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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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