Who We Are: Lessons from ALA Annual Conference 2016

This post was originally published on the 27th June, 2016, on the blog Librarian in Black by Sarah Houghton, after she attended the ALA Annual Conference in Florida this year.  We think it eloquently conveys how excited and inspired we are by our profession and its people, as well as the energising potential some conferences can have on you.

Basically, we read it, and instead of just commenting “#same #feels”, we asked if we could repost it here.  And Sarah said yes, because she’s great!  

Please enjoy these fantastic words.  We hope you’ll find as much inspiration at NLS8.

Click here to go to the original post.

I’m on my last day of conference here in Orlando at the American Library Association Annual Conference. I’ve been going to multiple conferences every year for the last decade and a half. Local, state, national, international, specialized, general, you name it. I have the conference packing down, the “airplane survival pack” perfected, and have a master plan for maximizing my schedule. I still stink at finding healthy, sustaining food in other cities. Meh, there’s always something new to learn, right?

This conference was a very different one for me. Sure–I came here to present and to help people get hired for jobs they want. But (this last bit is selfish) I also came to see if I could recapture the excitement and belief in libraries that got me into this profession in the first place.

I’ve had a hard few years professionally. I was looking for this conference to make me believe again–in what I do every day and in what I’ve dedicated my life to. Spoiler alert: It worked.

So…what did I learn?

Lesson 1: A sincere passion for service permeates everything librarians do.

Conversation after conversation over the last few days drove this point home. Presenters talking about projects–successful and not. Friends and colleagues discussed their current efforts, all user-focused and stimulating in them an exuberance usually reserved for Comic-Con or a Depeche Mode concert. I’ve been surrounded by people smiling, laughing, and fist pumping about the work they do every day. How do you beat that?

Lesson 2: Librarians are a powerful tribe.

Even with conference attendance significantly down this year, I was once again amazed at walking through the hallways and realizing every darn person I was seeing worked in or with libraries. There are so many of us and we’re all, in our own way, working our butts off to make our communities a better place. We talk a lot about feeling disenfranchised, unimportant to our parent institutions, or unrecognized. But there are *a lot* of us. With the efforts of groups like EveryLibrary and the ALA Committee on Legislation we can continue to leverage our numbers, our passion, and our ethics to effect positive change on local and national levels.

Lesson 3: Smart people do smart things every day and it doesn’t win them awards.

Of every 1,000 library staff doing amazing things at their job–innovative, caring, above-and-beyond types of things–maybe 1 gets recognition. Awards are nice, but they don’t catch all, or even necessarily the best, of the people kicking ass in libraries. Please remember to say thank you to the people you work with. Say thank you to the random people elsewhere you see doing astounding things. There aren’t enough certificates, trophies, or medals in the world to recognize the good and necessary work we all do.

Lesson 4: Librarians’ lives are often difficult due to factors out of our control.

No library job, budget, boss, institutional political structure, decision-making structure, population, support, or facility is going to be perfect for anyone. There is a lot that has the potential to cause immense amounts of stress. The reality is that these elements are part of the job, part of public service. There are jobs that will fit a person better or worse and communities that will fit a person better or worse. It’s our job to figure out where we can fit so we can keep doing good work.

Lesson 5: Librarians’ lives are often difficult due to factors completely within our control.

There are some things that we can control. We can choose not to work insane hours and give up our time for free. We can take care of ourselves by actually taking our breaks (*gasp*) and walking out of the library for lunch.  We can prioritize professional development. We can choose not to allow the little dramas (and let’s be honest, they are little dramas) of the workplace become full blown crises that spin us into oblivion. We can choose to spend our time and energy on the team members we work with who share our goals and ethics and who are pleasant to be around, thereby minimizing the impact and influence of the few bad apples that can exist in any organization.

Lesson 6: Money, type of library, and type of position greatly affect a librarian’s reality.

A good number of comments I heard, both in formal sessions and informal conversations, reflected a personal bias and limited experience of the speaker. Not everyone has a smart phone. Maybe in your community but not mine. Not every library can have a maker space. Not every librarian can afford a fancy hotel. Not every library user can read. Not every library user feels safe in the library. Not every librarian has support to publish or pursue professional development. Not every school has a librarian in it. Remember that your own situation is just that–your own. Listen to the stories of others and broaden your understanding of the wide continuum of our jobs, libraries, and communities we serve.

Lesson 7: There is a whole new crew of newer librarians who are doing us mid-career folks proud.

I realized yesterday in one of those *zing* moments of clarity that I am not one of the new kids on the block anymore. I’ve been a librarian for 15 years and working in libraries for 19. All these new library staff, and definitely not just the librarians, are doing some truly astounding things. The energy, innovation, and perspective they bring to bear on their jobs brings me hope that our libraries have a bright future indeed!

Lesson 8: Social justice issues matter a lot to librarians.

I have seen humbling examples of people coming together to learn about, show solidarity for, and promote various social justice issues. The location of this conference in Orlando has lent a lot to awareness about gun violence, racism, and of course GLBTQ issues. Social inequity, racism, sexism, income disparity, bigotry, and hatred of all forms are not tolerated in libraries or by libraries. The ALA Resolution that just passed, the Resolution Calling Upon Libraries to Build More Inclusive Communities, is a fantastic example of this work. I pledge to do more in my own library and career going forward to uphold these essential values. It’s far too easy to be afraid of taking a political stance and putting your organization or your job at potential risk for community blow-back. I have certainly failed in this regard myself more than once. It’s much easier to be afraid and follow policies and procedures and toe the line of your institution while forgetting who you are and what your professional ethics are. I am thankful to my peers for reminding us all of this important element of our work.

Lesson 9: Our stories are more powerful than our statistics.

You can count your books, your program attendance, and your web visits. Or you can tell stories, you can impact lives, and share those stories with the people making budgetary and political decisions about your library. Everything I heard at this conference supports the latter.

Lesson 10: Helping people still brings me more joy than anything else.

This last point may seem self-evident, but going into this conference it wasn’t–at least not to me. The moments at this conference that made me smile, that energized and excited me, all had to do with either observing someone helping someone else or me helping someone. I am so jazzed by seeing a positive impact from the exchange of knowledge, a helping hand, a simple tip, or a shared experience.

So you all are stuck with me for a while longer. This whole “being a librarian” thing seems to be embedded deeply enough in my being to lead me to continue down this path. I promise to do my best and I know you will promise to do yours. Thank you all for being my tribe.

By Sarah Houghton.

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