Report on ALA Conference 2013: Getting There

Getting to Chicago: An introduction

This summer I had the privilege of attending the 2013 American Library Association Conference, held in the ALA’s hometown of Chicago, which was a whirlwind of action: I experienced quirky vegan restaurants, first-class theatre, hallowed historic buildings, famous bookstores, swinging jazz clubs, music in Grant Park, buskers in the subway, panhandlers, tourists, locals, itinerant artists and more.

For the kind of people who loathe a dull moment it’s perfect. A few days in, however, I was praying for one (a dull moment). It never came. But getting to go to ALA and see so many kindred souls, marked either by their dark slacks and narrow ties or cardigans and ankle-length skirts, more than made up for the occasional dizziness.

Held in Chicago’s massive McCormick Conference Center overlooking Lake Michigan just south of the downtown loop, the conference provided a kind of escape, an organized, focused, professionals-oriented haven from the crazy, chaotic busy-ness of the city outside. Besides camping out in the Exhibition Hall in the afternoons (I may be exaggerating… a little), where the vendors and publishers set up house—handing out free catalogues and Advanced Reading Copies of new books—I attended 4 of the conference’s breakout sessions:

·         the American Association of School Librarians’ main program

·         “Crossing the K-20 Curriculum,” hosted by the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL)

·         the ALA President’s Program on the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)

·         and a ceremony welcoming the new president of the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), co-presented with a series of poster presentations by YALSA members.

Before getting into those sessions, you’ll of course want to know what Chicago was like. And that’s simple to tell. Chicago’s a metropolis. And what’s a metropolis? Chicago, New York, Los Angeles: the defining feature of these places is density, the density of hundreds of thousands of millions of people concentrated in one area, also the density of commercial, industrial, and residential zones bound like a sweat-beaded chain gang alongside one another.

These are the kinds of density that attract the young and ambitious to work, party, and shop in big cities but which also produce the social phenomenon that sociologist Emile Durkheim labeled anomie (etymologically related to anonymous).

Anomie is the condition of living within shouting distance of hundreds of folks but neither knowing nor being able to engage socially with any of them. One is in the midst of many people but they are all too busy and there are far too many to get to know very well. Consequently, you get to know none of them not at all. Feelings of alienation and loneliness follow. If one is easily overwhelmed or an introvert then it is easy to experience anomie in a place like Chicago. Anomie causes one to feel, and then be, lost psychologically and physically in the midst of people.

When I arrived in Chicago after 22 straight hours on a Greyhound from Greensboro, the first thing that struck me was this feature of density and the hint of anomie; a daunting first impression, sure, but not a defeating one. As the bus glided into the city I looked intently out the window. Not a whole lot of folks out and about this early. I saw modern steel skyscrapers, their glass and clean vertical designs rising high into the 7:45am sky, beside much earlier turn-of-the-century, Italianate commercial buildings that, after about half a dozen stories, terminated in façade-length, decorative stone, metal, or terra cotta cornices.

Cornices are important. They give the eye somewhere to stop. They provide a comforting sense of scale. They don’t make one feel terribly small and unwelcome like the modern, sheer glass towers that go on forever do. The older, less geometric buildings calmed me. And so, psychologically prepared, I made my way into the McCormick Center on a Saturday morning to hear a talk by a much-lauded superintendent from a familiar state.

—Robert

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