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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 18

Lessons from Book Expo America

In May 2010, I attended my first Book Expo America (BEA) conference (, and what can I say but: Wow!

From moment one, BEA jumped to the top of my favourite conferences list. Not just for the freebies (as you know, librarians love their swag, and I easily lugged home my body weight in free books and advanced reading copies), but for the overall vibe.

Garrison Keillor's doom-and-gloom outlook aside (, BEA was the most enthusiastic and downright hopeful conference I've attended in years, which says a lot about the publishing industry and its resilience. And the buzz about this being a great conference for librarians? All true. One of my favourite bits, for instance, was a Library Journal sponsored "librarians' lunch" featuring several best-selling authors – and, of course, a tote bag full of their latest works.

These are a few of your favourite things

This experience made me wonder about other conferences we might be missing by focusing strictly on "library" events. Over at my Liminal Librarian blog, I recently asked others about their favourite non-library conference ( and got a fascinating range of responses both there and on Facebook. Some people preferred small local conferences, others national technology conferences, but the overall consensus is that we have a lot to learn from shows outside our field.

Just a sampling of responses include:

Librarians have a place in and much to learn from various fields and conventions, from technology to literature to innovation to publishing. Which makes me wonder ...

What would a non-librarian think of our conferences?

Although I ran into a lot of librarians at BEA (many of whom were stocking up on free books for their libraries – you go, guys!), you don't run into a lot of non-librarians (other than vendors and invited speakers) at library-related conventions. This mismatch is in part due to librarianship's unique nature as an interdisciplinary profession – we can use everything we bring back – but also speaks to our ongoing trouble with marketing the value of our profession and its applicability to our larger society. I can instantly see the value of going to BEA, or EDUCAUSE, or Computers, Freedom, and Privacy, but what do our conventions have to offer outside of our own narrow concerns?

Our events obviously fail to target non-librarians, nor should they specifically do so – but then again, BEA is targeted at publishing professionals, yet pretty clearly succeeds at garnering serious awareness further afield. It's worth thinking about what our conferences might offer those outside the profession, as our connectedness to our larger communities should go both ways. If librarians benefit from attending BEA or EDUCAUSE, could publishing professionals and educators benefit from ALA or from CILIP events?

When I wrote The Accidental Systems Librarian and The Accidental Library Manager, my husband read them and laughed. As both an accidental IT guy and an accidental manager himself, he realized that you could take the term "library" out of either and end up with info applicable in any environment. While the stories and specific examples might change, many of the strategies, here as at our in-person events, are equally applicable to other fields.

Given the broadly inclusive nature of our profession, we do have a lot of insights to offer those outside the field. Any conference that targets everyone from systems librarians and children's librarians to library educators and independent info pros clearly has a lot going on; the "big tent" of librarianship doesn't have clear edges.

Forward and onward

The publishing industry is facing similar challenges to our own: closings, downsizings, and cutbacks abound, and the industry is still figuring out how to adapt to the dizzying rate of technological change and the shift in the ways people access their information and their entertainment.

Apparently this year's BEA was also smaller and otherwise more scaled back than in previous years (although by library convention standards, it was a behemoth).

Despite all these challenges, however, BEA seems to have stayed true to its roots – the written word – while also looking forward with cautious yet real optimism. As Jason Pinter writes (…):

"At BEA, authors feel like rock stars. Publishers host packed booths full of eager readers dying to scoop up hot galleys. Booksellers and librarians feel each book they scoop up could open up a brand new world to share with their customers and patrons. BEA covers all the blemishes and replaces them with, yes, hope. People fill each booth, curling around the hallways as they wait in line for authors to sign galleys. The autographing section is constantly packed, eager readers waiting to meet their favourite authors. Press roam the hallways trying to get a closer shot of star authors. In an industry where expensive book parties are now considered gauche and expense reports shrink faster than George Costanza, BEA week is host to numerous gala events. It is a week for book lovers to get high on their drug of choice: the written word."

Pinter hits it on the head here: hope. This is what BEA embodied, and what we're missing in a lot of our conference programmes and literature. Hope is why BEA left me more energized than even the best of our library conventions.

Hope is in short supply in libraryland these days, where the news seems ever-more-dire and the Garrison Keillors can easily drown out the Jason Pinters. While our problems are real and desperately need addressing, that's what we should be taking from BEA and these other energizing non-library conferences.

Hope is what we need to bring back as we feel our way towards a transformed library landscape. Hope is what we need to feel as we try to envision our future. Hope is what we need to reassure us that reports of our death are greatly exaggerated, and to give us the fuel we need to move forward.

Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster,, author of What's the Alternative? Career Options for Librarians and Info Pros, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (