Reflections of a Ravenclaw in Florida: The American Library Association’s 2016 Conference

The American Library Association (ALA) holds the biggest annual library conference in the world, sometimes drawing well over 20,000 attendees from all different kinds of libraries. There are literally hundreds of sessions to choose from at any given moment. The conference moves around to different locations each year, and I have found that attending this conference doubles as a great way to visit some wonderful American cities, such as Chicago (2017), New Orleans (2018), and Washington, DC (2019).

I travelled to Orlando, Florida, in June of this year to join thousands of library folks at the ALA Conference. Due to its fortuitous location, I must confess that I also took some time to rock my totally Ravenclaw persona at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter © at Universal Studios. Riding the Hogwart’s Express and breaking out of Gringotts Bank with a group of other Harry Potter fans/children’s librarians was pretty great. But I digress. This was already a very special ALA conference because my book award committee was wrapping up at the Newbery-Wilder-Caldecott banquet, where our winner would make her acceptance speech for the Caldecott 2016 medal (this and other award speeches can be found here). I can only describe this as being a major bucket list moment and the highlight of my career in children’s librarianship thus far. Not even kidding!

Beyond spending time with my committee members/new best friends forever, and our year’s slate of illustrators (all incredible people) as well as their very happy and generous publishers who supplied no end of delicious food and beverages, I also wanted to spend time in the exhibits gathering advance reading copies of chapter books and seeing what other snazzy stuff the vendors had going on. Then there were the sessions I wanted to attend! At a conference of this size it is always a major struggle to choose between so many great programs running concurrently.

To illustrate, I had to choose between a session that promised to “explore tween’s preferences in collection development, technology, and programming” and a session about “creating outdoor spaces at public libraries, and the impact this can have on early literacy skills.” How was I supposed to choose between those two awesome sounding programs? I also found it challenging to prioritize attending sessions presented by my friends (because I wanted to support them as well as learn from them) or going to those about something completely new to me, but led by people I didn’t know at all.

For example, a program about serving refugee teens was running at the same time as my friend’s presentation about new ways to reach parents of young children via text message—and all this while Margaret Atwood was scheduled to speak in the auditorium! Although I ended up attending many very good sessions, I still felt like I had missed many others. Thankfully, the conference has a great online space in which presenters upload their PowerPoint slides and whatever e-handouts they had prepared for their sessions. Most of the presentations were also recorded, and the MP3 files are freely available for all registrants (which is one way around the impossibility of attending concurrent sessions).

My main involvement in ALA is through the division dedicated to children’s services: the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). Participating in the work of this division has been an extremely rewarding experience and has been a really fantastic way to develop my professional skills as a children’s librarian and as an advocate for children’s library services in general. Except for things that are heavily focused on American school curriculum, I have found it asy to adapt anything I have learned from ALSC resources to suit our Canadian context. Moreover, long-term ALSC members are eligible to run for positions on some of the world’s most prestigious book award committees, something to consider for your own bucket list.

My aim in writing this article is to encourage all BC library staff to consider joining the ALA (which, despite its name, is an international organization that welcomes members from across the globe). And if you work in children’s services, I recommend adding membership in ALSC with ALA. If you work in other types of libraries, there is a division for you at ALA. The critical mass of knowledge-sharing that this large organization offers is unparalleled. There is something for everyone at ALA, and the annual conferences in particular are filled with opportunities to serve and participate as well as to learn, network, and socialize with our like-minded library colleagues.

Tess Prendergast is a Children’s Librarian at Vancouver Public Library and a doctoral candidate at UBC. You can find her on Twitter at @tess1144.