Why Did Going to Conference Matter?

I inflicted upon you long details of my racketing around Chicago, meeting people, shaking hands, eating, causing trouble.

So what? Why does it matter?

Unlike my first trip to ALA, a self-funded trip where I worked in publishing and knew only a former grad school cohort, this time I went in knowing people. And while last year’s day trip to PLA was pretty cool, this time I could breathe and take in the entire conference.

I communicate with librarians across the globe in a sometimes ridiculous number of ways: Listservs (9 that I can think of), Friendfeed, Plurk, Blogs, Linked In, ALA Connect, Meebo, Facebook, Email, and Phone. Eighteen (at least) different ways. And each has its place, its time and its uses.

But there is something to be said for putting a bunch of people in the same room to actually talk about things. So much happens online that a lot goes to the periphery. We’re aware of it but perhaps not as focused as we’d like to be. Then, in a fifteen minute presentation, it’s brought to the foreground, allowing us to ask questions, find out the details, share troubles and actually start to make plans.

It lets us be inspired. I sat in the back of a room crammed full of school media specialists, children’s and teen librarians, and other people who have enjoyed the works of Anderson, Sitomer, and Woodson, and we were captivated. They believed in us. Anderson pointed out how much mail she receives from kids, many of whom were introduced to her work by librarians. She gave us relevance. Well known award winning authors spoke in praise of us and the work we do. It was humbling.

It shows us what is passe. Though I wish we were living a closer to Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson) kind of world, Second Life ain’t it for me.

It helps us make contacts. I had a rollicking conversation during lunch at Unconference with a librarian in South Carolina–about funding, politicians, developing our careers. I was aware of most of the people who were coming to dinner on Saturday, but I met people I didn’t know or saw only here and there on other people’s comments. I would return to introduce Sibling-the-Elder via email to the Business Librarian at Champaign Public so they could discuss business resources.

I walked the exhibits, partially to grab snacks, but to affirm to myself that what they were pushing the hardest–I was aware of. I skipped a few booths–one can only look at some many ILS’s before is blue in the face and I’m not on the committee selecting the new one anyway–but I got to talk to some vendors face to face, on my terms. I got to see what books are coming and know that, yes, I think I’m ordering the stuff that’s going to be big. Circulation rates for my chapter books collection is up, which I’m gloating about all over the place, but it’s good to know what’s coming. (I kept hitting booths going “I have that, that, that, that’s on order, that, that, that…)

It reminds us that we are scholars and researchers and teachers of each other and ourselves, not just the people ordering the latest in horse-themed books and Disney releases. We participate in committees to recognize what others are doing, shine light on what is working, and hopefully, come away with ideas.

It gives us a chance to step back from everyday and look at what’s around us. When immersed in what we’re doing every day, it’s often hard to pause, think about being a librarian as a profession (tho not necessarily a calling) on a grander scale. What do these new tools mean, is there something a public library can grab from an academic and vice versa. There certainly is segregation, snobbery, condescension, and creative assumptions–and that can be worse in person than when we’re hanging out on our lists and social networks at home, surrounded by our own kind. But this time around, people seemed slightly less inclined to write me off instantly for being a children’s librarian at a public library. I found people who could see the value in what I do and how I fit into the profession.

And I got to share my Moo cards around, grab some books to review, and spend a weekend in Chicago.