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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 19

Lessons from a conference I didn't even attend

I didn't have the chance to attend the annual American Library Association (ALA) conference this year, but as always, social media lets us stay connected no matter where we are in person. So what lessons can we take from some of these random online glimpses into this year's conference?

Give it back

While reading the "It's all good" blog ( I found out about a new Public Library Association offering at this year's ALA Annual: "Consultants giving back ... to you" ( Conference attendees were able to sign up in advance for a free half-hour consultation with a number of big-name library consultants, choosing their consultant by area of expertise and receiving advice tailored to their own library. Sure, this offers good exposure for the consultants as well – but it's a great service for smaller libraries who couldn't otherwise afford a consultant, as well as an opportunity to see if a consultant might be a good match for a larger project or to help get a handle on where to begin with a future project.

What lessons can we draw from this?

Our involvement "beyond the job" is part of what makes this a profession, rather than just a job. If you've ever worked with a consultant, you know they don't come cheap – yet 23 consultants and consulting partners volunteered their time for this ALA event.

So ... what do you do to give back? We each connect to the profession in our own way: maybe you serve on a committee for your local association or volunteer on panels at your state conference; maybe you visit library school classes as a free guest speaker, maybe you provide tech support to colleagues on twitter, or maybe you blog. Draw inspiration from "Consultants giving back" in finding your own way to give back, which benefits both you professionally and the places where you concentrate your efforts.

Get disorganized

The now-annual ALA unconference aims to bring the in-between, unstructured conversations people have at conferences (in the hallway, on the shuttle bus, at the hotel bar) into the conference itself ( Unconferences focus on attendees' current needs and encourage everyone to share their knowledge, enabling them to create something larger than themselves. Presentations and discussions draw on everyone's expertise rather than focusing on a pre-chosen talking head at the front of the room.

A big plus: unconferences allow for more relevant info, especially on technology topics, than is possible in conference presentations set up nearly a year in advance. (Proposal deadlines for ALA 2011 are generally 31 July – 11 months before next year's event – making it difficult to provide technologically-current info in a fast-changing field; see for an amusing take.) Beyond the unconference, programmes like the annual LITA (Library & Information Technology Association) BIGWIG Showcase ( focuses on new and emerging technologies and topics; presenters and topics being chosen by community vote just before the conference.

What lessons can we draw from this?

While unconferences are hardly unique to librarianship, the very nature of our information-sharing profession makes the unconference format a perfect fit. Successful unconferences depend on participation and people's willingness to share their experience and knowledge with others. While you're thinking about ways to give back, also think about what expertise you have to contribute.

So, here we can draw lessons for the ways in which we organize our own smaller conferences – what elements of the unconference format can we incorporate? And, even if we don't choose to go the unconference route, how can we ensure the relevance of programmes that are traditionally planned out months, if not years, in advance? We can also draw lessons here about the importance of finding expertise wherever it might lie within our organizations, instead of always going to the same big names or higher up sources.

Get it online

While miniscule compared with the offerings at Annual itself, several free online webinars, ranging from "finding library jobs" to TechTrends, allow remote participation ( You can also watch a video of the annual Top Tech Trends panel on Ustream, and those watching "live" on 27 June were able to participate and provide input via chat (

What lessons can we draw from this?

The more people who are able to participate in our professional gatherings, the stronger the profession. It behoves us to find new ways to encourage participation and to draw in people from afar.

If you're involved in organizing a conference, what parts of it can you make available online? What parts of it can you offer for free or at low cost to non-attendees? How can you balance the organization's need to make money from its conference with people's need for professional development in an era of scarce conference-attendance funding?

Go outside your comfort zone

Over at "Free range librarian", Karen Schneider recently posted a list of ALA conference survival tips ( Beyond the practical ("Wear comfortable shoes!"), two of my favourites:

"Attend a program hosted by an entity outside your usual 'space'. If you are an academic librarian, see a PLA program, and so on. You'd be surprised what you can learn, who you meet, and what it feels like to be outside your arena."


"Socialize with people outside your area code. You can see local folks back at the ranch. Use ALA to extend your networking circle to people you don't get to meet so often, people you've wanted to connect with, vendors who have invited you to events, or activities that intrigue you (Battle Decks anyone?)."

What lessons can we draw from this?

Any of these ways of getting involved in the profession – volunteering, attending an unconference, sharing our expertise – can mean stepping outside our comfort zone. While we professionally value the sharing of information, we also value structure and organization. We're used to talking heads; we're accustomed to hierarchy; we're accustomed to putting ourselves and our colleagues into familiar boxes. Sometimes our librarian-ish tendencies are an asset, and in some cases they can be a drawback.

So, the lesson here lies in the benefits we gain by deliberately drawing on resources, groups, and people outside of our accustomed circles. At its best, librarianship is an interdisciplinary sharing profession, and now more than ever we need to draw on all the resources at our disposal – which is really the overarching lesson in all of this.

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