April 19, 2018

ALA Annual 2011: Attendance Dwindles, but Conference Still Attracts Librarians of All Stripes

A dwindling number of librarians gathered in New Orleans for the American Library Association’s Annual conference from June 23-28, but those present had a lot on their minds, including money, the standing of libraries and librarians in their communities, and learning.

On Saturday afternoon, Jenny Laperriere, a senior branch librarian at the Denver Public Library, sat quietly on a couch on the second floor of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. She was leafing through the 336-page conference directory and busy marking pages with post-it notes.

“The dog ears weren’t working,” she said.

Denver is facing drastic budget cuts, with the possibility of layoffs and the closure of up to 12 branches; nevertheless, the library felt it worthwhile to pay for Laperriere’s trip to the conference.

“I’m very, very grateful and I want to make sure they are getting their money’s worth,” she said with a glance at the post-it notes.

“I think we are glad we have our jobs, and we are happy with what we do, but it’s a rocky time,” she said. “I’ve been doing heavy adult cultural programming for the last year and a half. It’s been a shift in what I’m doing, so I just came to get a lot more programming ideas,” she said.

And she did learn about a number of ALA programming grants that will help her in her job. This type of small, practical takeaway was typical of what many conference attendees were looking for, or offering to their peers.

Attendees address change and tough times
Linda Lord, the state librarian of Maine, came to the conference to learn but mainly to sit on two panels where she could convey to librarians how important federal resources can be in helping to bridge a scarcity of resources.

Her own budget has been cut to the bone over the past five years, although Lord was grateful that the state legislature this year had decided enough was enough. Lord was also pleasantly surprised to see the results of a survey of library hours, which showed that the vast majority of Maine’s libraries were not cutting hours, and that some had even expanded hours.

“We feel very, very fortunate,” she said.

But the tough times have helped to make Lord very appreciative of the federal E-rate program. She chairs ALA’s E-rate task force.

“The conference is as much about what I can contribute as what I can gain out of it,” she said. “I am so supportive of the federal E-rate program and what it has meant to Maine. So, I am happy to be here and spread that news.”

Maureen Sullivan, who today became president-elect of the ALA (she takes office a year from now), said that at the behest of younger members, the annual conference was evolving to provide programming attendees demand and need as the profession undergoes “significant change” in tough times. There were more than 450 programs.

“We’re very much at risk, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the work and the contributions that librarians and library staff are making are not understood and they aren’t valued,” she said. She said ALA was the organization best positioned to address the problem.

Drop in attendance not a surprise
Total attendance at this year’s conference was down 23 percent, with 14,969 attendees and 5,217 exhibitors (20,186 total) versus 19,513 attendees and 6,688 exhibitors (26,201 total) in Washington D.C. last year. (A yearly record of attendance is here.)

“Last year was D.C., which, along with Chicago, is usually a record-setting city, so we do anticipate lower attendance,” said Paul Graller, the executive director for ALA Conference Services. “Although I haven’t gotten the detail registration report, I anticipate that there will be much less one-day registrations this year,” he said.

Easy access to Washington D.C. usually results in significant one-day registrations, which is not the case in the South or on the West Coast, Graller said, and the results in New Orleans this year were actually three percent higher than what ALA had anticipated.

“We expect next year in Anaheim to produce similar registration numbers as this year, followed by a significant increase in 2013 for the annual conference in Chicago,” he said. In 2009, the total attendance in Chicago was 28,941. At the midwinter meeting in San Diego this year, the ALA treasurer’s report “projected softness in conference revenue” for FY12.

Graller conceded that local budgets, as well as location, contributed to lower numbers this year.

In New York, where the New York Library Association (NYLA) is fresh from achieving passage of its three top priority bills in the state legislature, there hasn’t been “a meltdown for libraries,” according to Michael Borges, the NYLA’s executive director, but there have been harsh cuts, the imposition of a tax cap, and an overall feeling of being pressured and stressed.

