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ALA Conference Survival Tips — 35 Conferences Later

By my count, since I first attended ALA at Midwinter 1992 (San Antonio), I have attended roughly 35 ALA conferences, if you include Midwinter “meetings”–so many that I have founded the (actually nonexistent) Old Members Round Table, which sports a hashtag on Twitter of #OMRT.

There are many tips for surviving and enjoying ALA, and I’ve shared some before, but for the sake of anyone new to ALA who stumbles across this blog, I’ll do it again. Feel free to add your own tips!

Packing list. I use one because it means I arrive at the conference with everything I need. This is broader than ALA, but if you don’t do a lot of business travel, take it from me that a packing list will make your life easier.

Wear comfortable shoes. You will be walking… a lot. ALA is very spread out. Not only that, because ALA goes to hot places in the summer and cold places in the winter, your feet are either very hot or very cold. So be nice to your feet because when your dogs hurt, it’s hard to enjoy anything else. You will look like a librarian. Suck it up: you ARE a librarian. If you can, rotate your shoes so you are wearing different shoes every other day. And never bring new shoes to ALA!

Dress in layers. Once upon a time everyone wore suits to ALA. These days, I see more business casual, and for DC I’m bringing a mix of loose dresses (which I find comfortable in hot muggy weather). Whatever: be comfortable, but dress in layers so you can be prepared for meeting rooms that are fiery hot or freezing cold (generally the opposite of the outdoor environment). I have a shawl I drag to meetings when I don’t have a sweater for the outfit I’m wearing.

Bring more business cards than you think you need. You will always run out.  I also know I’m ready to go home when I start handing out other people’s cards. When you get back, go through your cards and write people.

Always visit the exhibits. ALA conferences survive because vendors continue to send entire cotillions of staff and equipment to the exhibit hall. At the very least, go in and greet the vendors your library uses (yes, even the vendors you don’t like). But if you have more time, wander the halls.  I always schedule at least four hours for the exhibit hall because I learn so much, and because I like to say hi to the people who have been serving us all year  (waving hi to ITG, Ebsco, Proquest, Wilson, SerSol, RefWorks, Wiley, Sage, Sirsi…and my ol’ pals at Equinox!).

Get creative with transportation. ALA has shuttle buses, and sometimes I use them. But usually I find other forms of transportation between conference sites are faster (especially after Big Events, where people will be lined up for hours). Quite often I  hoof it, sometimes with a colleague with whom I can catch up. Other times I share a cab (get bold: ask that librarian, “Want to share?”). In DC, get a Metro pass and when appropriate, use the Metro to get from A to B very quickly.

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.

Have backup plans for your schedule. Sometimes a great-looking program is a bomb. Other times, you look out at the pouring rain and realize you don’t have an easy way to get to your next event on time. Have an idea for what you’ll do with that time–an alternate program, some time in the exhibits, or even a tourism moment.

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?).

Be a tourist. No matter how packed your schedule, do something interesting in the fair city you are visiting (beyond the inevitable good meals).  That could be a ball game, a visit to a museum, or a church service, or all three, or even more–just do it.

Tip the people who make our visit so comfortable. Tip the shuttle driver, the hotel concierge who drags your suitcase to the lobby, the clerk who brings your bags up to the room, the hotel desk clerk who retrieves your suitcase, the maid who cleans your hotel room,  the restaurant wait staff, and the cab drivers who hustle you around the city.  Your tips mean a lot to these service workers, and enhance the image of the profession as a caring, sharing group.  Bring dollar bills for the smaller tips (I rarely tip under $2 these days for anything) and a $20 (at least) for the hotel maid.

If need be, take a Quiet Night. If I’m at a conference for more than two or three days, I find I sometimes need a “time-0ut” evening where I hunker in my room with take-out or room service and a book or good movie, so I can rebound for the remainder of the conference.  (For a long time, my go-to hunker-down meal was a bacon cheeseburger and fries with a glass of red wine, but with the “A-word” [aging] it’s more often a salad.) This is one of those “socialize outside of your area code” exceptions; if your co-workers are in the same boat, it could be a good Movie Night with Team Library.

