ALA Annual Conference 2013: Post-Conference Tips for Future Conference Attendees (Thinking Outside the Schedule)

July 5, 2013

Let’s be wonderfully perverse! While other colleagues continue writing thoughtful post-conference reflections about the 2013 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference that concluded in Chicago a few days ago, let’s draw upon what some of us saw and did in Chicago to provide tips for anyone planning to attend any conference with colleagues anytime soon.

ALA_2013_Chicago_Logo_FINAL_CLR_0 (1)Conference presenters, for example, can benefit from the myriad online reminders of how to most effectively reach and serve their audiences. Those interested in drawing their various and varied onsite and online communities of learning into seamless and tremendously rewarding interactions can participate in the Twitter backchannel at any level that appeals to them. First-time attendees will find numerous resources, including those posted online by attendees willing to share suggestions. And those arriving a day or two before the conference formally begins can indulge in a period of reflection and preparation that also provides the foundations for gaining more than even the best-planned conference can provide.

One pre-conference ritual that has been particularly rewarding for me over the past several years is an informal dinner I arrange with a handful of cherished colleagues the evening before a conference begins. As I have noted so many times over the past few years, those invitation-only dinners—without a formal agenda, and with all participants splitting the cost of the meal—provide an unparalleled opportunity to hear what our best colleagues are doing, planning to do, and recovering from doing. It is, in essence, a chance to attend a master class with the brightest and most collaborative colleagues we can attract.

Siera_logoThe 10 trainer-teacher-learners who gathered in a Thai restaurant in Chicago on the Thursday evening before the ALA Conference began were far from reticent about describing the ways they are approaching the use of social media in libraries—creatively, openly, and with a great deal of encouragement for the learners they serve, as David Lee King noted—or the learner-centric webinars they are designing and delivering, as is the case with Pat Wagner (through Siera) and Andrew Sanderbeck (through the People Connect Institute). Louise Whitaker, from the Pioneer Library System (Oklahoma), enticed me with stories about the innovations in leadership training and other training-teaching-learning initiatives she continues to spearhead to support employees in her workplace—and then continued those stories over coffee a few days later when we were able to meet again outside of the formal sessions provided by the conference organizers. And everyone else had stories to tell or resources to share, so everyone at the table ate abundantly—and we’re not just talking about the wonderful food, here.People_Connect_Institute_logo

This idea of thinking outside the formal conference schedule to enhance—and actually create—learning experiences takes us to the heart of making sure each of us gains as much as we possibly can from attending conferences. It’s the combination of judiciously planning a schedule that includes attendance at formal sessions both within and outside our own areas of expertise; making arrangements in advance to meet with those cherished colleagues we absolutely do not want to miss; and relying on the numerous unplanned encounters we will have with colleagues onsite as well as those facilitated by what I’ve come to refer to as “drive-by greetings”—introductions, from colleagues including Maurice Coleman (T is for Training) and Peter Bromberg (Princeton Public Library), to those people they just happen to be standing  next to when we unexpectedly encounter them, and who just happen to have done work we have admired from afar for years.

One of those unexpected encounters, for me, led on the spot to an unplanned one-on-one hour-long lunch with a writer whose work I’ve very much admired—the sort of opportunity to exchange ideas that most of us would kill to have when we’re sitting in a packed room with little chance to interact at a meaningful level with a first-rate presenter. Another put me face-to-face with a colleague I’d only previously interacted with online. Numerous other outside-the-formal-curriculum meals and coffee breaks helped keep me up to date on the vibrant and ever-expanding world of advocacy and partnerships that benefit all of us and those we serve.

It’s also worth noting that a bit of planning beyond what conference attendance normally facilitates can provide additional rewarding opportunities. Contacting Chicago-based colleagues from the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) before arriving onsite for the ALA Annual Conference meant that one particularly memorable evening included a dinner with non-library colleagues who are as immersed as anyone else I know in the world of workplace learning and performance (staff training). Our exchanges offered them a glimpse into the world of staff training in libraries and also helped bring me up to date on the ever-evolving language used within the ASTD community to refer to the training-teaching-learning that is at the heart of all we do.

The clear lesson for any conference attendee is that planning helps; looking for opportunities to draw upon all the resources available to us is an essential element of creating a successful conference experience; and “un-planning”—the act of setting a schedule aside when unanticipated opportunities via drive-by greetings present themselves—benefits all of us, and creates the learning experiences we find nowhere else.


ALA Annual Conference 2013: Presentation Pain and Pleasure (Tips for Presenters)

July 3, 2013

Those of us immersed in training-teaching-learning are always on the prowl for ways to improve our presentation skills, so attending gatherings like the 2013 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference here in Chicago for the past several days has given us the equivalent of a presenter’s master class.

