ALA before and after – My 2010 MidWinter

What happens when you join ALA? I am not sure about other professional organizations. But at least in ALA, nothing happens unless you are awarded with some scholarships, fellowships, internships, etc. I called up and paid my membership fee. A few weeks later, I got the card with my ALA member number printed in the mail. That was it. I could have researched about ALA and gone through documents in the ALA website. But I didn’t. I thought that maybe I would get some kind of quick guidebook. But nope. Somehow I thought something would happen since I joined. But nope. I didn’t just join ALA. I joined LITA. I joined ACRL. I joined NMRT. That’s a lot of groups, that’s quite a bit of investment. Again, nothing happened. (Yes, later on I signed up for a mentoring program at NMRT and met a wonderful mentor. But it took a while for me to figure that out.)

The organizational structure of ALA seems to be quite complicated. During the 2010 midwinter I went to the NMRT membership meeting. NMRT is a Round Table for new members. A place for me to go and learn about ALA, I thought. But it turned out that I wasn’t even aware of the complexity of NMRT’s organizational structure itself. I forgot the exact details, but there were at least 3-4 levels of ranks/tiers. I was also told that ALA has a even more complicated structure. (I still don’t get what ALA council does, for example. Should I?)  It bothers my mind that an organization has to have that many levels to function, to the degree that new members have to attend a membership meeting to just get an idea of how the organization is structured and operates. (Since I didn’t attend, I have no idea. Am I a bad member?)

Anyhow, I took the risk of heading out to my very first ALA conference in Chicago last summer without knowing so much about ALA nor any people in particular. Well, the experience was, shall I say…, mixed. I loved the chance to meet one of my ex-bosses. I hung out with one of my colleagues briefly a couple of times outside the conference. It was nice. But overall it was overwhelming, and there wasn’t as much fun as I would have liked. (Granted I didn’t go to any orientation and membership meetings simply because I didn’t know that they would be helpful. Are they?) I went to a lot of programs and meetings (including many interest groups and discussion groups) that seemed relevant to my work. The experience was informative. I got new ideas and learned quite a bit. But when the conference ended, I sorely realized that I didn’t meet that many people, and I didn’t feel any closer to ALA. I still felt like an outsider. (And this was after I was an ALA member for two years – one year as a student – and I attended an annual.)

Some may object. But I suspect that my experience may pretty much sum up what new ALA members feel, may complain about, and possibly make them leave . There is no welcoming gesture. There is no personal contact. ALA is aloof. It won’t say hi just because you are nearby. It expects you to make a move. ALA is no treasure chest that you get to open when you join. It is more like a playground where you get to go in when you become a member. But you still have to find people to play with and participate in some games to have fun.

(Image from Flickr:

For some other interesting observations about ALA, see Agnostic, Maybe (1), Agnostic, Maybe (2), and Opinions of a Wolf.

I think I am near the entrance of this playground peeking in curiously. But ALA feels slightly closer to me now that I have some faces that I can associate ALA with. At the Midwinter, I actually met people I didn’t know because I marked social events in my schedule. NMRT social was fun. The tweet-up I organized was great because I met lots of librarians with whom I had a chat on Twitter. (Thank you everyone who came!!!)  After Hours social was awesome because we were all sort of drunk, and it was quite late. On the other hand, LITA happy hour was kind of awkward. (Networking dinner was nice though.) The reception for young librarians was interesting, but I wasn’t sure about who was invited on what basis. (Was it for all new members or for all new and young members…?)

I discovered that small groups such as interest groups and discussion groups at ALA are great for new members because they are small in size. There are also so many of these that there is a good chance there is something you may find interesting. If you show enough interests, it may not be terribly difficult to get involved in these groups. I was – to my surprise – drawn into organizing a program for 2010 D.C. annual, which came out of the discussion that took place at the LITA Emerging Technologies Interest Group meeting I attended at the 2009 annual. I am a new member and organizing a program (hard to believe in my mind). Well, this is definitely something exciting. But then,  I may not get a chance to work on a committee I volunteered for in the next 10 years (I actually saw someone tweeted about this) and/or I may not succeed in getting involved at the level of divisions and sections.  (Well, that would be kind of disappointing. Or not, I am not sure…)

For new members’ information, I was also given a great advice at the midwinter that it is a good idea to be active in listservs and online because it gives one something to talk about and connect with others when you actually attend a conference. (But of course, one needs to find out what listservs would be a good fit and how to get on to them first.)

I am not yet sure if I will continue to play in this playground. But I think I will give it a shot. I had more fun in Boston than in Chicago.

About Bohyun (Library Hat)

Bohyun Kim is the Associate University Librarian for Library Information Technology at the University of Michigan Library. Formerly, she was the Chief Technology Officer and Professor at the University of Rhode Island Libraries.
This entry was posted in ALA, Conference, Library. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to ALA before and after – My 2010 MidWinter

  1. This is a great post, Bohyun! Congrats on the success of the Tweetup you planned! I heard it was great (and I intended to go but wasn’t feeling well that night).

    As with a lot of things, you only get what you put in with ALA. Being involved isn’t just paying dues, it’s going to conferences, meeting people, and participating in divisions, committees, and/or interest groups. (Hopefully, most of this will be possible/easier to do virtually in the near future.)

    What did you think was awkward about the LITA Happy Hour? Have you been to the LITA Blog Salon? If the happy hour anything like the blog salon, I agree that it’s awkward!

