My First Library Conference

It was possibly foolish to go to an ALA Annual for my first library conference… But screw it; go big, or go home, and ALA is certainly big. Here is a day-by-day recap, with my thoughts and reflections mixed in (because I can’t think of any other way to condense a giant experience into a tiny blog post):

Thursday, June 27

I took the train up to Chicago, checked into my hotel, took the shuttle over to McCormick, got my badge at registration, and explored a bit. I *highly* recommend exploring a conference venue as early as you can. I successfully located all of the rooms I absolutely needed to get to days in advance, which definitely came in handy when I had 10 minutes to make it across the convention center (not easy to do, even with ALL OF THE ESCALATORS and a very clear plan). I also recommend taking the conference shuttle before needing to/very early; that way you know how long it actually takes to get to the venue(s).

I then had a lovely dinner with my fellow Student to Staff program representatives at Lou Malnati’s (for many of them it was a first-time deep-dish pizza experience!). It was great to finally meet everyone, as up until that point we had all just been communicating via email and Facebook. It was great to have a little in-group amidst the sea of librarians that swarmed Chicago.

Friday, June 28

I took the shuttle down to McCormick in the morning to help set up the Public Programs Office booth on the exhibit hall floor. An interesting tidbit about giant conferences is that they do not turn on the A/C for the exhibitors and teamsters that labor for days setting up massive, lovely exhibits. Thus, we set up our booth in what looked like a hangar deck and felt like a sauna. Hence, Nicole’s Conference Tip #1: Do not try to look nice/professional during set-up or take-down; it’s not worth it and you will die. But, after much toil, we did end up with a pretty lovely little booth and a nice bookcase display for the Live! Author Stage.

Public Programs Booth!
Public Programs Booth!
Live Reading Stage!
Live Reading Stage!

The best part about showing up early on Friday to help set up was that I got to explore the exhibit floor before it officially opened! The floor was massive, so it was great to figure out where things were beforehand; it was also cool to see some of the exhibit spaces take shape.

No single photograph can capture the size of the room.
No single photograph can capture the size of the room.

On Friday afternoon I went to the Opening Session, which included appearances by ALA President Maureen Sullivan, Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel! It was a lovely introduction to the conference.

Surprise guest, Rahm!
Surprise guest, Rahm!

On Friday night I went to the official exhibits opening (and loaded up on free food; what, I’m a student) and then an ALA Dance Party (and loaded up on free drinks; what, don’t judge me). This brings us to Nicole’s Conference Tip #2: Take advantage of free food, coffee, alcohol, etc. wherever you can find it; convention hall food is expensive and not usually that tasty. Free food is always tasty. (Sub-tip: always have granola bars in your bag. Always.)

Saturday, June 29

My first full day of conferencing! It involved lots of running around like a mad-woman to get to sessions on time (even though I knew where I was going, McCormick is HUGE) – Tip #3: Wear sensible shoes AND bring a backpack; that shoulder bag might be cute but it’s not making the cut for 3+ days of scurrying all over the place. I got to go to two programs for the PPO which I then blogged about: Learning Labs Ignite (check out my blog post at and Bilingual & Culturally Inclusive Storytime Programs (check out my blog post at I also managed to make it to the Poster Sessions area of the exhibit floor a few times to check out interesting posters.

In the afternoon I wandered into a Marketing Discussion Group hosted by ACRL. I was very hesitant about going, because while I am a student who is interested in library marketing, I’m not a library marketer, myself. However, it turned out to be a lovely experience full of interesting people, ideas, and discussions. Tip #4: Go to a smaller, division-sponsored discussion group. They offer a nice break from the giant exhibit hall and mega-programs, as well as networking opportunities with librarians in the field! (Sub-tip: bring business cards!)

In the evening I met my S2S roommate for dinner at XOCO (Rick Bayless’ restaurant) for delicious churros and then stopped by the Tumblarian party, where I got Tumblr/library swag!