There were quite literally moments when we found ourselves exclaiming “I wish I had done that.” There were also those painful moments when we watched someone else falling into a presentation trap we wish we had avoided.

ALA_2013_Chicago_Logo_FINAL_CLR_0 (1)One of the most exquisite learning moments for me came as I was sitting with ALA Learning Round Table colleagues at one of their conference board meetings. The conversation centered around the question of whether the group should incur the cost of having a microphone for a presenter at a small event at an upcoming conference. I halfway—but only halfway—jokingly suggested that anyone who needed a microphone for that event in that small venue probably wasn’t the right presenter for the session.

ALA_Learning_Round-Table_LogoAnd that’s when a lovely colleague, with absolutely no rancor in her voice, said that although she knows many presenters believe they don’t need microphones to be heard, those presenters are inadvertently excluding members of their audience who are hearing-impaired—as she is. It was a humbling yet wonderfully instructive moment for any of us who let our egos get in the way of our goal of making it easy for every learner to participate in the learning opportunities we have agreed to provide—particularly those of us doltish enough to have never been aware of how effectively some of our longtime colleagues deal with challenges we never noticed they faced. Her comment was instructive—and inspirational. I immediately moved into full trainer-teacher-learner mode, documented that presentation tip, and tweeted it out to the conference backchannel as well as to colleagues across the country in the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) in the hope that a few more learners will benefit from our colleague’s suggestion.

Not so easy to share in the moment were the examples of poor preparation or presentation techniques that plagued colleagues at some of the sessions I attended—just as these same problems, somewhat surprisingly, plague some ASTD conference presenters even though we work in a profession where first-rate communication skills are essential. To have pointed those problems out via Twitter at the time they were happening would have tantamount to publicly humiliating the presenters—and I’m sorry to say that there actually were people on the conference backchannel who engaged in exactly that sort of cruel and unnecessary behavior. But I think it’s fair game, long after the presentations have ended and there is no obvious need to identify individuals under discussion, to offer yet another brief presenter’s tip sheet for anyone who wants to avoid the sort of presentation mistakes all of us have made—and wished we hadn’t.

We all learn the hard way that we need to plan, practice, revise, plan, practice, revise, and plan some more in the weeks and days leading up to our presentation. This will keep us from finding that parts of slides or entire slides have somehow disappeared from our PowerPoint slide decks when we’re in front of our audience.

It’s also very important to be in the space where we are presenting at least 30 minutes before we begin our presentation so we can be sure, by viewing the slides on the screen in that space, that any tech gremlins that have crept into our slides can be adjusted. That prevents us from finding that columns of text have shifted (which raises the question of why we’re even bombarding our learners with columns of text) and become an indecipherable jumble of words.

Being in the room before others arrive also allows for a final sound check of the microphone—and remember, we do want a microphone even if we think we won’t need one. Checking links to onsite resources we plan to use will prevent us from wasting five or ten minutes struggling to bring up a video or other online resource when we actually should be engaging with our audience during our formal presentation time. And being present as others arrive also offers the invaluable opportunity to begin connecting with the learners before the formal presentation begins and to be sure that their expectations for the session are what we are planning to deliver.

Avoiding references to how we have had to condense hour-long/day-long presentations into the much shorter period of time we have during the session we are currently delivering accomplishes nothing other than making us sound ungrateful and adding a bit of stress to learners who feel as if they are going to have to be extra attentive if they want to absorb this condensed version of what we wanted to offer. We knew, when we accepted the gift of being able to share information and resources with colleagues, how much time we had. It’s just plain polite to publicly thank those who brought us into that learning space and to effectively use the time we have rather than wasting any of it apologizing or grousing about the lack of time to do our subject—and our audience—justice.

Using slides that interact with and support our oral presentation rather than including the history of the world on a single slide keeps our presentations engaging rather than turning them into frustrating, overwhelming experiences during which audience members are forced to unsuccessfully try reading all that text while also trying to take in what we are saying. And we certainly don’t want to read content on the slides to our learners; we can safely assume they already know how to read, so if we want them to absorb content, we can join them in looking at the slide and giving ourselves enough time to read a line or two (e.g., an appropriate quote from someone who said it better than we ever will be able to say it), and we can use those slides to provide engaging images designed to help learners absorb key points.

Answering questions immediately rather than trying to postpone responses demonstrates that we care about our audience’s learning needs. There’s no reason why we can’t provide a one-line response—if we have one—and then return to our planned presentation after assuring learners that a longer explanation is on its way later in the presentation if that’s the case. We can also provide that one-line response and encourage interested audience members to join us after the session or contact us later via email to further explore the topic. Asking audience members to hold all questions until we are finished speaking implies that our content is more important than their questions are—not particularly the message we want to send to people who were nice enough to choose to spend their extremely limited and valuable time with us.

