I only got a tiny peek at the American Library Association (ALA) conference this year. I was in Chicago for a board meeting of Sisters in Crime, an organization that promotes the contributions of women to crime writing and does a bit of library support on the side. On Saturday morning, I picked up an exhibitor’s badge and did some tabling for the organization.
The ALA annual conference is an overwhelming experience, and the exhibits, for me, are particularly mind-blowing. The size of the hall and the elbow-to-elbow crowds milling in the aisles make me dizzy. There is an administrator at my college who constantly wonders aloud how a case can be made for libraries when surely most people must find them an irrelevant anachronism. I’d love to drop him in the middle of the exhibit hall blindfolded and see what he thinks after he’s managed to find his way out. Irrelevant? Really? Hundreds of companies and organizations that spend good money to be there would disagree, not to mention the 25,000 or so librarians attending the conference.
After the conference, when my head stopped spinning, I thought about my impressions of that vast and bustling exhibit hall.
First, I wondered if the disorientation and sense of overwhelming abundance and confusion that I felt is how undergraduates feel when they first try to find their way around an academic library. Though my library is quite small, for many of our students it is the biggest library they’ve ever been in. We’ve done our best to make the library’s website simple and streamlined, but, even so, it’s teeming with possibilities, and each link students click on opens up yet more possibilities. Though the floor plan hasn’t changed much since the building opened in 1972, the amount of material a student can access has grown tremendously, and that’s not including the endless possibilities provided by the open web.
Project Information Literacy’s research found that students are far less puzzled about how to find sources than they are about how to get started, narrow their topic, and sort through possible sources to find ones that are relevant. Much of their effort goes into narrowing the aperture, getting a smaller, tighter focus by limiting their search to what’s familiar and safe. We forget how intimidating it all can be at first, just as we often overlook how much tacit knowledge underlies our interactions with research materials. Next time I meet with new students, I’ll try to remember that sense of overwhelming choice, that weirdly claustrophobic sense of too, too much that I felt in the ALA exhibit hall.
The other thought that I was left with was that this enormous display of wares seeking our attention is a testament to our power. Those publishers and vendors like our money. They really, really like our money. Admittedly, it’s hard to reconcile the amount of money and effort that publishers pour into their exhibits with the notion that libraries and the sharing they enable constitute a threat to their business model, a threat that’s only acceptable if it comes with oodles of friction. But they show up at ALA because there’s money to be made. Lots of it. Our buying power can be a potent lever for change.
We don’t always recognize this power. Libraries are local—in terms of both local sources of funding and a focus on serving local communities. When big corporations tell us the rent is going up and the terms cannot be disclosed or negotiated, we often feel alone and powerless. Yet librarians share common values, and these bind us together. It’s because of our values that we are able to share materials. It’s because of our values that we pool our cataloging. It’s because of our values that we share ideas, inspire one another, and defend intellectual freedom, not just in our backyards but everywhere.
We shouldn’t underestimate our power. If we put our money where our values are, who knows what amazing things we could accomplish?