Going to ALA Conferences? You’re Doing it Wrong!

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:

1) Facebook – Join the ALA Think Tank
2) Tumblr – Browse the Tumblarians list
3) Twitter/instagram – Follow the hashtags (the official hashtag is #ala2013 but everyone is blowing up #ala13)

Meet Everyone
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.

Bonus tip – Friend JP Porcaro on Facebook and Twitter. (and google+)
Trust me on this one.

23 thoughts on “Going to ALA Conferences? You’re Doing it Wrong!

  1. “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.”

    The PLA conference is closed to proposals TWO YEARS ahead of the conference. Which is insane.

  2. THIS – TIMES A HUNDRED -THIS. We should get this instead of a totebag.

    It’s the Think Tank networks of colleagues I’ve created at ALA that are worth all the costs. I also love the part about skipping sessions. Letting go of guilt about that is really freeing. There’s a lot more you can do than sessions. (from a youth services perspective, a good trade-off for me is always working the floor and getting signed books/ARCs. This powers my programming for months.)

    I’d also add: TRY SOMETHING NEW. Bust out of that division/roundtable echo chamber you’re so used to! I decided to do Battledecks even though there weren’t a lot of youth services/teen librarians involved. I ended up meeting a ton of amazing and inspiring LITA and ACRL people, who I usually wouldn’t be running into while waiting for Lemony Snicket to sign books. AND I got some new YALSA/ALSC people interested in Battledecks. It’s moments like THAT where you’re reducing 20,000 people to a network that can work for you year-round.

    Can’t wait to #makeithappen in Dallas! 🙂

  3. So generally I agree with everything here, except for the panel stuff. I’ll admit, I only went to two panels in NOLA, but those panels were opportunities for librarians who *do good things* to talk about their work, vet it, and get feedback in a professional, organized setting. I’m not exactly a fan boy for the traditional scholarly communication system, but it’s a system that works (albeit slowly) and one that administrators (esp. in research libraries) still recognize as a valuable feedback system. So by not attending these panels, aren’t we doing our colleagues and the profession a disservice?

    1. I think that the panels have the potential to be VERY informative and effective. I have a plan, to be released in the next couple of weeks, but as it is now… I just don’t think it works as a good delivery service of information as it is supposed to be.

      1. I’m looking forward to hearing about your plan! =)

        I think people who use panels as an “information delivery service” are using it for the wrong reason. Traditionally, the academic-style panel isn’t about showcasing your work, it’s about getting live feedback that you then integrate into your project before moving to the next step. It’s not “hey, look what I did” but “hey, this is where I am, can I get your opinion before moving forward.”

        You could accomplish the same thing using group video chat or similar tech, but there is something unique about getting a bunch of people in a room together face-to-face. Really, the only difference between a panel and a Think Tank meetup is the set of rules people play by: the former is structured while the latter is less so. Both provide opportunities for feedback, sharing, and building, but do so using different strategies.

        I’m glad we have both styles and think librarians, especially younger professionals, should experience both. Chatting with colleagues over a beer provides one way of looking at a project and requires certain competencies and skills; building a formal presentation is a different experience entirely. The more perspectives and methods you use to approach an idea/project/problem, the better feedback you’ll get, the better your results will be, and the better “it” will be when it’s made to happen. 😉

        But I think I’ve ranted enough. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

      2. I’m picturing Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder here, “I have come up with a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel.”

  4. Could. Not. Agree. More. You did so much to make ALA more fun for me and a lot of other people, Patrick. Thank you.

    P.S. Dude, that looks like my photo from the ALA Dance Party. Or did you get one almost the same (which would be cosmically weird)?

  5. I agree with John about panel/conference presentation is more useful and engaging as a getting live feedback session. I did a typical here-is-what -we-did presentation at one conference and co-present a let-me-poke-your-brain at another conference. The second style turned out get more kudos from the audience and we ended up having quite a discussion about it.

    Looking forward to hear about your & Andromeda’s plans.

  6. I was pleasantly surprised by a session I attended. I went to an RDA for educators session and I was expecting to get an earful of how to teach RDA. I was kinda low on energy and dreading this a little. The organizer did a little intro and then the most epic thing happened. People attending got up and talked about their own experiences. Amazing ideas and some fails were shared. Discussion happened. A vendor I never knew about got up and shared a product that is still blowing my mind. It was awesome! There is potential for sessions I tell you.

  7. Great post! I agree ALA can be overwhelming, and getting involved in something can make the experience richer and more personal. I had a great time serving on a Local Arrangements committee last time Annual was held in my area (Anaheim), and am looking forward to serving on another one next year, too. Any way to get involved is bound to make the conference more meaningful.

    Also, love the idea of a think tank! How awesome.

  8. Attending a YALSA panel about successful programs & practices led to befriending Angie in NOLA at my first ALA conference, then she performed at your Battledecks in Anaheim, and now I’m hosting Battledecks for SCLA!

    Who knows what connections will branch out from that? 🙂

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