Guest Blog Series: Conference 101 with Liane Elias

Here’s another post about ALA in New Orleans, this time from Liane Elias.  Liane is a second-year student in the LIS program who may never decide between academic and public libraries. She works/plays in the Music Library at UNCG. You can learn more about her at: http://about.me/libraryliane

When I headed to New Orleans this summer for the American Library Association’s annual conference, I had two things in mind: Dan Savage and discovery.  I didn’t plan to attend many sessions because my colleagues and I were also in the midst of summer classes, on a budget (subtitled: we stayed one night in a somewhat questionable EconoLodge across the river) and driving 13 hours each way.  We had a very short window of time to make the most of our experience, and in our own ways, I believe we did just that.

Dan Savage and his husband are the co-founders of the It Gets Better Project, a video project supporting LGBT youth and others struggling to imagine a world where they can be themselves, free from bullying, danger, and fear.  The issue is incredibly important to me, and I admire Savage greatly for his work in this area, so when I read that he would be kicking off the conference with opening remarks, it was almost reason enough for me to go.  Add to that a chance to meet new people in my intended profession, to see what conferences were “all about,” and–let’s face it–to visit New Orleans, and my bags were practically packed!

Dan delivered a wonderful talk, as I knew he would — it was funny, touching, relevant, and I felt like a fangirl in his presence.  What I hadn’t counted on was the overwhelming feeling of being in an auditorium with thousands of kindred spirits… librarians, students, professors, paraprofessionals, and more… all gathered for the same purpose.  As I waited for the opening session to start and I looked around the auditorium, tears began to well up in my eyes.  I realized, in a visceral way, that I fit…that I was a part of something.  I thought of my journey to get there that day, not just the drive from North Carolina, but the journey of my life toward librarianship.  I thought of how important the profession is, and how much influence we all had between us, on the daily lives of so many others in our communities.  As I continued through the conference that moment in the half-dark, waiting for Dan Savage, remained the most profound.

As dictated by Ranganathan, I will try to save the time of the reader, and share some of my other discoveries in a brief list (in no particular order):

Exhibit Halls steal your soul. Honestly, I feel the need to warn anyone attending for the first time about the dangers of Exhibit Halls. I should have known better than to think that 5,000 librarians and dozens of stalls giving out free books was an equation for decent and polite behavior. Unless you know exactly what you’re doing, I have to strongly recommend never going to the Hall on opening day. You might miss out on some “swag,” but at least you don’t have to worry about a fellow librarian puncturing your kidney with her knitting needle just to grab the last ARC in the stack… Check it out after things have calmed down. There’s a bit of hobnobbing to be done, and you might even enjoy yourself. Otherwise, dear fellows, take arms.

Skip some stuff. I read a lot about this before going to ALA, about conference burn-out and making sure you take time in-between the sessions to do some fun things and go out to eat (drink) with people.  Since a lot of what I did was to take time to do fun things and eat (drink) with people, I would actually have preferred to go to more conference-y stuff. If you’re the type of person to overbook yourself and agonize over which of the three AMAAAAZING sessions you really want to attend from 1-4pm, then, to you I say: “Skip some stuff.”

Walk on the wild side. This may or may not apply to NCLA in Hickory, but if you find yourself at a conference in a new and engaging place, you should take the opportunity to try something new. In my case, the famed “ALA Dance Party” at Oz on Bourbon Street was that something. A few colleagues and I ventured out and we danced the night away. It bears mentioning that librarians can get down, y’all. You may be asking yourself what drinks & dancing at a gay bar in New Orleans has to do with professional development, and the answer is, not a lot. However, it’s an experience I will never forget, and I can always look back and say, “remember that time at ALA?…”

It’s alright to cry. And what I mean by this is: I think it’s easy to become overwhelmed–especially at a national conference–by the opportunities and the schedules and the networking and the wild side. If you are participating in a poster session or presenting or interviewing for a job, the chance is even greater. I would remind you to be realistic with yourself, and also to be kind to yourself. If you are nervous or shy or you have an anxiety attack in the Exhibit Hall and no one will stop to help you and you mistyped the Text an ALA Ambassador number when you put it into your phone, just take a deep breath. You are there to listen, learn, share, grow, all good things, etc, etc.

Tweet early, tweet often. See if your conference has an official #hashtag on Twitter and follow it! Information about registration, hotels, sessions, carpools, the best place to grab a coffee in the conference area, dance parties, and more will be organized there. It will keep you connected to the other conference goers, and if you continue to follow the hashtag after the conference, you might find that the dialog continues.  People are still using #ALA11 today, and that conference was at the end of June!

Just go. If you can afford it, just go. You can’t really predict the connections you will make or the experiences you will have, and one of them could be a game-changer.

My time at ALA was very brief and hard to plan for, and the experiences I had were related to those factors. Still, I consider that I learned what I would and would not like to do next time. I made one new acquaintance with a local librarian. I traveled to a new place. I piqued some interests. I danced my tush off.

And I’ll always have that moment in the half-dark.

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