I never used to enjoy going to the ALA Conferences and I’ve heard so many people say the same thing. They were always too big, too overwhelming, and just… too much. But, at the ALA Conference in Washington DC 2010 I was invited to stay at a vacation house with 11 other Librarians that was organized by Justin Hoenke and JP Porcaro. I was excited about this for a couple of reasons.
1) Justin and JP are awesome humans
2) It was way cheaper than the ALA hotels
3) It would be a totally new conference experience
So of course, I said yes. In the days coming up to the conference various emails were sent to introduce everyone to each other and to talk about anything that we might want to do as a group at the conference. Somewhere in these emails, someone, at some point, jokingly called the house the ALA Think Tank (because it rarely seems as if people are thinking at ALA) and the name stuck. This conference experience was amazing and I learned more than I could have ever hoped. By the end of the conference, I realized that this was the only way to go to ALA and the ALA Think Tank folks have done one Midwinter and two annuals like this. What follows is everything I learned about conference going from the awesome folks in this house.
Start a Think Tank.
I can’t stress this enough. The benefits of a house are HUGE! The full kitchen and communal living dramatically reduce the cost of conference housing and food. There will always be someone to do something with and you’ll be plugged into so many different things going on at ALA then you would be alone in your hotel room. It also makes a great space to have your own meetings and socials to meet even more people. You also get to hear about all the other things that your roommates learned at the conference and greatly increase the amount of take-away information you’ll get. I learned so much from my Think Tank folks that I’m still processing information from DC.
Get on Twitter, Facebook, tumblr, instagram
I know, everyone is saying this, you’re probably sick of hearing it. Why aren’t you on the social medias? By following the ALA conference hashtag or seeing what your friends are posting online about the conference you can find out about the best sessions, networking events, book signings, latest updates from ALA, where all the freebies are, blogs about what other people learned at the conference, tons of various tidbits of information from other librarians learning things, and you’ll get to find opportunities to meet more librarians. If you don’t know where to start:
Meeting folks and networking with other awesombrarians is really one of the best things I get out of ALA. There are so many people doing rad projects at their libraries and meeting them at the socials and after parties gave me opportunities to find out what they are excited about. Of course, there are over 20 thousand people at ALA so meeting everyone is not at all possible but at least put yourself out there and talk to everyone you can! You would be surprised where a random conversation at a meeting or a networking event will take you.
Forget about the Sessions and Workshops
As a tie-in to the previous three tips, I think this has really helped me learn even more while at the conferences. I know it seems totally backwards but I learned so much more at everything else ALA has to offer that I stopped going to sessions and workshops. The problem is that the session proposals are written a year ahead of the conference and by the time you get to the conference (if you’re on FB and twitter) you’re going to be sick of hearing about whatever the session is because it will have been discussed and blogged about ad-nauseum all of the days to and following the conference. Instead, I recommend the following three tips;
Get involved… In something!
My own personal choice was Emerging Leaders. This was a great pre-Think Tank kind of group learning experience. Through Emerging Leaders I figured out how to navigate the ALA and first met many of the people that I currently work with in the ALA. While my experience in my EL project itself was less than stellar, I did meet a bunch of amazing librarians and got gently pushed into running for ALA Council. All of the committees and council stuff that I’m involved in keeps me learning and pushing me forward. If you don’t want to get involved in Emerging Leaders you should visit the ALA Office at the conference and they can explain how to get involved in ALA in many different ways.
Typically, I get up at 7-8am on conference days to get to the conference for my morning meetings and various obligations. This is rough considering I also typically spend most of the night out with librarians at various council forums, meetups, socials, and after-hours networking events. It’s during these times that I corner my professional heroes and talk to them about what they are working on right now. I’m interested in learning what the next big thing is that they are excited about. Also, I find that people are far more truthful about their previous projects over a beer then they are at the session they held. People are more open about their fails and how they overcame obstacles at these events then they are in the more professional conference setting. It’s also during these times that some of the best projects that I have been involved with in librarianship arose. Basically, by partying as much as I could with as many brilliant people as I can find, I have been able to learn more meaningful, current, and useful information in librarianship.
ALA loves to say that they are your organization. This is a lie. You are ALA’s organization. You are the one who has the ability to make your conference experience as amazing as you want it to be. It is your duty and obligation to get out there and make whatever you think should happen at a conference happen at the conference. For example, JP Porcaro, Amanda Pilmer, Justin Hoenke, and Jenn Walker decided to make an ALA Dance Party happen so they organized it and it was epic. If you think your conference experience would be better if there was a QR code hunt, you can make that happen. If you would like to help other people make awesome stuff happen at the conference you can join the group on FB called the ALA Think Tank and see where you can help #makeithappen. Overall though, it’s your conference and if you don’t get everything you can out of it, you have no one else to blame. Don’t complain, #makeithappen.