ALA Annual is no stranger to writers here at hls. We’ve covered ALA Annual (and occasionally Midwinter) every year since our founding in 2010. Below are my experiences at ALA this year, for which I am very grateful, and a probing question about where LIS students belong
New experiences are always easier when you have a job to do.
With this in mind, I applied for the Student to Staff program of ALA. I had never been to ALA Annual, but being in school seemed like as good an opportunity as ever to attend. In exchange for housing and conference fees, I supported ALA Governance during the Opening General Session and several award ceremonies.
I had the honor of assisting my first LIS teacher, Nicole Cooke, up to the stage to receive the ALA Equality Award. I quite literally stood behind the scenes as Eric Dyson took to the podium to articulate a pointed analysis of the relationship between race, literacy, and inequality in America. I shook hands, made small talk, got swag, and drank complimentary coffee. I marveled at the sheer breadth of it all, not to mention the amount of prestige that circulates in a conference of this size. This year, total attendance was estimated at 16,000—smaller than average turnout. Amidst the book signing and fresh donuts (compliments of that one vendor) I wondered, quietly:
Where are all the students?
This is not to say I was lonely. Besides S2S connecting me with an awesome roommate and fellow S2Ser, conferences goers were generally easy-going and friendly. I met several young librarians with fewer than five years of professional experience. Most are doing exceptional things and eager to connect and collaborate on a number of potential projects. I even had breakfast with HLS founder, Micah Vandegrift (2010-12) and Managing Editor, Courtney Baron (2013-15), pictured below.
ALA does offer a lot of resources for first-time attendees and new ALA members in general. Students are considered a de facto demographic of those categories. As an aspiring academic librarian, ACRL 101 was an invaluable resource. ACRL also connected me with a “buddy” who I spoke with for over an hour on everything from professional organizations to exhibit hall etiquette. New Members Round Table (NMRT) was also out in full force, hosting conference orientations, the Student Chapter of the Year award ceremony, and social mixers. There were also my fellow S2Sers and a handful of students from my own institution, there on the job market. These efforts made me feel quite comfortable despite being one attendee out of thousands. And yet, I kept feeling like all these efforts to situate me, to make me feel comfortable, were somehow creating distance between the experience I wanted to have at ALA (that of an information professional), and the experience I was expected to have (that of an emerging information professional).
It’s not enough for students to attend ALA. Students should be encouraged to participate on panels, poster sessions and lightning talks alongside both professionals and other students.
Thousands of students enroll in degree-seeking LIS programs each year and yet their presence is not felt at ALA Annual. Students could be found mingling here and there but their influence is so discrete they are not included on some conference attendee statistics. Perhaps student turnout is so low in part because of the cost of attendance, something that presses upon both students and professionals. Depending on location, attendees can expect to pay $1,000 in out-of-pocket expenses once accommodations, registration, and travel is taken into account. In part, this is why Student-to-Staff was so important. Without financial support from both ALA and my institution, attending simply would not have been feasible of my student budget. Cost is one barrier but how students are encouraged to participate is also a consideration.
I understand that ALA is not an academic conference but given that, at minimum, you need an accredited Master’s degree to gain employment as a librarian, surely there should be a larger place for current LIS students in the conversation. So, my open question here:
Where do students fit in at ALA Annual? And in what capacity should they participate?
I began this post with, “New experiences are always easier when you have a job to do.” Student-to-Staff grounded me in service to the conference and situated me in a small community of fellow grad students. Having a clearly defined purpose at ALA steadied my nerves and gave me confidence despite being in a wholly new and unfamiliar situation, a situation that on the whole makes me a better student and in the the long run, a better professional. Perhaps more student-centered programming like Student-to-Staff are possible. If not a funded program, then more awards (and visibility, in general) for student papers and panels (both PhD and MS). Who knows–perhaps ALA could even host a track of student work across the divisions.
This is obviously a large question that can’t be answered simply. For one, ALA is not a monolith organization. Its divisions and committees are largely autonomous and rarely does ALA-the-organization impose itself on its self-governing bodies. But it’s a question I hope we can address over the next year here at hls. Stay tuned.