Plan for The New. When I look back, I think of Gloria Steinem talking about butterflies. A very late night drinking session with new friends I still have dinner with almost 20 years later. My first Council Forum. Presenting “You Say You Want a Resolution” with GraceAnne DeCandido.  Being grilled by almost 200 librarians on my first Council resolution. And many, many committees and interest groups and Council meetings I experienced for the very first time, when a group of us gelled around a topic and made something happen. New is good. New makes you better.

And even sad things: Marvin Scilken dying. Yes, at a conference of 20,000+, people get sick and sometimes die; it’s the rule of demographics. But I also remember running into Marvin that same conference at a museum, where he was arguing some point with another librarian he generally only got to see at ALA.  I’m not suggesting you plan on expelling your last breath at an ALA conference. But you know,  there  are worse ways to go.

Write your trip report on the flight home. I know, you’d rather chill out and rest up, and I don’t blame you. But if you can possibly crank out the report on the flight home (based on the notes which you have of course jotted down as things happened), it will be fresh in your mind and even fun to do, and those who couldn’t be there will also benefit earlier. If you wait, you will get back to work and be overcome by a tsunami of crises and backlogs, and the trip report will become a pain in the tush which when finally completed will lack the zest and detail it would have had if you’d just followed my advice which I share with you completely free of charge. As we say in the OMRT, Someday You’ll Thank Me!

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  1. Dale wrote:

    I’ll add a few (my first ALA Conference was Chicago, Annual 1985 and I’ve been to at least Annual or Midwinter every year since, often to both).

    K.G. talked about packing to get to the conference. I’d add that it’s important to plan how you’ll pack to get home. Paper is heavy. Don’t pick up more than you need. Ask vendors to email information to you. If you work with children, you’ll want to pick up posters and books. That’s completely normal. My advice is to mail them back to your library each day. There’s a post office right in the exhibit hall for just that purpose.

    Socializing. Let’s say you have a hard time talking to people you don’t know. Then it’s fine to travel with a friend, perhaps from library school or a past job–especially if that friend knows a lot of people. But any time people are wearing badges, they’re generally open to conversation. Some of my conference highlights have been conversations I’ve had before meetings started, with people I’d never seen before.

    Meetings. There are a lot of programs and meetings. Do try to attend a meeting or two, when the name of the committee or group intrigues you. That is, don’t only go to programs. And I’d plan for no more than 1 must do thing in the morning and 1 in the afternoon. Leave some time for serendipity.

    What to wear. I completely agree with K.G.’s advice. However, if you’re interviewing for a job, do bring some clothes that you could reasonably wear to work. Back in the days when everyone wore a suit, I work shorts and sandals (with a jacket, for air conditioning), but I took nice clothes too, just in case. (And now I wear a suit….things change with time.)

    Talking with people. Especially if you’re from a small town in the south (as I am), remember that a lot of people you meet at a conference are from cities and a lot of people are in a hurry. Don’t take it personally if someone says “I can’t talk right now.”

    Business cards. What K.G. said. And if you aren’t working, get some inexpensive cards printed with just your name, phone number, and email. (I have some Moo cards, with a picture of my dog.) They don’t have to be expensive and you don’t need a mountain of them, but it’s good to have some. Same thing if your job just doesn’t provide business cards.

    Tipping. I usually tip the housekeeper(s) the first night I’m in the hotel.

    Receipts. Keep receipts and records (of tips, cab fares, meals, etc). If your place of employment is reimbursing you, read through the polices *before* you go. Does the bar tab need to be separate? Does food need to be itemized? Can tips be reimbursed? Find out before you travel. And fill out that report each day, if you can. You’ll save an enormous amount of time at the end. If you’re paying your own way, save those records for tax time. You may or may not use them, but what you don’t have, you can’t use.

