Making Sense of ALA Annual

I find myself headed back to ALA Annual for the first time in a few years, somewhat by surprise, so I’m gathering my thoughts and trying to remember what I’ve learned from previous trips. For what it’s worth, this is my memo to myself:

Scope note

ALA is massive. The good news is that there’s a conversation about anything you’re interested in going on. The bad news is that means there are conversations about anything anyone might be interested in going on right now. Somewhere in a sprawl of convention centers and hotel meeting rooms in a major American city. The conference rotates between about a dozen major cities which have enough convention center space and hotel rooms to handle it, with frequent stops in Chicago, where ALA is headquartered.


Do some advance work to figure out what you might be interested in. Preconferences are always on the Friday, and most programs happen on Saturday and Sunday, with occasional spillover into Monday. This means there will usually be twelve things you’re interested in at any given time. That’s OK–note the ones that are close by and be ruthless about session-hopping.

The program planning people at ALA and the divisions make some attempt to coordinate, and to group programs into meaningful tracks based on the theme of the conference. Usually it’s easier to pick the ALA division(s) which make the most sense for you and follow their program stream.

American Libraries tries to pick out some programs of interest. Their choices tend to sound like ALA marketing to me, not because they’re bad but because they’re trying to address all the possible audiences of attendees. Which means 75% of it is probably not interesting to whoever you are.


If you’re at all introverted, ALA can be totally overwhelming. Give yourself space in your schedule to decompress. There’s also a limit to how much information you can absorb at once. I usually find that I hit the wall Sunday night and need to take a couple of hours off.


My must-pack

  • as little as possible
  • my favorite tea, so I can be vaguely awake before going to breakfast meetings
  • a bag to carry conference swag and gadgets in
  • a computer of some kind. I’m going to try ALA this time with an iPhone and some small Moleskine notebooks. I’ve done ALA several times with an eight-pound laptop on my back and it is *not* fun. Eh, I’m taking a programming workshop so I guess I’ll need to bring my Chromebook. Which I will cheerfully leave in my room all days but Friday. Your Mileage My Vary, but I take more useful notes on paper and I am *much* happier the less I carry.
  • a backup battery for your phone, esp. if you’re using a smartphone. You’ll be wandering in and out of signal all day and/or tweeting or otherwise using it all the time.
  • an extra layer for over-air-conditioned conference rooms


Eat real food. And understand that anyplace within a block or two of the convention center is going to be mobbed most of the time. Get out of the conference zone and find some interesting food in the broader neighborhood.

Watch for invites to vendor breakfasts and parties. Lots will advertise them by email to conference attendees, but they’ll also often have tickets at their booths.

Network sensibly

Two main approaches to this.

1. Talk to everyone. Almost any sort of person you might want to meet is here, and the vendors in particular all know each other. You never know who you’ll end up next to in line or at lunch–your next job, someone who’s selling the product you came to look for. Both have happened to me.

2. Talk to a few people in depth. This is often more feasible for introverts, but it’s also more likely that you’ll build lasting relationships this way. Find out if the people in that mailing list you always read and post to will be there. Identify someone who has a project you’re interested in and offer to buy them a drink.

Managing the Association

ALA is ridiculously over-organized. It’s an umbrella organization for a loosely related set of divisions which all have different internal organizations and committee structures. They cover, collectively, anything librarians and/or libraries do or are interested in. The list of acronyms alone is really daunting.

Open Secret #1: Most ALA business gets done on relatively small committees who do most of their business at ALA Annual and Midwinter. The meetings are open, unless they’re explicitly marked “closed” or “private” in the program.

Open Secret #2: If you want to get involved, volunteer. I’ve never been to a business meeting for a group that wasn’t looking for help. Ever. Maybe they need someone to run the mailing list. Or help coordinate a program. Once, with a bad sinus infection while in New Orleans I volunteered to chair a group I had just introduced myself to. *and they said yes.*

Take notes, and report back to colleagues

Tell your boss and your colleagues what you saw, what you thought was interesting, and whether there’s anything going on that’s worth pursuing. I usually write up a few pages of notes on the sessions I attended and any particularly useful conversations I had. I usually take pages and pages of notes, but I try to boil the report down to a couple of pages of highlights.

This is how you secure your conference funding for the future: make it clear to your library what value they’re getting by sending you.

Remember to have fun

It is a professional conference, but it can be fun, too. Make a point of doing something interesting and non-conference-related in the host city. Maybe a nice lunch. Maybe a trip to a museum or a local sight. I usually visit the local public library, for example, but you can pick your own thing. I didn’t do this in Orlando in 2004, for example, and so all I can remember is how hot it was and how annoying the layout of hotels was. At a Midwinter in Seattle I took a harbor tour that I still remember quite well.

Bachelor sea lions spend the winter in Seattle and hang out on buoys

Digital Public Library of America continues to puzzle me

I think a Digital Public Library of America is a fine idea. I do not think what is being built remotely relates to the rhetoric it is being promoted with. Here’s the problem, in two consecutive paragraphs from the announcement in the New York Review of Books

“For example, in serving as a hub, Harvard plans to make available to the DPLA by the time of its launch 243 medieval manuscripts; 5,741 rare Latin American pamphlets; 3,628 daguerreotypes, along with the first photographs of the moon and of African-born slaves; 502 chapbooks and “penny dreadfuls” about sensational crimes, a popular genre of literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and 420 trial narratives from cases involving marriage and sexuality. Harvard expects to provide a great deal more in the following months, notably in fields such as music, cartography, zoology, and colonial history. Other libraries, archives, and museums will contribute still more material from their collections. The total number of items available in all formats on April 18 will be between two and three million.

How will such material be put to use? I would like to end with a final example. About 14 million students are struggling to get an education in community colleges—at least as many as those enrolled in all the country’s four-year colleges and universities. But many of them—and many more students in high schools—do not have access to a decent library. The DPLA can provide them with a spectacular digital collection, and it can tailor its offering to their needs. Many primers and reference works on subjects such as mathematics and agronomy are still valuable, even though their copyrights have expired. With expert editing, they could be adapted to introductory courses and combined in a reference library for beginners.”

On what planet does Darnton suppose that pre-1923 math and agronomy textbooks would be helpful for community college students?

The project is a great idea. The rhetoric is ridiculously overblown, and doesn’t relate at all to what’s actually being done, which is trying to build an infrastructure so that the special collections of research libraries can be searched from one place. That project is a great idea. DPLA has been plagued by Hype Deficit Disorder from the beginning

What Harvard is offering to share at the start is the digital equivalent of its archival junk drawer.

What I Do For A Living

I think I may finally have settled on a way to explain my job, at least to geeky folk.

Have you ever gone looking for a particular movie to watch or download? Is it on Netflix? How about Hulu? Or is it one of the ones Amazon Prime just added? OK, can I rent it or buy it? iTunes? Amazon? Vudu? Online video is a complicated mess of relationships and things which are all over the place or nowhere at all for no apparent reason.

Scholarly publishing is like that, only much, much more elaborate. My job as an academic librarian is to help students and faculty get oriented and to find what they need to solve their problems.