ALA Annual Conference 2013: The Silence Before the Gathering

In many ways, attending a conference like the 2013 American Library Association Annual Conference (which is about to formally begin here in Chicago) is similar to the spiritual practice of walking a labyrinth; training-teaching-learning; or any other transformative experience we willingly undertake.

ALA_2013_Chicago_Logo_FINAL_CLR_0 (1)While there are predetermined paths to follow in each of those endeavors, there are also wonderfully unexpected moments that change us in subtle as well as substantial ways and, in the best of situations, shift our view of the world a bit by making us focus on something other than our day-to-day routines. Conferences, labyrinth walks, and training-teaching-learning also share a paradoxical ability to provide deeply rewarding moments of reflection even though we may be completely surrounded by terribly enticing distractions in the incredibly busy-noisy-chaotic settings we so often inhabit. And, if we leave ourselves time to breathe, absorb, and reflect upon what surrounds us, we find ourselves immersed in apparently unconnected moments that, in retrospect, become a lived poem, a tapestry of visual and aural shards that flow together into a pattern that provides an almost architectural structure of the entire experience.

In my day of onsite pre-conference preparations on Thursday (I’m writing this in the early hours of Friday morning), I know my own experiences are at least partially shaped by my recent reading of George Prochnik’s exquisite book In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise. Prochnik writes eloquently about his own quest for silence in a world he finds overwhelmingly noisy. That journey leads us with him through visits with Trappist monks in the New Melleray Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa; students who, “when they wanted quiet,” found it by “closing themselves inside their rooms and playing a computer game or turning on the television” (p. 286); an architect’s client who wanted the perfectly silent home but found there was no way to achieve the levels of silence he craved; people involved with Deaf Architecture at Gallaudet University; Tommy, the King of Bass, and his boom cars with sound systems producing sounds loud enough to turn the author’s brain to Jell-O; and many other memorable characters and experiences.

“Our aural diet is miserable,” Prochnik tells us toward the end of the book. “It’s full of over-rich, non-nutritious sounds served in inflated portions—and we don’t consume nearly enough silence. A poor diet kills; but it kills as much because of what it does not contain as from what it includes” (p. 283).

With those thoughts in mind, I use public transportation Thursday morning to travel from the McCormick Place convention center to Chicago’s Magnificent Mile commercial district. And even though the urban cacophony of cars, buses, and emergency vehicles is unlikely to inspire thoughts of silence, that sonic blast is not at all impossible to escape: all I have to do is step into the cloister garden outside one of my favorite urban sanctuaries in Chicago—Fourth Presbyterian Church at Michigan Avenue and Chestnut Street. I feel my pulse slowing, the sound and other distractions already receding, as the sound of house sparrows somehow begins to push the aural flood from nearby traffic into the background. And once I enter the building and take a seat in an empty pew, the nearby distractions recede even further so that I experience one of those George Prochnik moments when the sounds of the church—the bells, the sound of other visitors breathing, and snippets of organ music surround and entice me.

As I leave the building, I come across a reference to a new feature that has been added since my last visit to Chicago: a limestone labyrinth, set into the floor of a chapel within an addition to the building. And although the labyrinth is not open today for walks, its presence brings back memories of all the labyrinth walks I’ve enjoyed in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral and recreates the sense of serenity those walks often produce. So much so that the noise of the Magnificent Mile seems a bit more subdued as I walk to meet a friend for lunch in a nearby restaurant.

ALA_Mission_StatementThese experiential shards continue to coalesce in unexpected ways as we follow up our lunch with a visit to a different sort of shrine: the American Library headquarters on East Huron Street. There’s something obviously sweet about visiting that building for the first time after years of active membership in and work with the Association. But the biggest surprise of all comes when we enter the area where my colleague has his office: the reception area has the Association mission statement stenciled on the wall. Which means no one can walk into that area without seeing the reminder that “The Mission of the American Library Association is to provide leadership for the development, promotion and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.”

I’ve worked with many organizations—nonprofit, for profit, and governmental—either as an employee, a consultant, or a contract worker. But I’ve never before seen an organization post its mission statement so prominently and so attractively. And I have to admit that it not only makes me even more proud to be affiliated with the Association and all the people it draws together, it also provides a new example I will share with anyone involved in employee orientation/onboarding: this is how we foster our commitment to the mission, vision, and value statements that are meant to provide the foundations for our collaborations as we work together rather than mentioning them in passing and then putting them into cold storage.

Labyrinth--Chicago--St_JamesBut the story doesn’t even end there, for this day of pursuing silence, creating space for reflection, and connecting conferences, training-teaching-learning, and labyrinths has one more shard that adds to the overall picture: looking through my colleague’s office window, I see, across the street, an outdoor labyrinth that has been created in a public space outside St. James Cathedral. So I bow to the inevitable: after leaving my friend, I walk across the street. Set down the shoulder bag that has been weighing on my shoulder throughout the day. Stand at the entrance to the labyrinth. And begin the walk that will continue over the next several days at the annual conference.

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