March 12-15 I attended My First Library Conference, ACRL 2009, in three-hours-south Seattle. Schoolmates and I skipped classes and ditched work to play Tetris with a car trunk and try not to laugh explaining to the border guard the purpose of our visit to those United States. They look at you funny when you claim you’re a book-sort, even if you’re not, without fail, it’s true.

The conference was part total blast, part perplexing disappointment. The roadtrip mystique, the being-in-a-different-city-doing-non-routine-things, the chance meetings of acquaintances both meatspace, virtual and crossing over, discovering new nerd stuff and neat applications for the known, seeing hilarious, thought-provoking and inspiring keynote speakers, dodging Cheshire-grinned vendors and devouring free food = good. Wanting to run screaming from poorly organized sessions of ugly confusing tedious PowerPoints guided by pulseless monotonous nonsensical presenters = bad.

There is a difference between being nervous and being egregiously unprepared. I empathized with the former, but the latter? I was befuddled. Why wouldn’t you… practice? Attempt to push valuable content? Tell us something we don’t already know? Is the pressure to publish and perform so great we forget to make it interesting, show enthusiasm and invest ourselves in true knowledge transmission? Conferring with others revealed similar sentiments. It seems ACRL has some serious issues with quality control and relevance, which makes me fear for my profession. It was, after all, my peers and superiors presenting. But many sessions seemed aimed at non-librarians while simultaneously preaching to the choir, with precious little emphasis and evidence of What’s New and Unexpected: results, insights, epiphanies, the possibly plainly interesting and the transformative and translatable for one’s own institution.

I felt pain. I have been told–mentored–to avoid library conferences altogether and hit education ones instead, or whatever your subject discipline or niche, like technology cons, even if you don’t quite fit. It’s better to not understand half of what they’re saying if they’re saying something fascinating than already know everything about everything. Exposure to peripheral topics can yield interesting connections, reveal opportunities and position you to find or develop and apply to library land that authentically new, next big thing.

That said, I did see a few great sessions and spent a lot of time in the overflow floor section of the Cyber Zed Shed, which offered quick presentations on web tech, social software and mobile device use in libraries. “Like carpet time for big kids,” which would have been a clever resnark for Twitter, had I not been ill-equipped for the party. Not wanting to lug my laptop around, I went without, largely foregoing the communal joy and wonder of twittering the conference via hashtag (#acrl2009), though I did get a few words in. And it was fun. A little ridiculous but also… worthy? With exception to alerting activists to the location of staging riot cops and directing medics to the wounded at the RNC ’08, it was one of the only times I’ve seen (and the first time I participated in) the concrete usefulness of Twitter.

I love these sorts of things for the sake of experimentation and casual communication (and for the spread of humor, egoism, etc.), but oh! my! heart! to see it actually do something interesting. It can be a seldom occurrence, a rarity that makes me dubious, and critical, and not willing to sink my time into new toys. But I was glad to observe and play what I did, though I became increasingly jealous of #sxsw as the weekend wore on… perhaps one of those “peripheral topic conferences” I can hit up next year? 🙂 I did learn that ACRL happens only every other year, which I did not know and am pleased to see. Given my experience, I can’t say an annual attendance would be worth it, though it was definitely a good time and the student rate is swell. I would not, however, pay the full, professional price ($400-500ish) without institutional funding.

Other highlights and tragedies: No Naomi Klein after racing to the registration booth five minutes before she was supposed to take the stage = devastating. I don’t have a job at which I can apply all the cool stuff I learned = bummer. I can talk about cool stuff in interviews = yay! As a new hire, I wouldn’t have the clout and unlikely the freedom to implement anything anyway = dar. The barnburner Experience Music Project social mixer dance-off = riotous. Author Sherman Alexie, damn! = charming, hysterical, extraordinary. And This American Life maestro Ira Glass magically appearing right next to me after his smashing closing keynote and signing my Minnesota Public Radio cloth bag with a fat green Sharpie = #omgomgomg. I squealed like a fangirl and clutched my grocery sack all the way home.

MPR bag

3 comments on “#acrl2009”

  1. Wow, Meg, I am really amazed by how similar our experience of this conference was. I found myself extremely disappointed in some of the sessions that I thought would be most interesting. I commented on one of them that the presenter was either completely unprepared or terrified of the audience. I have a feeling that we may be thinking of the same session. But I have to admit to being guilty of expecting better merely because of the prestige of the institution involved. I learned a valuable lesson about expectations from that!

    However, because of the set-up of two papers per session, I did end up seeing some really interesting presentations that I probably would not have chosen to see. The next time I go to a conference, I’m going to look for presentations by Char Booth, Steven Bell, Peter McCracken…These guys were engaging, prepared and on-point.

    I’m not altogether discouraged about conference attendance. I think in some ways, we have to be tolerant of the bad presentations for the sake of not censoring out the good ones. I have a feeling that, for any presenter that we feel might have wasted our time, well, they may get paid back on the professional development front. They weren’t just on-stage in front of library students like you and I, they were in front of deans and administrators and people-in-charge. (And those people paid more money than you and I, so they’re probably even more upset about a waste of their time.)

    And now that I really know what’s involved in poster sessions and round tables, I feel like that’s something I might be able to accomplish in 2011.

    Like you, I also found twitter to be amazingly useful during the conference. Charging problems kept me from tweeting as much as I wanted to, but the whole experience of using twitter from my iPod Touch started me really thinking about the usefulness of mobile technologies for the library. (The Penn State pres at the Zed Shed on that topic was pretty interesting!) It was just thoroughly amazing to be able to stay informed about what was happening in other sessions while I was there. Not only that, but it also gave me an opportunity to meet some people.

    Thanks for posting your thoughts, Meg, and for giving me a place to share mine as well!

  2. For future reference: getting up and leaving in the midst of a presentation that doesn’t meet your needs (for whatever reason) is a time-honored practice. I’m glad ACRL is every other year, because it gives us all more time to reflect, experience, and do better presenting at the next one. As someone who ran a round table discussion, I agree that they can be some of the most effective parts of the conference. Even more so is networking, networking, networking!

  3. As a native Midwesterner, in the company of Canadians, the thought of walking out on a presenter was mortifying–I stuck it out for most of them, though I think I may position myself near the exits next time. I agree with Jill, though–I did see some things I hadn’t planned to that ended up being interesting indeed, including the poster sessions. I knew what posters were and what they entailed… but still *didn’t really know.* And… “…Oh!” Yeah, totally doable. 🙂

    Tremendously slammed with school, I did not have time to stake out which sessions I wanted to attend beforehand, much less to research the researchers–next time (for ACRL and other conferences) I’ll have a better action plan (and perhaps more guts to get up and leave when deemed necessary).

    And yes, Marilyn, networking is key. It is not my strong suit, but I have a better sense of how it’s done now (and there are so many opportunities and ways of doing so–even right now, as I type, come to think of it).

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