As I write this, ALA Midwinter is about to take place in Philadelphia. I’ve been hearing from friends and colleagues wanting to know if I’ll be attending the meeting, which I won’t. I haven’t been to an ALA conference in a while, and now I’m thinking about what it will take to get me to an ALA, whether annual or midwinter.
I figure there are seven basic reasons for going to ALA. I describe them as:
- Job seeking
- Meeting new people / connecting with others
- Hearing what’s trending in the profession (aka, gossip)
- Meeting friends from across the country
- Discovering / enjoying a city
- Getting out of Dodge
If you’re looking for a library job, ALA is a great place to go (although I’ve heard some really bizarre stories about ALA interviews which I’ll only share in person over drinks—these were unusual, singular experiences, to be sure). It’s also an excellent place to meet other folks who are interested in the work you do, and to network with them—getting to know people from outside your immediate environment is a smart thing to do, especially if you want to keep on learning. For me, the opportunity to learn is the biggest selling point of ALA—or any conference. Hand in hand with that is the opportunity to hear the chatter that will never appear in email or on Twitter, the inside stuff that only gets shared in person. This information can be just as valuable as the more scholarly or application-minded material you bring back from a conference.
How many of us take the opportunity to catch up with old friends at a conference? Having worked at libraries on two coasts a national meeting gives me the chance to see friends I don’t otherwise catch up with for long periods of time. And how many of us have gone to a conference because it was in a location we wanted to see (and maybe tacked a vacation on at the end so we could see more of it)? Then there’s the point at which someone just needs a break from routine, needs “to get out of Dodge,” and a conference can fit the bill (although I question whether it’s worth the time and money it takes to attend ALA. If you feel such a strong need for a break in your routine, a vacation day would probably be cheaper and more effective).
So those are all reasons for which I might want to go to ALA (you may notice that, “working on an ALA committee” was NOT one of my reasons for going. I don’t need to expand on that, do I? I thought not). As I said, the chance to learn is the one that weighs the most for me at this point in my career. I tend to balance that with whether there might be more focused conferences I would like to attend that offer greater opportunities for me to learn in an area of current interest, and lately, there have been.
I also consider the distance I have to travel and the time it takes out of my work time, and factor that into whether it’s worth it for me to go. I have been going to more and more local, one-day workshops and meetings of late, because the ratio of what I learn at them compared to the distance and time it takes to attend makes them very worthwhile in comparison to a huge, far-distant national conference that seldom focuses in on areas of interest for me (admittedly, in Massachusetts we’re fortunate to have lots of such local opportunities, for which I am grateful). Although I love to meet up with colleagues from across the country, I’m able to keep up with them nicely via social media and the good old fashioned telephone.
Then there’s the expense. Even if you get good support from your institution (and I have absolutely no complaints about my situation—I’ve been fortunate in getting good support), you will very probably still have to shell out some of your own money. And that may be a very good investment—if you’re job seeking or trying to expand your professional network, going to ALA can be a sound investment strategy, particularly early in your career. But just as library budgets have tightened up in recent years, so, too, have personal funds gotten strained, and that means prioritizing carefully where you spend your professional development dollars.
In addition to the basic seven reasons for going to ALA, let me add one that I think trumps all the others, and that is: presenting at ALA. Whether it’s an outright presentation, panel session, poster session, conversation starter, etc. doing some kind of presentation will get you noticed (do check out the How to Present at ALA Annual section of the Annual site). Doing a particularly good or bad presentation will get you noticed more, one way or another (to land in the first category rather than the second, peruse the excellent Resources for Presenters / Best Practices for Presenters at the ALA Midwinter site). When you present, you are putting your ideas out there, and attendees will likely want to react to them, which means you’ll meet new people while engaging on an issue of substance, making the meeting that much more memorable and meaningful. That’s a good path to strong networking.
I will certainly go to another ALA conference sometime, when the balance of factors listed above makes it worthwhile. I would love to hear from readers what prompts you to attend—or not attend—ALA; maybe someone will convince me I should go sooner rather than later.
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