The Emporia State University Student Chapter of the American Library Association offers stipends to help students attend conferences (this is what much of the fundraising we do throughout the year supports). This summer, Rachel Miles had the opportunity to attend the ALA Annual Conference in San Francisco this past summer. Below, she shares her experiences. 

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First of all, I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the size of the conference. By the number of sessions. By the number of hotels where the sessions were held. By the exhibits alone. It was like being in a mini-city of librarians, intellectuals, writers, academics, movie directors and actors, and information professionals. I wanted to soak it all in, but I didn’t figure I was big enough to do so.

If you have ever gone to any conference, you usually want to attend sessions that are related to your field or your focus. I felt like I wanted to be at several sessions at once, but I usually had to settle for what I was either most interested in hearing or what session was closest. Here are some of the highlights from sessions that stuck with me the most at the ALA Annual Conference this year.

The first session I went to see was the keynote speaker, Roberta Kaplan, on Friday, June 26, who helped bring down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). What made this keynote speaker event even more prominent and influential was the historic event that occurred on the very day she spoke: the Supreme Court ruled nationwide that gay couples have the right to marry. Kaplan spoke about Justice Kennedy’s own words that day and how the constitution has finally granted equal dignity in the eyes of the law. Later on, Nancy Pelosi came on stage to address everyone at ALA, and then she also addressed the same issues and asked Kaplan to come back on stage with her. I felt like I was in a historic moment, and it was much, much bigger than me.

After Kaplan’s and Pelosi’s speeches, my colleagues, and my hotel roommates, (Jenay and Cynorra) and I went to the exhibits. This was my first time to the exhibits, and I was stunned by the scale. Just going down the escalator for the first time was impressive. For a better idea of what I saw, (though the video doesn’t do it justice), watch this ALA Annual Conference 2015 Highlights video.

We stayed at the exhibits until they closed, and after collecting heaps of books and putting them in our tote bags, we decided to walk back to our hotel. It probably wasn’t the best idea, though, because I was trying to take the most direct route, and we ended up going through neighborhoods that were not the safest. For future reference, if you don’t know the neighborhood, just take the shuttle at ALA! I love walking, but I felt out of place and a little apprehensive walking, especially with my massive bag of books. We were exhausted, and weighed down by our bags. We stopped in a restaurant, but we really wanted specialty coffees, so we left and went to Starbucks nearby, (we really wanted a local place, but most places were closed!) A few minutes later, at Starbucks, I realized I didn’t have my phone. I ran back to the restaurant, but they hadn’t seen it. Someone had stolen it off the countertop, I was sure. I had to file a police report, but I was sure it was gone forever. How frustrating! I spent the next few days not being able to take pictures, use GPS, or call/text anyone.

The next day, I didn’t feel so well in the morning, (perhaps due to the stress of my phone being stolen,) so I missed seeing Gloria Steinem speak, which was disappointing, but Jenay and I went to the career center at ALA and listened to the Bohemian Librarians speak about their struggle to find a library job. In many ways, it helped both of us feel better about finding jobs. I think the librarians really wanted all of us to understand that when you can’t find a job, it’s not because you’re incompetent or even unqualified. It often takes a “try, try again…and again,” attitude, which can be exhausting. I loved hearing them speak about their own experiences, and I think, more than anything, it helped me to realize that I shouldn’t be discouraged by the job market. At the very least, I can give myself a reassuring pat on the back and tell myself it’s not me. After listening to the librarians speak, we walked around the career exhibits, where many exhibits were set up to represent their libraries. We spoke to every booth, even if we weren’t that interested, because we wanted to keep our options open. Even if we didn’t plan on working for that particular library, I think their input was helpful. We also spoke to OCLC and got a perspective on working on the vendor side; not to mention, we got some cool free items from them!

