05 Apr 2013

to ALA or not to ALA

This is a post for all the librarians out there… you know who you are. Because you have appropriate degrees and job titles and are otherwise confident in your librarianship.

I can’t decide if I should join ALA and attend this year’s Annual Conference or not,

and I need your advice.

Here’s the sitch:

I have the opportunity to attend this year’s annual conference in Chicago. I am 99% sure my time away from the office will be approved, and I will likely receive some cash-money to fund my trip. But unless there’s some kind of act of Library God, I will need to pay a significant chunk of the trip on my own – at least 300 dollars, probably much more, and that’s not including membership fees. It’s also very close to my wedding, so an additional trip to the Midwest would be stressful.

But I’m not really interested in the particular pros and cons of my ALA situation, though. What I want to know is, given the considerable investment of my own time and my own money, what exactly is the return?

Based on previous experience attending ALA conferences and assorted other groundless assumptions, allow me to categorize what I perceive as the potential benefits in order of significance:

1. Professional Development & Professional Contribution

Pros: Attend ALA Annual and one can attend various sessions, talks, and presentations on subjects of professional interest. One can chat with publishers about upcoming trends, chat with vendors about the products ones use every day at work, chat with other librarians who have similar concerns and questions about the library-world. There’s also the benefit of contributing to the national librarian discourse – just asking smart questions and having conversations with other librarians, or committee-work. I feel like those who can contribute should. I feel like I’m a person who wants to contribute.

Cons: My current librarian-purview is a unique one. The chances of sitting in on a session that is directly applicable to my job’s challenges is highly unlikely. My position also crosses the barrier between techie-librarian and youth-services; I’m not likely to find many others in my situation without some kind of ALA Match.com type meet-up (hey, wait a second, that idea might be genius…) I’m worried that the professional development available at this conference will not provide the bang for the buck.

The big PRO retort to this, of course, is that I think the professional development benefits to ALA membership might be cumulative: join now, come now, and in five years I might have connections and opportunities that aren’t available/visible to me right now. Maybe in a few years, I could be giving a presentation, serving on a committee… but at some point you have to, you know, join/show up.

2. Networking

Pros: Do I really need to go into the “pros” of networking?? You meet new people and build relationships with people you’ve already met, and those people will be your future source of ideas, resources, etc. It’s fun, it’s mutually beneficial, it can occasionally include cocktails, and although the term networking makes me feel awful and squirmy, “talking to other librarians about stuff we like” is good for the soul.

Cons: Networking makes me feel awful and squirmy. Even if I can tone down the social anxiety long enough to show up and chat with people I don’t know, I am still an introvert-supreme: such efforts will expend much energy and require recovery. Otherwise I will feel extra awful.

Knowing myself, I will probably figure out which of my friends are attending and spend 90% of my required socializing time reconnecting. That is not a bad thing, but also not exactly “networking” at it’s most effective. How valuable is the limited networking that an introvert can accomplish in one hectic, travel-filled weekend?

The PRO retort is probably the same as above – small amounts of networking add up over time, and why not start now?

3. Free books, swag, and giggly-fun author events

Pros: This is the fun stuff, and for the first time, actually somewhat of a professional help for me – my success at my job requires a certain amount of nebulous “book awareness” that allows me to make good purchasing decisions. Conferences such as these definitely contribute to that awareness, even if I don’t read every ARC I come home with.

Cons: Although I have attended some swell author events and snagged some choice advanced readers at conferences past… is that really helping me get “book awareness?” I’m dubious. I also haven’t recovered from the class where we discussed Authors-as-Celebrities and Librarians-as-Groupies at length. I’m not above attending said events or getting excited about certain pre-pub titles, but I’m also not going to fork over hundreds of my own dollars just to do so.

Am I being cynical? Or is there value I’m not seeing here?

At the end of the day, participating in ALA as a member or a conference-attendee is a decision that librarians make. Some librarians choose not to participate. I don’t know which decision is for me yet, but I can’t help but feel like I’m missing some information.

Any ALA members, past or present, have any input? Has your ALA membership been worth the cash and time? Would you never trade it for the world? If you could go back, would you have joined earlier… or later… or never? Is there value that I am ignoring or glossing over? Is it all overrated? Is it better to invest time and energy into less hyped-up endeavors? Am I making a mountain out of here’s-some-free-money-to-go-to-ALA-take-it-and-shut-up? Am I completely anxious and crazy?

Don’t answer that last one, actually. But the rest I could use some help. Lend this First-Year Librarian some wisdom!


  1. Tomissa wrote:

    I’m sitting in a similar boat here. I would love to go to ALA: It’s close to home, it’s a great place to meet people and network, BUT is it really worth my time? What forms of values can I really take away from this opportunity? Am I better suited to attend a more specialized conference instead?

    If you go, I’ll strongly, strongly consider going. Or driving down for a day.

    Posted on 4.5.13 · Reply to comment

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