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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Reflections on ALA 2011

I miss New Orleans already, as I prepare myself for a lunch that doesn't involve oysters, alligator sausage, fried things of any kind, daquiris, or my far-flung library colleagues. I am trying to suppress my disappointment. Before everything gets lost in the haze of back-to-work, I wanted to get down some lasting impressions:

1. New Orleans, I Heart You

I don't know what I was expecting of New Orleans, but it is a wonderful, walkable, fantastic little city with great character and outstanding food. I could barely believe the tales of craziness (I never did make it over to Bourbon Street), until the evening I was walking back to my hotel and passed a number of folks in Santa hats. And they were immediately followed by a guy fully duded up as Santa - big hat, faux beard, heavy coat and gloves...and no pants, hollering "HO HO HO!" as he stumbled down the sidewalk. And apparently that's just an everyday occurrence, because no one else even raised an eyebrow. In any case, the alligator sausage po boys, raw oysters, delicately fried seafood, and daquiri stands made me a fan, and I'm already plotting a return. Thank you, New Orleans, for being a wonderful venue.

2. Pre-Conference Success

The preconference Jenica Rogers and I led on the tough parts of management went over very, very well. Not only did it sell out, but everyone came back from lunch for the second part. The participants seemed very engaged, asked some great and difficult questions, and it appeared to hearten everyone that they as managers are not alone as they navigate difficult situations. Many filled out our evaluation form, which will help us improve the preconference for the future. My dean noted that she heard some of our participants talking abotu the session the next day on a bus ride and they appeared to have been very happy with the session. (I will note that the preconferences ran into the opening session, which really should be avoided in future programming.)

3. Scalability/Generalizability of Presentations

I was struck by how much the sessions I attended focused on "how we done good" with very little emphasis on scalability or generalizing it to how other libraries may accomplish things with what the presenters learned. If "how you done good" is not something I can draw from and bring back to my own workplace, it's not terribly useful to me. I know my proposals through ACRL and LLAMA had to have a "three outcomes/takeaways for attendees" section on it; it would be nice if everyone had to do something similar to ensure that those takeaways are actually useful. (I'm talking to you, program planning committees!) I just spoke to my dean as she breezed past the circulation desk, and it turns out that many of us (a horde of us from UTC attended) had the same issue - not a whole lot we could actually bring back and implement. Whether that's because we're on the furthest edge of good already, instead of due to lackluster programming, I don't know.

4. Frankness and Honesty

Another thing I was struck by was the effect frankness and honesty has on the lifespan and usefulness of a discussion. A preconference on library management issues where we worked very hard to be frank and talk about such taboo things as how performance management systems are sometimes broken generated so much discussion that instead of the scheduled 9am to 4:30pm time frame, many attendees stayed until 5pm to talk informally about their own workplaces, issues, and solution - choosing to miss the 4:00pm opening session to do so. A two-hour interest group meeting on a similar management topic, however, ended nearly forty minutes early due to lack of discussion. I can't help but wonder if statements during the interest group meeting such as "these conflicts resolve themselves," and "if you follow HR procedures, that shouldn't be a problem" had a chilling effect on the conversation, since it was obvious that no one wanted to address the flip side of everything working well.

If we're not going to be very (perhaps brutally) honest in our discussions about issues in the profession, I don't see what the use of such discussion forums. Towing the party line and pretending problems don't exist we can do from home; no need to have people travel halfway across the country for that.

5. Can "Big Tent Librarianship" Philosophy Go Too Far?

Proposing a panel on library management for Annual 2012, I was encouraged to include public librarians as well as the academic librarians I had planned to have participate. I had initially restricted it because I know that as much as we are all librarians, we do operate under different strictures. I understand the desire to make such a panel as broadly popular as possible, so I agreed to alter it. but then someone noted that "Academic librarians already have ACRL, you know." Assuming all academic librarians who would be interested in a topic would have gotten it at ACRL is the same as assuming all public librarians hit their conference - give funding, it's probably an erroneous assumption, and I found it a very disturbing one. I do not want programs at ALA to be chosen or rejected with the attitude of "If you can get it somewhere else, get it there and not here." That's the case for nearly every topic, from IT to reference issues. Also, ignoring the fact that there are indeed differences between the types of librarianship - and not recognizing that a panel that can go in-depth into important issues in one type of library does not give it less value than a broader panel that can address many different topics shallowly - is not helpful.

6. Identity Crises

In LITA circles, there was discussion of the cancellation of BIGWIG, and much discussion of the Emerging Leaders' SWOT analysis of LITA which demonstrated a need for a clear mission statement. More than one person asked why ALA needs a division devoted to technology. I'll be interested to see how these discussions play out over the course of the next few months, particularly since I'm on the LITA program planning committee. I don't know that LITA is the only division with this issue, really; I attended some LLAMA meetings and felt distinctly out of place among the very-much-older crowd who didn't take well to any suggestions for changes, bringing in younger/newer managers, or generally making LLAMA much more useful in members' day to day lives. My dean also noted that what I will call LLAMA-lack was brought up in various different venues in New Orleans. A shame, because people are dying for good programming and guidance when it comes to management. Tons of stuff on the idea of leadership, and not a whole lot on management. Makes you wonder about who is going to actually get things done and how while everyone else is pie-in-the-sky-ing it.

7. Personality vs. Message

Interestingly, this is the first conference where I ran up against a situation where some folks took issue not with *what* was said, but *how* it was said, and said as much in their program evaluations. Later in the conference while pitching a program, those same folks happened to be in the room and asked that the *who* that had said it be stricken from future speaking proposals. Which was fascinating, since while three people took issue with the (occasionally informal) language used, 49 people reported that they found the conversation stimulating and useful. But the three unhappy ones are involved in program planning; everyone else was "just" an attendee. Guess whose opinion matters more? If shaking discussions up with blunt honesty is considered 'unprofessional,' I understand perhaps why that division's programming - and participation - is so lackluster.

8. On the "Doing Stuff" Style of Committee Work
I've been largely unhappy with my committee assignments in ALA to date, either because the committees were inactive, because the committees made random assignments without regard for skill requirements, or other mismatches. However, I'm now on the Program Planning Committee for LITA, and the idea that at the end of our work we'll have a finished product to point at and get feedback on is very satisfying to me. Plus, Abigail is our committee chair, so an awesome outcome is practically predetermined.

9. Meating Friends

Of course, one of the best things about large library conferences is that I get to see my many library folks who usually live in my computer. That we not only got to spend some great time together with much laughter, but do it with fantastic food, was a lovely way to spend my non-working parts of ALA!

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