    Tourist. I often get together a small group (3-5 people) to visit some local sights. A small group of my friends often come to the city a day early and make up our own tour of architecture of the city. It’s a good way to get oriented to the city and to have fun at the same time.

    Programs. If you love a program–or want to challange the ideas of the speaker–say so. The person put a lot of time into preparing and generally would love to hear your thoughts, either at the conference or by email later.

    Meals. If you usually make reservations and don’t worry about the cost, you know what to do. If you’re counting every penny, try neighborhoods near large universities. Use your librarian skills for yourself. A little research the week before the conference can make the dollar-stretching a lot easier.

    Be safe. You know this, but wearing a conference badge says “I don’t belong here”. Put it away outside meetings. And, as the police officers in Times Square say to tourists all day, “remember to look ahead of you, not only up!” Just use the same common sense and good judgement you would at home.

    Relax. It’s just a conference. It’s ok if you miss something or someone. Because timing can be way off, even if the conference is in your own city, have backup plans, especially for meeting friends or for interviews.

    As the vendors say, “enjoy the show!”

    Sunday, June 20, 2010 at 2:09 am | Permalink
  2. Alice Yucht wrote:

    Some additional recommendations:
    Badges are for instant/easy identification, so please wear them high and visible. Badges on the bottoms of jackets, or at waistbands, or without names showing are next-to-useless. If your badge is on a string, please make sure that you position the badge appropriately so that others can see your name without having to glance down at your ‘private parts’ !

    Know where you’re going! The conference tome include maps — of the conference facilities, the exhibits, etc. Rip them out and keep them handy: you will save yourself time and embarrassment.

    Be polite to both the presenter and the rest of the audience. Attendees are there to hear what the presenter has to say, so — no matter what — don’t usurp the podium, either with longwinded comments or irrelevant questions. And private conversations (whether F2F or on your phone) during the presentation are rude. If the discussion is that important, take it out of the room.

    And remember that you can’t function if you’re not healthy, so keep these guidelines from Lis Riba in mind: “Healthy multiday convention attendance is brought to you by the numbers 5 and 2: in each 24-hour period, get at least 5 hours of sleep, at least 2 meals, and don’t confuse the numbers… many people have renamed it the “5-2-1 rule” for your recommended daily allowances of sleep, meals and showers.”

    Sunday, June 20, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  3. Amen on the badges dangling over the “private parts” and everything else Alice shared!

    Sunday, June 20, 2010 at 8:05 pm | Permalink
  4. “Be safe. You know this, but wearing a conference badge says ‘I don’t belong here’. Put it away outside meetings.”

    I know this is common advice. But the fact is that removing your badge will not disguise your out-of-area, conference-going status. Hide your badge, don’t hide your badge… but practice the buddy system, don’t wander through sketchy areas alone or at night (even with a buddy), and be mindful of your surroundings.

    Sunday, June 20, 2010 at 8:09 pm | Permalink
  5. GinaP wrote:

    I’ll add to the already fantastic advice:

    * Protein bars. Don’t leave home without them. They travel well and make for a decent survival lunch on the run.

    * And more on food: Starbucks. They’ll be a number of them. In addition to coffee, they have oatmeal, salads, and yogurt if you’re in a hurry.

    * Grapes are easy and available even at convenience stores. Wash ‘em in any sink, steal napkins from whatever counter you pass and you have fresh fruit to keep healthy. And sharing is always a great way to make new friends.

    * Cell phones have silent mode; this feature is appreciated most by the people sitting in a room with you.

    * Rip apart the Conference program. Seriously. There’s a lot there, you’ll likely never refer to it again after the conference. So, tear it up. Take just the information for the day you need. Pull the maps out.

    * Carry a refillable water bottle. These days the conference center has water all over to fill ‘em up. Hotel conference rooms usually have pitchers of water. Make us of them. Save some money and reduce trash.

