I attended the Association of Research and College Libraries (ACRL) Conference for the first time last week. This was a conference I never gave much thought to attending since I've been in workplaces that simply could not afford to send me and/or simply did not see professional development for librarians as a priority. Thus, before this year, ACRL was some mythical place that well-heeled academic librarians, usually in R-1's (or what they used to call R-1) and Ivy League schools, went to do whatever it is those librarians did when they got together (aside from drinking and hanging out, which seems to be a lot of what librarians do in conferences if you judge by their social media output, but that is another post for another time). Plus ACRL is an American Library Association (ALA) division, and besides the fact that ALA conferences also seem like mythical places to me, small-time unknown librarian, ALA and I have our differences.
I dropped my ALA membership years ago, and it has not bothered me in the least. It has not affected me professionally neither. The fact that I have professional brethren and colleagues I respect and look up to as exemplary librarians who do not have it neither certainly reinforces my view that I can do without. After all, they certainly do without, and they are no less librarians than those who have membership. Plus, to be honest, not taking the hit in the wallet annually is certainly good when you are not exactly swimming in money. I say this mostly to give some context, not because I am interested in some debate on whether I should join ALA or not. By now, I have seen the camps are set in their views: those inside usually say ALA can do no wrong and how dare I, a small librarian, question the directives of the mothership, and those who have left who often a bit too rabid in their disgruntled state (I can agree with some who have left, but others are just as extreme as ALA fanboys and fangirls).
Having said that I do have a soft spot for ACRL since it provided me with what is probably the best training and education program for instruction librarians: The Institute for Information Literacy (more popularly known as Immersion). I am an Immersion alumnus, and it is an experience that I value, that I take pride in (admission is pretty selective, so I share company with some seriously good people), and that has opened some doors for me. In fact, I would like to return for their assessment track given the work I am doing here now at Berea; we need this kind of learning here to continue building a culture of assessment. At any rate, I will grant that it makes me wish ACRL was not conjoined with ALA, but sometimes you have to take the good with the bad.
In the end, when the opportunity to attend came up, skeptical as I was, I figured I owed it to myself, and to my institution, to go. So, one of our instructional services librarian who also does most of our collection development and I went. That it was in Indianapolis, a city that is only about three and a half hours away, and a city I know because I lived in Indiana for a significant part of my life, did help to make the decision easier. In addition, being new to my job here (it will be my one-year anniversary on September 11, 2013. How time flies), the travel was a good time to spend some quality time with my colleague.
Although the location of the conference was huge, the conference itself did not seem that big. Compared to TxLA (Texas Library Association) Annual, that one felt bigger. And I am not saying that to disparage ACRL. I say it more because the myth I had in mind suddenly met reality. That aside, the conference was a positive experience overall. I will just add a couple more things on general impressions. As I mentioned, I will be posting my session notes throughout the next few days as I reread them and reflect a bit on what I have learned.
The hotel we stayed in was very nice, very plush; a downtown city hotel that I would never be able to afford on my own. It makes me aware of how fortunate I am given I was less than fortunate less than a year ago. It does make me wonder why there are never any affordable hotels when it comes to conferences: you either have to break the piggy bank or hope your employer picks up the tab. It does illustrate that the conference industry does count on those employers. I should know; I worked in said industry for a brief time. You know those guys and gals who provided your coffee service during the conference, so on? I was one of them many moons ago.
I am digressing a bit, maybe because on the one hand I feel like I made it, but on the other hand I feel a bit of that "survivor guilt" for many who cannot afford to go and need to go. I will note when I came to my current library, I left some very good people behind in less than favorable conditions. I wish they had been there with me. Anyhow, dang it, some affordable overnight options would be nice. I will add that the staff at the hotel was extremely nice and friendly; you do get what you pay for.
The other takeaway from ACRL is that small four-year schools, like mine, along with other small places such as community colleges, are woefully underrepresented. No, I am not the only one to say that, but I am saying it here. At least I did not get much of the snob vibe I got at another "big shot" conference I attended recently where you did get judged by your name badge, then if your little library was not deemed worthy enough, you were given the "you don't belong here" or "who let the plebeian from the hoi polloi in?" Now for ACRL, that is something those of us in small schools can help solve. We need to submit proposals and present at ACRL. Stand and recognized for we also practice the craft and have things to say and share. It would not hurt if we come together and do our thing as well. Who says we have to just go to the one mountain?
Oh, and a last minute addition. Then there is the assumption that if you attend, you must be an ACRL/ALA member. You folks in the organization are aware you sell admission to the unwashed non-members, right? We pay a bit more and get in, you know that, right? I mention this because I had an encounter with some candidate for ALA office who asked for my vote and was shocked when I told here I was not a member and thus I admitted I could not vote. I think she could have at least tried to convince me to sign up (at the time, I probably would have been very receptive to the idea), but instead I felt a bit awkward and chided, so I listened, nodded politely and moved on. As I think about it now, it seems a bit of a lost opportunity.
That leads me to the last thing I want to address: would I attend again, whether 2015 in Portland or later in the future? I will say maybe. I attended all the teaching and learning sessions I could, which was very valuable in my line of work. The preconference I attended was outstanding, probably one of the best things I did, and I am glad my library was willing to shell out some extra money for it. What I learned there will give us much to work on here. So, in terms of the conference being valuable to me as an academic instruction librarian, that is a pretty good reason to go back. Is my skepticism of the national organization suddenly gone? No, it is not, but I am willing to take a chance. In the end, maybe the reason to go back comes from my other instructional services librarian, a young passionate and very knowledgeable lady that, when told the next time would be in Portland, was extremely excited about wanting to go. When you see that kind of passion and desire to learn in the eyes of someone you supervise (I supervise two instructional librarians now. Yea, I've moved up in the world a bit), how can you say no? So, will I see y'all in Portland? Perhaps. Commercial flight is not something I relish, but I suck it up in rare cases, and I do like the Pacific Northwest (my choice of big city to live in would be Seattle or somewhere nearby). Who knows, maybe in two years I can submit a proposal. If some of those people can do it, I know my team and I can do it.