“That has had a negative impact on the association,” Borges said. “I think ALA is suffering the same thing in terms of decrease in membership and decrease in conference attendance because there’s just not enough money to go around,” he said.

But Borges, who sat on or moderated four different panels at ALA, said the annual conference still provided value.

“People come here because they want to learn something they can bring back to their library. … I think it’s important that you go to conferences where there is some tangible takeaway,” he said.

Hildreth wants more emphasis on libraries as places of education
For Lisa George, a library media specialist at West Jefferson High School, in Harvey, LA, where funding has been stagnant for the past three years, the conference was exciting and provided her with arguments for change.

“This is my first ALA conference and I’m finding it very stimulating,” George said. “Meeting librarians from all around the country and the world is fascinating to me, and I’m looking for techniques to engage the kids,” she said.

A program on using social media to engage students in academic programs was particularly interesting to George because it provided a sharp contrast to the practice in her parish.

“For my parish [Jefferson Parish] it would require a lot of changes because a lot of that [Facebook] is blocked parish-wide,” she said.

After the conference, George said she intended to approach the administrators at her school and urge them “to open the discussion.”

Everyone comes to the conference to learn such best practices, or to spot vendor innovations, or to network, and Susan Hildreth, the director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington D.C., said she was no exception. But Hildreth, who had a particular interest in a panel on the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) held Saturday, was, like Sullivan of ALA, concerned about the standing of libraries in their communities, and the need to husband resources. More emphasis, she said, needs to be placed on the notion of libraries as places of informal education.

“That’s a part of the world that libraries and museums really can own so I’d like to see more work done on that,” she said.

Stacey Aldrich, the state librarian in California, said it always surprised her when meeting with other stakeholders how little aware they are of the libraries role in educating and supporting communities.

“It’s amazing to me because it’s almost like being in a room with a fireman who says ‘I put out fires’ and me saying ‘wow’ I had no idea that you put out fires,” Aldrich said. “… libraries are what they were originally created to be, the poor man’s university,” she said.

The possible fracturing of equal access was high on Aldrich’s list of concerns, since California is likely to sharply cut state funding, including the California Library Services Act (CLSA) which is the main support for resource sharing. Negotiations were still under way, and Gov. Jerry Brown may sign a budget deal this week, according to the California Library Association.

“There’s a lot of goodness but there’s a lot of frustration right now,” Aldrich said.

One of Hildreth’s goals is to get elected officials to think about investments that have already been made in the civic infrastructure and how, as libraries move away from printed materials, the use of this infrastructure could change and help better define libraries as community hubs.

“We’re going to have a lot of physical space to repurpose, and we want to do that in conjunction with our communities and our civic leaders to make sure that however we redeploy that space is valuable,” Hildreth said. “There are many different kinds of services that libraries can provide given the assets that they have,” she said.

The mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, acknowledged at the conference’s opening general session that the purposeful rebuilding of libraries as the center of communities was a key element in the city’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Hildreth also said that the IMLS is going to focus on aggregating information-now spread among various states-about the benefits libraries provide to communities in order to make a better case for funding to Congress and the administration.

“This administration is very interested in evidence-based activities that are providing benefits to our citizens and supporting them,” she said.

The pressure to provide evidence and the redefinition of library space, however, troubled Benita Strnad, a curriculum materials/education reference librarian at McLure Education Library, which is one of five libraries at the University of Alabama Libraries in Tuscaloosa.

Even though her library was fairly well off financially, Strnad paid her own way to the conference. As libraries move away from print toward digital, it means that people don’t come to the library, but the library goes to the people, which is more difficult to quantify, Strnad said.

“And of course the academic world in general is going more and more to a business model, so it’s getting harder for us to tell people what we are doing and that we are worth something,” she said.

Conferences like ALA are losing some cachet at her university and elsewhere, Strnad said.

“We are getting more and more pressure to publish, less emphasis is being placed on professional involvement,” she said. “So, in terms of coming to this sort of a conference, there’s less incentive to do that because it doesn’t count as much in our point system for promotion.”

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley (mkelley@mediasourceinc.com) is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.