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The Library World Decoded by a Newbie”

By Roy M. Carlisle

Roy M. Carlisle attended his first American Library Association (ALA) national convention in 2013 in Chicago as a library science student and scholarly book publisher. Surprisingly, he finds out that being a book editor for 36 years did not prepare him for the astonishingly complex and diverse world of libraries in the U.S. Everyone from Oliver Stone to Barack Obama pays homage to this national institution and there are a million reasons why. And wait until you hear about the Digital Public Library of America: now we know the future is here! Here is Roy’s extensive and insightful ALA report.

It was my first time. I did have to do it with 26,362 other people (15,918 attendees and 6,125 exhibitors), but that did not make it any less interesting. This year the American Library Association convention was held in Chicago from June 27-July 2. After 36 years in book publishing and 4 years in book retailing, I thought I knew the book industry in the US. I was wrong. Attending ALA with my colleague Lindsay Boyd, our Institute’s Communications Director, made me feel simultaneously like a library virgin and also like I was visiting a strange new land.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t really “get the big picture” and every time I talked with another attendee, either a librarian or vendor, that feeling was confirmed. Almost every conversation was about something I had never heard of before. Every industry has its own jargon, of course. But here people were throwing out acronyms right and left and I was bewildered. In fact, there were two pages in the large printed program of scheduled sessions that included 177 acronyms of sub-associations, committees, and sub-organizations of which I had heard of about 8. And I am a matriculated Library Studies student at a local Bay Area college! It was not only dizzying and confusing but it contributed to my despair over trying to understand that big picture. Not just of the convention, which was hard enough, but of the whole library world.

So I chatted with different librarians, trying at least to get some perspective on this event and the library world in general. About all I really knew was that there are five main kinds of libraries: public, school, academic, archival, and special. And I could probably work up a fairly accurate definition of each kind. But having sections of each kind in one place was creating a constant need to paradigm shift within almost every conversation. One thing I did learn that seemed unanimous among all of these folks was that the heretofore discouraging national economic situation is turning around and there is less worry over budgets, at least in many states. Eva Volin, Supervising Librarian of Children’s Services for the Alameda Free Library in Alameda, CA told me that she still has to pay her own way to ALA because the California budgets are still too anemic to help with those expenses. But she was very upbeat about the convention as a whole and did think that her own involvement (she is on a committee for assessing notable children’s books) was exciting and valuable. For others that “economic thing” was causing less anxiety and so the overall mood in the sessions and in the exhibit hall was upbeat.

Florrie Kichler, outgoing IBPA Executive Director, and Lisa Krebs, IBPA’s Assistant Director, who were staffing the Independent Book Publishers Association booth, were very optimistic and saw a lot of action. Florrie, who is a veteran of these types of conventions, was ebullient about the buzz of activity on the exhibit hall floor and thought this year’s gathering was bigger and better than previous years. Technically she was right, as in the previous two years the ALA attendance was 5,000 less than this Chicago affair. On a minor note, this convention provides a portable scanner so you can capture the specific data off the name tags of everyone who comes to your booth, which provides very valuable information for later contact. Lisa, as I was interviewing her, was scanning constantly and was thrilled to be so busy. There has been a minor variation of that service at other book publishing conventions I have attended but at ALA this was done with a certain fervor I had never seen before. You can gather hundreds of names and contact information in about a nanosecond. And every booth I visited was doing it consistently and without hesitation. Obviously this is a valuable service for vendors.

What was very clear overall was that attendees are here to attend sessions and educate themselves. And in line with that mission there were hundreds of sessions to attend, with the goal this year of helping librarians think about “transforming communities by transforming libraries.” The program contained 79 pages devoted to these multiple sessions under the rubric of Transforming Libraries listed in sections such as Community Relationships, Customer Expectations, E-Books and Collections, Library Leadership, Services, Space, Systems and Technology, Teaching and Learning. This smorgasbord of choices within each category was endlessly intriguing to me and as it turned out to everyone I talked with about their experience. And every session I attended was packed with people who were fully engaged.