If we see our presentation/learning-facilitation opportunities as a collaboration with those who have agreed to spend time with us, we’re well on the way to providing the sort of transformative experiences that are at the heart of successful training-teaching-learning. And, not so surprisingly, we may even have the rewarding experiences of being asked to present again or to hear, years later, from those who learned from us, applied what we offered, and sought us out to thank us for offering them something of value.


ALA Annual Conference 2013: Backchannels Revisited

July 3, 2013

Attending conferences like the 2013 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference (held over the past several days here in Chicago) always provides a reminder, both positive and negative, of how far we have come in coping with life in an onsite-online world—and how far we still have to go in effectively using social media tools.

ALA_2013_Chicago_Logo_FINAL_CLR_0 (1)The opportunity to see and learn from colleagues is clearly a huge attraction for many of us; doing business (on the committees on which we serve, with the vendors upon whom we rely, and, for those of us working as consultants, with current and prospective clients) as well as having those spur-of-the-moment unplanned conversations that invariably happen even when there are more than 25,000 people onsite are absolutely inspirational. And combining our onsite presence with online activity through the Twitter backchannel, Facebook postings, and other online activities via laptops and mobile devices means that we have hundreds of onsite-online colleagues helping us find meetings, learning opportunities, after-hours gatherings, and other shared conference experiences we might otherwise have missed.

There is even an attempt to actively include those who are unable to physically attend the conference: the usual #ALALeftBehind hashtag not only kept us in contact with those who were interested but unable to attend—it often offered tongue-in-cheek opportunities to participate through virtual #alaleftbehind conference ribbons and even a very clever opportunity to be virtually photographed with a popular conference attendee.

As has been the case with other conferences I’ve attended, the ALA 2013 Annual Conference began with a bit of confusion about how best to reach colleagues arriving in Chicago. During the days leading up to the conference, many of us had inaccurately assumed that the official conference hashtag was #ala13—the conference URL started with “ala13”; there were numerous references online to that hashtag; it was the shortest possible combination many of us could imagine as a way of keeping up with each other (and when you only have 140 characters to convey a message, every typed character has to count); and the Twitter feed for #ala13 was very active. It wasn’t until many of us were onsite, however, that colleagues were nice enough to post tweets calling our attention to the official hashtag (#ala2013, with its extra two characters). The result, throughout the conference, was that any of us hoping to reach the largest possible number of colleagues ended up using both hashtags in our posts—a situation similar to what often happens with colleagues in the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) who face the #astd13/#astd2013 challenge when attending and/or following conference exchanges via Twitter.

ALA_2013--Top_TweetsThere were many times when both feeds were moving so quickly that it was impossible to either follow them in the moment or to follow them later by skimming earlier posts, for taking the time to try to review tweets invariably meant falling behind in the ever-developing stream of comments. American Libraries Senior Editor Beverly Goldberg (@americanlibraries) offered a playfully subjective bit of assistance by compiling lists of Top 10/Top 20 tweets while the conference was fully underway on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.  Reviewing her picks gives a wonderful overview of content—everything ranging from snippets from notable presentations to comments about the length of the lines at the onsite Starbucks outlets.

Bev, much to my surprise, included one of my paraphrases of a keynote speaker’s comment in her Friday list, then nailed me the following day in a very funny way by rerunning the same tweet on the next list and noting that I had suggested that standards must have been lowered if my tweets were making any sort of Top 10 list. (That’s OK, Bev, I know where you tweet!)

What doesn’t show up in those Top 10 lists is the reminder that some of our colleagues apparently need reminders that what happens in Twitter doesn’t necessarily stay in Twitter. There were the usual snarky comments from those who felt they needed to play den mother to the rest of us through cajoling notes about not wearing conference badges while walking city streets (I can’t imagine anyone reading one of those comments and thinking, “Oh, yes, that’s very helpful; thank you for making me a more responsible representative of my profession.”); standing to the right side of escalators so others could race up the left-hand side (why bother? the lines were going to be long at Starbucks no matter what time you arrived); and even writing critical comments to presenters while those presenters were in the middle of their presentations and clearly not paying any attention to the backchannel. All that those tweeters accomplished was to make the rest of us a little hesitant to have anything to do with them since those notes, at very least, indicated a level of incivility that present and future employers can’t help but notice.

There are certainly thousands of attendees who had great conference experiences without ever stepping into the Twittersphere and interacting at that level; there are also many of us who found our overall experience enhanced by combining our onsite and online presences. And now, as I’ve written after intensively engaging in other conferences, it’s nearly time to think about engaging in a digital media fast to decompress from several days of nonstop connectivity. But not quite yet: there are a still a few more tweets to read and a few more articles to complete.


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

June 30, 2013

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.


ALA Annual Conference 2013: Keeping Up

June 28, 2013

“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.


ALA Annual Conference 2013: The Silence Before the Gathering

June 28, 2013

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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