Considering Conferencing

Like many of us I was #alaleftbehind this past weekend. I spent some time sitting on the sofa scrolling through Twitter catching up on the programs and happenings at ALA Annual, and I’m grateful to folks who’re livetweeting the sessions and those who’ve posted their talks and slides for all to see. But it’s not the same as being there, of course.

Every year around this time I feel a twinge of guilt as I realize that it’s yet another year into my career in librarianship, and I still have not been to Annual. I did go to Midwinter once, just as I was finishing my MLIS. That year it was in a nearby location and, even though I hadn’t found a full-time job yet, staying with family and registering on the student rate meant that it didn’t break the bank.

But still: the guilt, it twinges, especially since I’ve been to ACRL every year since I’ve been an academic librarian save for my first year. So I took to Twitter and sought out other #alaleftbehind folks:

Most of the folks who responded were academic librarians (not a surprise, since I was specifically wondering about academic librarians), and the first point made was one that I’ve often thought too: for librarians who work at colleges and universities, ACRL is a much more valuable conference than ALA because it’s so focused on academic librarianship. I’ve always had a terrific time at ACRL and learned an enormous amount.

Which is not to say that I couldn’t see myself having an equally great/educational time at Annual. But, as the conversation quickly acknowledged, we are often under very real financial constraints when making our professional development plans. At my college we are typically not funded enough to completely cover travel to more than one cross-country conference each year, which for me this year was ACRL in Portland. There might also be other conferences we’re interested in attending — discipline-specific conferences, or perhaps other library conferences too. If the conference stars align and ALA and ACRL are both in the northeast one year, I can see myself going to both, but if not I’ll probably continue to prioritize ACRL on the years it’s held.

Work-life balance was another aspect that came up in the conversations. Several folks noted that going to lots of conferences is not only expensive in money but also in time and, depending on our family situation, we may not be able to take the time for multiple conferences. I felt this more acutely when my kid was younger (he’s a teenager now), but still, time away is definitely a consideration for me.

The cons were familiar to me, but what about the pros? I think what’s been twinging my guilt more this time around is that I’m now wrapping up my first year as Chief Librarian at my college. I think more about the whole library now than I did when I was instruction coordinator, from collections to facilities and everything in between. We’re hoping for a small renovation soon so I can definitely see myself doing lots of furniture and space planning research if I were at ALA right now. And, beyond chairs with wheels, I’m certain there’s lots I could learn from libraries outside of academia — public and special and more.

If I could fave this tweet more than once, I would, as it seems to describe exactly what I’ve wondered about going to ALA. So I’ll be keeping my eye on the conference schedule and trying to make it work soon, I hope.

If you’re a regular (or even not-so-regular) attendee at ALA, why do you go? Let us know in the comments.

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

5 thoughts on “Considering Conferencing”

  1. I attended ALA several times as a student and early in my career. I started out as a school librarian, and I remember my impression being that I found our state conferences to be more valuable than ALA both in terms of money spent and information being specific to my situation.

    Still, I get the occasional twinge to go to ALA, especially for the exhibits.

    I’m fairly new to academic libraries, so I appreciate your comments about ACRL. Maybe that’s where I should set my sights instead.

  2. Yes, I agree, and state conferences can be even better than ALA in mixing public and academic librarians (and even presenting together, imagine that!)

  3. I regularly go to ALA because unfortunately, ACRL doesn’t offer a focus on reference or on assessment, which have been the two areas where my career has focused for the past 20 years. I have really enjoyed ALA because 1) I am easily able to focus my efforts on committees within divisions where I can actually make a difference. My focus allows me to take a big conference and make it small. 2) I have made great network contacts, and friends, within these committees and sections. Again, despite the fact that tens of thousands of librarians attend, I can always find my own niche. 3) Three personal wins for me: I have loved being able to see many places in the country, I often get to stay with a roommate whom I might not otherwise have a chance to see, and I love to gather books for my kids at the exhibits.

    I have been to ACRL four times. The most recent time (a few years ago) was a total wash, in that I was entirely unable to find things that were relevant to me. I have found ways to be active in ULS, in more recent years, so maybe that will play out in more ACRL conferences for me.

  4. Thanks for these comments, everyone! Lisa, I heard from a few other folks on Twitter that ALA was also their conference of choice because that’s where the ACRL sections they’re involved in tend to present. And I completely agree re: local/regional conferences, Steve — we have lots of local conference options in the NYC area (as another Twitter side conversation mentioned) which I know makes me lucky, though I also value the opportunity to get out of the local conference bubble.

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