway.

As far as less practical things go, I learned a lot about myself, about how I view my jobs and my future. I have tangible ideas about things to do in the future, but more than that I think going to ALA was instrumental in becoming more secure in who I am as a library worker and where I’m going. And just for that (plus all the cool stuff I got to do and people I got to meet) it was totally worth it.

I’d love to hear about other experiences too! If you went, feel free to comment or link to your wrap-up post.

By Maureen LaFerney

My name is Maureen. I currently work as a library assistant in a public library in the Indianapolis area, and also just so happen to be a voracious reader. I frequently end up under a cat.

13 replies on “My ALA: what I saw, did, and learned”

Nice wrap up! I was the person right behind you in line for Rose Under Fire… I’m intrigued that the (slightly melted) Hershey’s bar has a particular meaning!

Oh, hi! Thanks for the comment! Yes, it does have a special meaning in Rose. Though not the slightly melted bit. 🙂

Aww, love that you gave Elizabeth Wein a Hershey bar. 🙂

Sounds like you had a great time; wish I could have been there! I was especially interested in what you said about keeping commercial toys out of children’s services – I love that.

I wish you could have been there too! Maybe someday. And yes, definitely all stuff that I personally believe and would practice.

This sounds really awesome! I’m totally jealous that you met Elizabeth Wein (I feel like most of us on the Cybils panel shared the same feelings about CNV) and saw Lois Lowry speak. She’s probably the top of my list right now of authors I’d love to meet, besting even the wonderful and amazing Maggie Stiefvater. And how fun that you got to meet Other Maureen! Thanks for such a nice write-up!

I think we did have pretty much the same feelings about CNV! Lois Lowry was very interesting; she approached the whole question differently and at that moment it didn’t resonate with me quite as well. I think it was especially fun meeting the Other Maureen, because it wasn’t planned either time! Thanks for the comment.

Good to meet you at Elizabeth Wein’s talk, Maureen! And what a great conference! I’ve only begun writing mine up. We only hit a couple of the same events, so I like reading about what else was out there. (And, yes, I totally get anxious AFTER a social situation. Maybe an introvert thing? I don’t know, but I have to work not to do that.) Love your write-up!

Thank you! You too! That’s definitely one of the boons of big conferences–being able to meet people from the internet.

I bet it is an introvert thing–I’m also an INFJ and I think worrying about things like that is one of the traits for that personality type. It’s hard to overcome, unfortunately.

Thanks for the comment!

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