November 24, 2017

Bell's Perspective: ACRL Offers Fresh Hope for Academic Librarianship

By Steven J. Bell, special contributor to LJAN

By now you’ve read more than a few posts and tweets about the ACRL National Conference, including several published by the LJ Academic Newswire. Just like every conference, ACRL had its high and low points, but overall I’d say it was a success. Speaking to numerous colleagues, what I heard again and again was appreciation for a conference that was all about the programs—no business to which to attend. Colleagues told me they enjoyed the mix of keynotes, invited speakers, roundtable discussions, the alternate venue provided by the Cyber Zed Shed, poster sessions, and, yes, papers and panels.

Was this your first time?
One thing that struck me about this year’s conference was the more 1000 first time attendees. That’s nearly one-third of the total attendance. It was impossible not to notice the fresh faces that announced the arrival of a new generation of academic librarians. Having so many new people was incredibly invigorating, and it gave the meeting a real rush of immediacy and energy—and a sense of impending change.

Betsy Wilson, dean of libraries at the University of Washington and ACRL conference chair told me that “by all reports (on the street, in the halls, and on Twitter, Flickr, and multiple blogs), the conference was an unbridled success and one that might just mark the beginning of a sea change in academic libraries.”

But did ACRL leave a good impression on the first-timers? After the conference I asked two newer-to-conference colleagues to share their thoughts. Sarah Faye Cohen, information literacy librarian at Champlain College, said she’d like to see the conference move from themes to tracks. The former is vague, she noted, while the latter would be more immediately connected with academic librarian functionality. 

She also told me she’d like to see more sessions geared to college librarians—and more technology. The Cyber Zed Shed is a step in the right direction, she noted, but “ACRL is not showing itself to be a place to showcase [technology] initiatives or teach and discuss their value.” Finally, Cohen thought the Roundtable sessions were great—and she wants more opportunities for discussion with other attendees. Less “sage on the stage” and more learning from each other. You can read more of Cohen’s thoughts on the conference at her blog, The Sheck Spot.

Peer reviews
For Lauren Pressley, instructional design librarian at Wake Forest University and LJ Mover & Shaker, ACRL was all about informal communication with her peers. Despite the size of the conference, as a newcomer she felt completely connected through Facebook and Twitter—channels that kept her alert to what was happening in programs, and where folks were getting together.

“ACRL 2009 was one of the most effective uses of tagging I’ve seen yet,” Pressley said. “I loved how the slideshow at the end of the conference tied it all together, showing photos people had tagged, along with blog posts and tweets using the hashtag #acrl2009.” After Pressley and I finished our panel session, she used her iPhone’s Tweetie app to show me that by the end of the session the attendees had already created a unique hashtag just for our session.

Like Cohen, Pressley sought more intimacy among the crowds. She hopes that ACRL will create “smaller, more conversational programming that might allow for participants to explore presentation themes for possible application at other institutions.” For more of what Lauren has to share, tune in to Lauren’s Library Blog.

In closing
While much of the conversation at the conference focused on budget cuts, layoffs, poor job prospects, new technology challenges, a more confused publishing environment, and the never-ending battle to connect with ever-more distracted students and faculty, I left ACRL 2009 feeling energized and cautiously optimistic for the profession. How could I not after seeing the real future of our profession make such a grand entrance, the amazing next generation of academic librarians poised to do great things?

I hope all future ACRL conferences will feature at least one-third new attendees who represent the newest academic librarians. ACRL should do whatever it can to foster that level of first-time attendance. Seeing all the new faces was the high point of the conference for me. It makes me hopeful that our profession has a bright and solid future.

Steven J. Bell is Associate University Librarian at Temple University, Phildelphia, PA.

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