On Conferences

Posted on 29 March 2010 at 8:43 pm in Events, Musings.

In 1891 the annual American Library Association conference ventured to the West Coast for the first time. The ALA came at the behest of the San Francisco Free Public Library and its director, John Vance Cheney. He had spent the greater part of the prior conference lobbying for the privilege of hosting the gathering. While San Francisco was already a sizable city – the self-proclaimed Paris of the West – it was still a far-off frontier to the East Coast American library establishment. After all, much of the region between East Coast and West – Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas – had only gained statehood in the two years prior, and Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona still remained territories. It took a three month round-trip for the caravan of librarians to arrive at the City by the Bay, in what sounds to me must have been a fascinating train ride (for the companionship of so many librarians, for so long, crossing a territory so vast). It must have made for quite the “pre-conference”.

The Papers and Proceedings of the ALA for 1891 and 1892 – available freely on Google Books – are filled with interesting personal and professional notes on the event, including one late night tour of subterranean Chinatown haunts (complete with Chinese opera). Librarians have been writing up accounts of their adventures for far longer than the Age of Blogging!

In 2010, the ALA Conference remains a mainstay event, but with far more than the 50 attendees of 1891 (and developed in ways that Cheney, Dewey and Windsor likely never anticipated). Meanwhile, there is an endless number of focused events a librarian can attend based on specialty, region, and various other factors. Some now take place entirely online (robbing us of the charm of the three month train trip…)

So far I’ve only dipped my toe in one library conference, the 2008 California Library Association (CLA) Conference. I was a San José State SLIS student at the time and was able to attend free of charge in return for volunteer hours at the Infopeople Booth. It was a worthy trade. I found a presentation on Zotero to be quite useful, and greatly enjoyed the keynote speakers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. The booth time itself turned out to be a great hands-on learning experience with a variety of interesting gadgets and gizmos (with varying degrees of library-related usefulness). However, because of other commitments my time at the conference was limited.

I’ll have a more substantial conference experience with the upcoming California Academic and Research Libraries conference in Sacramento, April 8-10. I plan on attending the entire event (I’ll be commuting in each day with my friend Carolyn in lieu of the cross-country train ride). And while my experience in Sacramento may lack late night adventures in Chinese Opera, I’ll still do my best to write up accounts of my adventures on these digital pages here.

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