Later on in the day, we went to see Haifaa al-Mansour speak about her new film, The Green Bicycle, or Wadjda, about a girl who lives in a suburb of Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia. In the film, Wadjda is a 10-year-old girl who is desperate to buy a brand new bicycle, so she enters a Koran-reciting competition to raise money. al-Mansour had to direct the film almost entirely indoors with a walkie-talkie, because it is illegal for men and women to work together in public. She spoke about her frustrations in making the film behind closed doors and about how she worked with the Arabian government to get permission to film the movie. It is the first movie to be entirely filmed in Saudi Arabia, and al-Mansour is the first female Saudi filmmaker to make a feature film. Not long after the film was made, the young actress who played Wadjda had to start wearing the full veil. Saudi Arabia seems a land far-removed from the Western world, or from any world besides its own country, but listening to al-Mansour, I felt quite differently about it. I wanted to know more, and I wanted to feel connected to these issues. In a word, it was inspiring.

Later in the afternoon, we went to see Nick Offerman speak about his new book, Gumption. Nick Offerman is most known for his role in Parks and Recreation. At first, I was stunned that Offerman had shaved off his mustache, one of his famous trademarks! Offerman read from his new book, and his narration and delivery made it that much funnier, (also, the audiobook is narrated by Offerman himself, which I am sure would be hilarious!) Offerman is hilarious, of course, but he also does not consider himself a comedian. He is just himself. We got to the session at the last minute, so it was packed. We sat on the floor at the back of the room and soaked up humorous history lessons, and later on, Sarah Vowell came on stage and interviewed Nick. (If you don’t know, Sarah Vowell is an author, journalist, social commentator, and actress, and her books are nonfiction that focus on American history with a sarcastic and humorous tone.) Offerman’s new book highlights great American heroes, so their dialogue was at times serious and intense, and minutes later, everyone would be laughing hysterically at their antics. I love history, and I love humor, and this was probably my favorite session. Probably. I can’t commit to favorites though.

On Sunday, we made sure to do some sight-seeing of San Francisco. We went to the Golden Gate Bridge (of course) and then went to see Muir Woods that morning before returning to the conference. In the early evening, we attended a student reception, which was an excellent networking event for library students and student chapters. I met many student chapter members, officers, and presidents. The reception was organized by the NMRT (New Members Round Table) who were extremely friendly and excited to talk to us. I decided to sign up for the NMRT and was recently contacted to be on their SASCO (Student and Student Chapter Outreach) Committee. I hope to get more ideas from them in the near future, and they’re excited to have me on the committee, because I am the only student on their committee this year.

On Monday, we didn’t have very much time for sessions, but we wanted to visit the exhibits one last time before heading to the airport. I actually had the best time on the exhibit floor Monday morning. I felt more at ease and was able to casually talk to exhibitors, librarians, authors, and vendors. I collected a few more books and got some signings. Some of the best moments I had at ALA were the most random ones. I spoke to a librarian from the Library of Congress for about fifteen minutes, and I really enjoyed her perspective and her advice. I also spoke to some of the employees at Mango Languages, and they offered some interesting advice about working on the vendor side; they also inspired me to start using their program on a more consistent basis.

I’d like to give a couple more pieces of advice, if you are a first-time attendee of ALA Annual. Plan your trip! I did some planning, but it was not efficient. There are several hotels where sessions are held, and you really want to try to be at sessions that are in the same hotel; otherwise, you’ll try to sprint to see a session that is too far away. At the same time, allow for the unplanned visits. Some of my most favorite moments were completely unplanned and spur of the moment. I know I sound like I’m contradicting myself, but this is what it comes down to: be prepared but prepare to be surprised.

By the time I came home, ALA was not what I had expected it to be. I went to a lot of the bigger sessions, but, looking back, I might have done it differently and focused on the smaller sessions. I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to be a conference attendee. You have to do it your own way. I felt inspired, more than anything, by many of the speakers. Of course, you are going to carry a lot of things (books, mostly), so it’s usually best to take the shuttle and always keep track of your belongings! (This should be a simple and straight-forward lesson, but even adults make mistakes.)

I also felt the shift in our society to fight for equality, whether it’s for women on the other side of the world (or here!) or for gay rights in our own country. I felt not just that all of it mattered, but that people really do know that it matters, and that libraries somehow help make all of it matter. They make a community what it is, and it made me happy to realize that I am a part of that, if only a small part of something much bigger.

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