ALA Annual Conference 2013: Impressionism, Matchsticks, Fireworks, Learning, and Inspiration

We can’t be at the 2013 American Library Association Annual Conference (which formally began here in Chicago late Friday afternoon) without thinking Impressionistically.

ALA_2013_Chicago_Logo_FINAL_CLR_0 (1) Impressionism—both the art movement and our ability to take in hundreds of disparate shard-like visual impressions from which our minds work to create meaningful patterns—continually entices, seduces, and helps make sense of the wonderfully chaotic experience of having all of our senses continually bombarded in ways that change how we see, think about, and interact with our world after attending a conference as dynamic as ALA13.

If we start with a visit to the Chicago Art Institute, we find ourselves drawn into one of the finest publically-displayed collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting in the United States. And if we have arrived this week just as the traveling “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” exhibition opened at the Art Institute, we are going to wish we had scheduled weeks rather than days in the city.

McCormick_Place1And when we carry this Impressionism-influenced thinking into the McCormick Place buildings drawing more than 25,000 conference attendees together through an abundance of planned activities and countless serendipitous encounters that are so much at the heart of what makes this particular community of learning so vibrant, we find ourselves unexpectedly making literary as well as artistic connections. Which should not be surprising; it’s a natural reaction to swimming through an environment where publishers are providing hundreds of advance copies of books to be published in the weeks and months to come, authors are discussing and signing copies of those works, and our best colleagues are offering inspiring sessions and panel discussions on myriad topics that nurture our minds and hearts and souls.

The first (admittedly obscure) literary reference for me today came as I was sitting in a coffee house on Michigan Avenue this evening for a period of reflective solitude. The temperature outside had dropped quite a bit from the hot humid weather we were all experiencing a day or two ago. A strong wind was playing the trees as if they were finely tuned instruments or dancers responsive to a choreographer’s dreams of poetry in motion. A light rain was about to once again dampen the traffic-laden streets. But that didn’t stop the staff and me from running outside to look up as a beautiful stream of Chinese lanterns floated over the trees and nearby skyscrapers. And just as the flickering candlelight within the lanterns began to fade and the spent ghostly paper remnants drifted down like spirits in search of a resting place, thunderous explosions drew our attention to the colorful fireworks that were quickly rising from Navy Pier.

Fiammiferi, I thought, involuntarily recalling an Italian word I hadn’t seen or heard in years. Matchsticks! But it wasn’t just the physical object that was overwhelming me with a torrent of pleasantly nostalgic memories. It was the pleasant emotions recreated by the recollection that I had first encountered the word fiammiferi as the title of a collection of impressionistic short stories—each one creating the literary equivalent of the dynamically explosive moment that occurs when a match is first struck, bursts into flame, and produces a pleasantly sulphurous smell that itself induces a sensory—and sensual—flood of  memories.

ALA13--Starbucks1So, in the space of a single heartbeat, my mind was connecting the sight of those Chinese lanterns with the sights and sounds of the fireworks with the memories of those wonderfully phosphorescent stories in a language I very much adore with the memories of other fireworks seen while attending other ALA Annual meetings with all the explosively phosphorescent moments I had shared with library conference colleagues today. Like the incredibly long line I faced for morning coffee at the conference center. Or the wonderfully playful moment in a restaurant when a group of us volunteered our services to a family at a nearby table (one of their children was crying inconsolably, so we offered to put our professional skills to work by offering a synchronized shush—which actually surprised the child so much that the crying immediately stopped, and the other family members burst into laughter at the thought that a group of librarians had created temporary silence out of chaos for them). Or the wonderful learning moments provided by ALA Learning Round Table colleagues participating in a panel discussion on “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” of providing training-teaching-learning for library staff and library users. Or the wonderfully unrestrained conversation with a colleague who plays in the same training-teaching-learning field of consulting that is so much a part of my own day-to-day existence.

AA13--Starbucks2Fiammiferi. Impressions. Fireworks. Learning. Inspiration. And memories. All very much in the moment. Unplanned. Ephemeral. Phosphorescent. And cherished as gems to be preserved because we help shape and nurture them through our participation in conferences, and give them extended lives by sharing them with others through the writing and presentations that weave impressionistic moments into something with a larger longer life than any individual participant expects to have.

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