    Sunday, June 20, 2010 at 8:37 pm | Permalink
  6. I’ll add on one that you suggested a few years ago: bring a small power strip so you can share the (electrical) wealth.

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  7. Stephen, absolutely! It goes everywhere with me… I just forgot about it.

    My packing list has the strip, all power cords, even pens spelled out, so if I’m running late I don’t forget some crucial widget.

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  8. Anne wrote:

    Strangely, your list includes the most important piece of advice I give any new librarian: Comfortable Shoes

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  9. Whitney wrote:

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while, but haven’t commented, so HI!

    I’m starting my masters in information in the fall, but I’m going to be at ALA this week representing the vendor that I have worked for the last 3 years… I don’t think they want me to say the name, but you should stop by booth 3933 and say hi!

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  10. stevenb wrote:

    An OMRT member might overlook new fangled Google Maps which can save time by allowing you to plot your course from location to location in advance – especially now that they give walking directions. Not really needed for getting to official hotels and such, but comes in very handy for off the grid locations like getting from your final program of the day to that vendor cocktail hour. You’ll find some of my other ALA tips here

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 9:02 pm | Permalink
  11. I feel a little silly walking around staring at my iPhone, but Follow the Moving Blue Dot has saved my bacon more than once. Actually, yesterday, in fact, when I walked to church and got lost (in Golden Gate Heights, the grid system turns into spaghetti). Thanks Steven!

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 11:04 pm | Permalink
  12. clara wrote:

    1. Food and water is important. Packing snacks will help you when you have not scheduled time to eat and by all means schedule time to eat.

    2. Plan ahead what sessions you want to see with alternatives if the one you want is full, or the next session is to far from your previous sessions.

    3. Plan ahead for the vendors, for many of us the vendors seem overwhelming. Go with a specific question in mind.

    4. Plan ahead, scout out your directions.

    5. Carry a pair of comfortable shoes if you aren’t already wearing them.

    6. Alternate transportation in the case of DC check the site. Metro has been doing work on the weekends causing delays. You may want to investigate the Circulator

    7. Try something new. Go to Interest Group Meeting.

    8. Go Division Happy Hours they are a great way to meet people.

    9. Invite new friends to dinner they often turn out to be great friends.

    10. Enjoy yourself!

    11. Find a buddy.

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  13. John wrote:

    These are all such great tips– I’ve been going to ALA since 1991 and I even learned something new here.
    – I keep all my conference programs. I have a complete pristine collection going back to 1991. Helps me keep track of my past activities.
    – Always take care of yourself– you won’t get credit from anyone from running yourself into the ground. Don’t feel guilty about skipping that boring program/meeting that your dept. head wants you to atttend; go back to your room and take a nice long nap if you need to!!

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  14. is there a good iPhone app for the Metro?

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Permalink
  15. Laura wrote:

    Thanks so much for the tips. I am a librarian student at the University of Houston Clear Lake, and I wish I could have had this list prior to going to the Texas Librarian Association meeting in San Antonio this past April. One of the best tips, which I will remember next time is comfortable shoes. I was so lost everyday and would have liked to have planned better. I will definitely know next time.

    Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  16. clara wrote:

    I just got an iphone and I have not tried any of them out yet. I know there are a couple out there that should do the trick.

    Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 4:19 pm | Permalink
  17. Sarah Searles wrote:

    I haven’t found an app for the Metro yet, but they have a mobile site you can bookmark:

    Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  18. Tim Hackman wrote:

    Great tips! I’m packing up my conference stuff today and would have forgotten the business cards, so thanks!

    Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink
  19. For those of you who do forget business cards: just tell people you gave them all out already. This only works after a couple of days of conferencing, however ;)

    Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  20. Allison Angell wrote:

    After you get a business card from someone, take a second to jot down why you took it (“we chatted on the shuttle bus about programs for senior citizens”, “great ideas about shelving from this vendor”). It makes life much easier when you get back and start to contact all these people!

    Sunday, June 27, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

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