Most people I talked to said that attending sessions was the primary reason they come; it is an important part of their professional development. Librarians know they are living in a time of radical change and they are determined to stay ahead of the curve. The ALA leadership also encourages every attendee to plan his or her trip carefully because the offerings are so numerous. The convention website is set up so you can select and print out your own particular schedule. Prior to my trip, when I asked one of our interns at the Institute to help me with this task and gave her very general instructions for what my colleague and I might be interested in attending, she came back and asked me if I knew what that actually might entail? I didn’t, and she proceeded to show me that there were literally hundreds of sessions and without very specific guidelines there was no way she could help me. In other words, the educative dimension of this convention is of the highest priority and you had better know before you arrive what you want to attend and why. I know of no other book related or publishing convention that is quite this daunting to plan for before you go. And the reality of that educative goal was affirmed in multiple ways: discussions, sessions, committee meetings, plenary presentations, all of it.

On the other hand, this means that many attendees might only spend an hour or two walking through the exhibit hall with its 800 + vendors. The exhibit hall is not dominated by book publishers brandishing new and forthcoming books like at BEA, but by vendors pushing the latest systems for management, acquisitions, databases, help with almost any task that you can imagine a library needs to accomplish. So again you had better know why you are there and what you want to accomplish. My intention of visiting certain specific vendors was fine but then I wanted to randomly visit with folks to get “a feel” for what is going on and that was a misdirected strategy. My colleague Lindsay was better suited temperamentally for attending this kind of exhibition hall setup, because she is very goal oriented and goes right for the core information.

The exhibits were informative for us as newbies but they were not where the action was and you can’t get a feel for this world by wandering the aisles and chatting with vendors. Although there were wonderful author appearances, autographings, lively presentations, and lots of helpful and friendly folks willing to listen to any and every question. I was especially interested in visiting with other scholarly publishers whose programs were more akin to the Institute’s but there were only three university press publishers attending. Two other sister research institutes were there and it was helpful to talk with those fellow travelers, but...there were only two. I couldn’t hide my surprise at this paucity of scholarly exhibitors. Other scholarly publishing ventures were more textbook, journal, and database oriented. That was helpful to find out but also disappointing to learn. Because very little of that information was relevant to our needs. This is when it hit me that what Margaret Mukuooza, a librarian at Morris College in Sumter, South Carolina had said to me made sense. She said I should be attending the every other year gathering of the ACRL, the Academic and Research Library Association. Who knew?—I sure didn’t!—but now I know first-hand why that was good advice. It was another one of those acronyms I had never heard of before.

Two other phenomena struck me during the week. One, the whole convention is steeped in a political and public policy context. At the opening session the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, addressed us. Clearly, he wanted this crowd to know that he was pro-library and that his administration was working hard to support the Chicago public and school library world. It was a classic “political” speech and as I looked around and thought about why he would do this, I realized that with 9000 public libraries, and 17,000 public branch libraries in the US, and 58,000 ALA members (with thousands more librarians who can’t afford the dues) that this was a very “rich” constituency. Then when Obama announced at the end of the convention that he was “recruiting” thousands of public libraries to help sign people up for healthcare; the political dimension was clear. Libraries and librarians are like God, mom, and apple pie in most people’s consciousness. In my own world of book publishing (even though I am also a library student as I mentioned) no one would ever even imagine book publishers as a “rich” constituency. Book publishing is a not a public institution, and as an aside I do like being part of the rough and tumble of book publishing with its underlying context of a “free press with first amendment rights.” Not that Mayor Emanuel or President Obama said anything remotely untoward, but those speeches just clarified the difference between my daily work world and these mostly publically funded institutions.

One of the most exciting sessions I attended was hearing Dan Cohen, the new Founding Director, speak about the formation of the Digital Public Library of America. Although the session raised more questions than it answered for me, I still think the idea that various groups, organizations, and associations working together to create “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform, and empower everyone in current and future generations,” is a great project. Dan kept saying that the DPLA is a “platform” and a “portal” but I think you have to visit the website to really figure out what is going on. And to see what the team, which is building this project, envisions for the future.

Trust me, attending ALA with no strategy and only casually is a prescription for disappointment. But it is worth attending and next year I will be ready, even if it takes me a month of preparation. Now I know.

*Also published in Book Business Wed. July 10, 2013  

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