ALA Annual Conference 2013: Keeping Up

“How do you keep up?” is one of those perennial questions we repeatedly hear and/or ask at gatherings like the 2013 American Library Association Annual Conference (which formally began here in Chicago late Friday afternoon with keynote presentations and the opening of the Exhibit Hall)—and the only reasonable answer is “Who’s keeping up?”

ALA_2013_Chicago_Logo_FINAL_CLR_0 (1)We ask it of colleagues or new acquaintances who seem to have read far more than we are reading or ever will have time to read, or have taken one more course or workshop than we have taken, or not only already know every session they are going to attend during a conference, but also already know exactly where those sessions are being held—because they’ve explored every nook and cranny of convention center buildings that appear to be larger than the towns in which we grew up (and, by the way, they also seem to have memorized the map of conference hotels—several of which host offsite events).

Keeping up in the context of a conference that has attracted at least 25,000 attendees can be approached in many ways. One is to assume that we’re going to run into people who know much more than we do and are willing to share that information with us. Another is to hold a printed copy of the official program and begin skimming it to sift through offerings that could keep any one of us busy for years. A fine alternative is to search the online version of the program or download a copy of the free conference app.

To put this in perspective, let’s note that The 132nd Annual Conference & Exhibition Program & Exhibit Directory has more than 300 pages of content, including two full pages of Association acronyms (pp. 68-69, attendees!), a five-page section of “conversation starters & ignite sessions” (pp. 82-86), 71 pages of program descriptions (Friday – Tuesday, pp. 91-161), 10 pages of author events (is there anyone who is still seriously suggesting that we no longer read?), and a section of exhibitor listings that could probably cover all the walls in a typical conference attendee’s hotel room if the pages were meticulously detached from the Directory and affixed to the walls from ceiling to floor—and then extended across the ceiling for good measure.

A friend once offered an aural version of the ALA Annual Conference experience by standing on a chair, dropping a copy of the brick-like Directory onto a table, and producing an explosive noise similar to what we hear in one of those wonderful summer thunderstorms that provide brief periods of relief from the local heat and humidity. Keeping up with all that information and all those opportunities? About as likely as building a snowman on the shores of Lake Michigan before the conference ends next week.

Freakonomics_coverAnd yet we try to keep up. Because we’re fascinated. Because we can’t turn down a challenge. And because we know it’s far more fun to be sitting in that large auditorium when the opening presentations and keynote address remind us that the conference is now underway. And we don’t want to be the one who hours later is scanning the conference Twitter feed (#ala2013, with many also using the shorter #ala13) and regretting not being at the live presentation when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel makes an unannounced appearance as part of the welcome committee. Nor do we want to try figuring out after the fact why Freakonomics and Think Like a Freak co-author Steven Levitt has most of us in hysterics through a keynote address that somehow weaves together the disparate revelations that the best ideas are those that become obvious only after the first person proposes them; the badge of honor in economics is being able to mess things up and then explain why you weren’t responsible; the author’s father was once dubbed “the king of farts” in GQ; and his most successful research project showed that Chicago prostitutes are more likely to have sex with police officers than to be arrested by them.

We also don’t want to be left out when that magnificent Exhibit Hall opens and major mainstream publishers began handing out free prepublication copies of books that won’t be available to the general public for weeks or months yet. Nor do we want to lose the wonderful memories and stimulating thoughts that come out of attending gatherings that are this well-organized. So we skim our paper and online copies of the Directory. We push ourselves to visit one more publisher’s booth or carve out time for one more conversation with a vendor whose products and services we adore or find intriguing. We stop in crowded aisles and corridors and coffee-shop lines to ask colleagues we don’t see nearly often enough what they are attending, doing, reading, writing, and thinking. And then we stay up long past our normal bedtime to write about it so we can safely preserve a few of those experiences, share them with others, and prepare to do it all over again tomorrow in another futile yet appealing attempt to keep up.

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