I'd been jonesing after that Tumblarian ribbon pretty hard...
I’d been jonesing after that Tumblarian ribbon pretty hard…

Sunday, June 30

Got up bright and early again for more PPO sessions (Tip #5: Give yourself a curfew; it will come in handy the morning after the unlimited-beer-and-wine Tumblarian party when you have an 8:30AM session). Sunday’s sessions included: Creating out-of-this-world Children’s Science Programming with NASA Materials (check out my blog post at and What’s New at the NEH? (check out my blog post at Both programs were very informative and the NASA one even included fun demonstrations!

We got to learn how impact craters are formed and then make some of our own!
We got to learn how impact craters are formed and then make some of our own!

In the afternoon I helped lead a discussion session for Hack Library School on Hacking Transferable Skills. We had a pretty good turnout, with lots of professionals and students; it was great to get a variety of perspectives for the small group discussions.

And in the evening I ended up at the alumni reception for my school (Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, or GSLIS). A large number of people showed up, including recent and not-as-recent alums, faculty, staff, and other students! It was great to see people and catch up. Tip #6: Find a way to connect with people from your school, whether it’s at an event, a booth, or just by random happenstance. It’s a cool way to connect with librarians and to network.

Monday, July 1st

On Monday morning my last PPO task was to help at the Live! Reading Stage, where authors gave 20 minute readings and then signed and gave away limited copies of their books. My duties mostly involved maintaining order, setting up for the signings, handing out feedback surveys, and making sure authors were on time. It was definitely the most behind-the-scenes work I did and it was fantastic; you really appreciate how much work goes into seemingly simple events like this when you see them from the inside-out.

Plus, it was awesome to meet the authors!
Plus, it was awesome to meet the authors!

Afterwards, I really didn’t have anywhere I needed to be; there were a few sessions on Monday afternoon, but instead I decided to walk to the east side of McCormick and head to Lake Michigan for a little rest and relaxation time. This brings us to Tip #7: Don’t feel guilty about occasionally ditching out and indulging in a little self-care. You will need it. It will be necessary for you to function. You don’t really realize how draining it is to be around 20,000 people until you’re walking through a flower garden/bird sanctuary next to Lake Michigan.

It's a good time, y'all. I highly recommend it.
It’s a good time, y’all. I highly recommend it.

After my walk, I hooked up with my S2S roommate and headed to the Sears Tower to see the SkyDeck/Ledge. It’s the one touristy thing I’ve never actually done in Chicago that I really wanted to. Tip #8: Plan at least one touristy thing that has nothing to do with the conference. No, going to bars and restaurants does not count. We had a blast and it was great to be able to do it while I was already in Chicago/downtown!

Not gonna lie, it was pretty scary. But the views alone are worth the price of admission.
Not gonna lie, it was pretty scary. But the views alone are worth the price of admission.

On Monday night I got all packed up and I flew out on Tuesday. Two final general tips for conferencing :

Tip #9: Bring an extra bag for all of the free stuff you’re going to get. No, seriously. Books, posters, pens, and assorted other swag will take up more room than you think. I was flying carry-on-only after the conference, so I limited myself to 3 posters, some pens, and assorted buttons and ribbons. My roommate, however, ended up with a massive amount of totally awesome swag, including tons of books. Her extra bag definitely came in handy.

Tip #10: Familiarize yourself with the local transportation options BEFORE you arrive. That means: have the subway/bus app already installed on your phone, know where and how to buy farecards/tickets/etc., and figure out how you’re going to get to and from the airport and how long it will take IN ADVANCE. Luckily I lived in Chicago for a semester and visit often enough that I know how to get around. But if it had been in a different city I would have needed much more advanced preparation.

I could go on and on about ALA and write up many more tips, but the experiences and advice I’ve highlighted are what were the most important to me (or maybe they’re just the most memorable, as I spent the week after ALA chilling on a beach…). Anywho, hopefully this is helpful to anyone who is interested in the Student to Staff program (S2S), attending ALA Annual, or going to library conferences in general. Feel free to contact me with questions, as I’d be happy to give more specific advice!


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