A Week in My Life at ALA Annual Conference
Published: Thursday, July 06, 2017 by Allison Randall Gatt
Spending the week at ALA is not unlike spring break week, only there’s an intense amount of learning, sharing, networking and planning. There is also a lot of staying up late, the corollary to that being that there is also a lot of coffee. So if you plan on attending a professional conference (and there are hundreds to choose from in the field of library and information science) be prepared to go hard and absorb as much as possible.
As a recent graduate of the SJSU iSchool MLIS program, I knew I needed to start connecting, or connecting further, with a professional organization. Last November I attended my state library chapter of the ALA, driving a couple of hours to attend CLA in Sacramento. To attend ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, I had to hop a plane and stay for a week. And what a week it was!
Before I went ALASC Chair Stephanie Barnaby, Career Blog writer Kate Spaulding and I shared a Google.doc listing all the events we planned to attend. There are hundreds of events (no exaggeration) to choose from, and the ALA conference website, as well as the downloadable mobile app, were essential tools to help plan out what to do, when it was happening and also importantly where it was happening. Conference events were hosted all over downtown Chicago and it could easily take half an hour or more to get from one meeting or presentation to the next. Even if it was at the conference center, it could take 20 minutes to walk from one end of the west wing to the north wing, which is located across the street and in a separate building.
Sounds a bit crazy, doesn’t it? Well it is, but the key is to plan and prioritize. For instance, it would have been lovely to show up at the iSchool’s reception early and meet up with Director Sandy Hirsh, but I also wanted to go to the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) meeting for potential new members. I worked it out by giving Dr. Hirsh a hug at the SJSU School of Information booth in the exhibition hall and showing up at the end of the iSchool reception to mingle and have a quick chat with a few of my instructors, including Patty Wong and Patrick Sweeney. Then I went on to the book release party that EveryLibrary was having for Kyle Cassidy and his book This is What a Librarian Looks Like. I shared an Uber with another party attendant and made it back to the hotel room shortly after midnight. Like I said, there are similarities between ALA Annual and spring break.
For students new to the library profession or new to the conference scene, the best place to start is an orientation or a new members’ group. For the ALA, that would be the New Members Round Table (NMRT). The NMRT guarantees committee work for anyone who volunteers and the opportunities to do so are numerous and fun. Want to plan the reception for the next conference? They’ll give you a place to work your party-planning magic. If writing is more your thing (me, me!), then the NMRT will give you the opportunity to write and edit for their newsletter or blog. I attended both the orientation at the conference center, which featured a panel of ALA members, including Past President Courtney Young and ALA President-Elect Loida Garcia-Febo, and a NMRT 101 meeting where I could meet committee chairs and ask them questions about what it’s like to be a part of the NMRT. The latter meeting was hosted at a gorgeous Beaux-Arts style hotel.
Meet People—Lots of Them
Then there’s the networking that goes on at a conference, which I think is just a fancy word for talking to people and sharing contact information. That’s the really fun part because you can laugh at a party and giggle at the vintage musical selections of the DJ, or compare notes about a certain presentation. The work part of networking comes after the conference when it’s time to spread out all those business cards you collected and start emailing friendly questions. Keep it light, but keep it business-like and brief. Most of these people had to go back to work after the conference and may still be recovering from the whirlwind of a trip as well as diving into the pile of work that’s been waiting for them at their desk while they’ve been gone.
If you’d like to get a jumpstart on your job search before you graduate, it’s a good idea (okay, nearly mandatory) that you begin to connect with people who are currently working your dream job and who hire people like you to work in your chosen field. Makes sense, right? Wouldn’t it be great to be interviewed by someone you’ve already met at a professional conference? Or develop a relationship with a senior administrator who can let you in on the particulars of your dream job and then give you a letter of recommendation?
At ALA, I met librarians who are doing the very things I’d like to do in my small town. I tapped into the related subdivision of the bigger (WAY big) organization, which narrows down my connections to those who work in my chosen field of library services. I met and chatted at a party with the library director of a couple of branches near where I live. How awesome will it be to email Sarah Houghton and ask about ways I can develop my resume to be an excellent candidate for the job I really want? With a bit of follow-up work on my end, the after-conference opportunities are endless!
If you decide to attend a professional conference while you’re in grad school, and I highly recommend that you do, be sure to plan ahead. Look at the conference schedule and consider the introductory meetings and the presentations that most readily apply to what you are doing in school or at your institution. Be sure to keep travel times in mind and don’t forget to eat—it can happen, believe me. You don’t have to get on a plane and you don’t have to stay a week. If a conference like ALA Annual is intimidating, pick something smaller and spend a couple days. It will be an amazing experience for both you and your career!
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