    Hope I get to meet you in DC! 🙂

  2. Library Hat says:

    Thanks! I am sorry to hear that you weren’t feeling well. Hopefully we can meet at the annual. 🙂 I haven’t been at the blog salon. But I am guessing that new members tend to feel awkward because they don’t know how to talk to and interact with other members. The fact that there is no mechanism to help new members to participate into LITA (as far as I know) probably doesn’t help. I agree that it would be great if more members can participate virtually. It would also make the annual/mw less business and more program-oriented.

  3. Jen Waller says:

    Great post! I remember having similar feelings when I first joined ALA during my first quarter of my MLIS program. No welcome? No roadmap? No guidebook? I didn’t receive correspondence from some of the sections and round tables for seven months. And, like you, I “over-joined.” I got student rates, and I wanted to find “my niche.”

    I thought it would be fairly easy to find my niche, but I actually feel scattered more than anything. I assume that will work itself out when I get a job and begin focusing on one (or possibly two) divisions. But I did have a fantastic Annual in Chicago and a really productive Midwinter in Boston (I, too, was feeling under the weather for the Tweetup and for a lot of the week. I think I was just exhausted. I’m so sorry we didn’t catch up).

    I also understand about some of the happy hours and socials being uncomfortable. I am an “off the charts” introvert, but that doesn’t prevent me from putting myself out there and socializing with people. It just means it drains me instead of energizes me. But it is really tough to walk into a group of people who, seemingly, all know each other when you don’t know anyone (or very few)!

    You’re exactly right though: you can make the experience more worthwhile by getting involved. I think the structure of ALA will begin making more sense to you (and me) the more we involve ourselves in it.

    Congratulations on putting yourself out there, making the most of the conference, getting involved, organizing the Tweetup, and then continuing to blog about it! These are all great things, and it already puts you head and shoulders above lots of folks 🙂 I will be eager to meet you in person one of these days soon.

  4. Library Hat says:

    I think it is common to pass out one or two evenings after attending all sorts of programs and meetings from 8 to 5 at ALA! I have done that a couple of times. 🙂 We missed you at the tweet-up. Hopefully I can meet you at DC.

    It’s great that you made efforts getting to know other members at conferences. I agree it is an important thing to do. I particularly loved meeting other new librarians at non-academic libraries, learning about different dimensions of librarianship.

    I am not sure ALA would be much benefit for those who cannot travel to a conference. But hopefully it will change and more people can get involved without difficulty virtually with lower costs. As much as I enjoy attending a conference, not all librarians can do the same and there are many out there who still want to be professionally involved, participate, get support from, and contribute to a professional organization and I think ALA should find a way to make this happen. On the other hand, it is another problem that new members who took the risk of over-joining and attending conferences without knowing much about an organization don’t get guided at all in any helpful way (IMHO). I got no responses from divisions and sections I joined. I went up to their meetings at the conference. At least I heard at LITA town meeting that the issue of recruiting and retaining more members being discussed. So hopefully this gets more attention.

  5. Interesting post. One quick correction: LITA doesn’t have a Blog Salon–that was an OCLC-hosted event. Not sure what was awkward about either one, except that for deep introverts they’re difficult. (Being a deep introvert, I can recognize that…even after 30+ years in ALA.)

  6. Pingback: The Shifted Librarian » January 25th Stream

  7. Andromeda says:

    Personally, I had a blast at my very first ALA last weekend :).

    That said, it took a while for things to get off the ground — I didn’t start hitting my stride until the LITA happy hour, and Saturday was a bit slow, and then Sunday, whoa, Sunday.

    Before the conference I definitely found it overwhelming to sort through all of the material (and more than a little surprising that librarians didn’t do a good job of organizing info about conference sessions, providing enough metadata for me to evaluate their relevance and applicability…). I deliberately underscheduled myself a bit in the hopes that I would acculturate enough during the weekend to learn where I really wanted to be, and in fact this happened, but…

    …but that’s definitely, as you say, an aloof approach. It’s an approach that’s biased toward people who are willing/able to be very proactive and extroverted (and, while I am farther toward the extrovert end of things than many, I am still very much an introvert, hence missing out entirely on Saturday’s after-hours stuff). I do wish ALA were more welcoming — about extending invitations to join relevant groups, about explaining what those groups are, about expanding the acronyms (especially in conversations aimed at newbies — I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve seen sent over a Simmons GSLIS list that have some library acronym that is never once explained). I wish there were more useful conference planning tools (and I did give feedback on that).

    I feel my ALA was a wild success as far as my goals went — developing a professional network, visibility. It was only a little bit successful, honestly, in terms of learning about issues in the library world, because it was easier to be involved in the socials (for all that some of them were not advertised, or I learned about them only an hour in advance!) than to be involved in the sessions (or even select correct ones). I also feel that library technology has suddenly gotten much more influential in my future career, just because these were the easiest people to meet and have fun with.

    BTW I assumed that you were some kind of big organizer-y hotshot! It is inspiring to know that I could appear to be one myself after such a short time if I get involved in more things ;).

    Personally I do feel much closer…if not to ALA, the still-opaque organization, then to librarianship and my future colleagues, and you were a notable part of that :).

  8. Library Hat says:

    Walt, Thanks for the information about Blog Salon! Maybe awkwardness was one-time thing. I will probably try again next time. In any case, I would like to see more efforts on LITA to welcome and encourage new members to participate. It seemed to me a lot of new members come to various LITA interest group meetings but not all of them are retained. Just my 2 cents.

    Andromeda, congratulations on making your 1st ALA attendance success! I am glad I caught you at LITA Happy Hour. I agree picking the programs and sessions that are just right could be tricky and we could most certainly use more detailed description about each meeting/program in advance. Hopefully this gets better in the future too. I hope to see you at the annual in D.C. 🙂

Comments are closed.