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One Locomotive, Four Cars: ALA’s Railway Odyssey of 1891

Posted on 16 June 2015 at 1:49 pm in Events.

Later this month, nearly 20,000 librarians, library workers, and other information professionals will descend on the city of San Francisco for the annual conference of the American Library Association (ALA). They will arrive by airplanes, by bridges, and by freeways. But in 1891, when San Francisco played host to the ALA’s first ever West Coast conference (Bertram 2015), the story of their arrival was extraordinary: the ALA commissioned a private steam train to transport over half of the conference attendees on a five-week, round-trip transcontinental train ride.


The Pennsylvania R.R. provided cars from its Pennsylvania Limited, seen in this postcard courtesy Wikimedia Commons

It was an amazing odyssey that would crescendo in a tumultuous scene on the return ride home: an impromptu but official conference session aboard the moving train. Picture the ALA president Samuel Swett Green struggling to keep both his feet and order as association members argued over whether to override a committee vote and change the planned location of the following year’s conference, all while he was waving around a Native American warclub in lieu of a gavel.

“Oratory, poetry, and cold facts all call us west”

Where to host the conference was a recurring controversy. The original suggestion to situate the 1891 conference in San Francisco was itself contentious: at the 1890 Fabyan House conference, Herbert Putnam, then the City Librarian of Minneapolis, submitted a letter charging the ALA with “making excursions” and not accomplishing enough business at its annual meetings (ALA 1890, 124). It fell to John Vance Cheney, a poet recently appointed the Librarian of San Francisco, to convince the conventioneers to travel west the following year.

Cheney opened his address to the 1890 conference with this appeal: “If I wished to show you that this invitation is from a land of beauty, I should point you to that queen city sitting by the gate of the sea; I should point you farther down the coast to that stray bit of paradise, Monterey; or I should point you still farther down to Santa Barbara, where lingers yet the old Spanish language, and where it is always afternoon. And as a contrast to this, I should lead you suddenly to the Yosemite, whose invitation to you is in a voice far kinder than the thunder that rattles from crag to crag of the Sierra Nevada; and lastly, I should bring you to that peak, 15,000 feet high, Sovereign Shasta, bowing to welcome you as you approach.”

“Now if you were a selfish body, California could address you on the selfish side. But I utterly waive that. I wish to put that out of your minds as much as possible. Think first of your duty” (ALA 1890, 125).

Mr. Cheney proceeded to make the case that it was ALA’s duty and responsibility to travel to California; the state needed funding for library buildings and the arrival of the conference would sway the minds of politicians and the newspapers and inspire a library boom. “We have money; we have some books, but we need library buildings. Why, you who sit here in the centres of culture, you who sit here in your old world complacency, know not the need of us who wrestle in the sagebrush and track the yellow sands of the prairie” (ALA 1890, 125).

I’ll allow Mr. Cheney his poetic license, but there is no sagebrush or prairie in San Francisco. However, he did have to fight constant battles to obtain dedicated space for San Francisco’s public library. By 1891, he had managed to move the main branch from an abandoned, fire-prone theater to a wing of City Hall, but space was still cramped and inadequate. When the conference commenced, there were public sessions on the cultural importance of public libraries and another focused on library architecture, both of which held the potential to inspire the funding of library construction (towards that goal, it failed: San Francisco would not have a freestanding Main Library until Andrew Carnegie helped fund its construction in the 1910s).

The librarians of Denver and Chicago both spoke in favor of a San Francisco conference, and Boston’s Charles A. Cutter, the beloved cataloging pioneer still remembered today for his “cutter numbers” spoke up to defend excursions and unofficial business at conferences: “I also come to join in the little talks on the train, in the lobby, and on the excursions, for these talks give us fully as much benefit as anything that goes on at the regular meetings. [...] So I second this motion, because I wish to see a mountain with a snow line, as well as one with a tree line. Also, I should like to see Mr. Cheney wrestle in a sage brush” (ALA 1890, 125).

The resulting vote turned out to be unanimous. As 1890’s ALA President Frederick Crunden said, “Oratory, poetry, and cold facts all call us west” (ALA 1890, 126). The Association was going to California.


Matthews, Northrup and Co., Railroad Map of the United States, 1890, courtesy Library of Congress

“They don’t all wear glasses; but they look almighty wise”

At 7:30 am, October 1, 1891, four travelers, partly refreshed by sleep under the auspices of Jersey mosquitos, stepped over from Taylor’s Hotel in Jersey City to the Pennsylvania R.R. station and formed the nucleus of a company of faithful members of the ALA bound for the setting sun conference. In the course of a few minutes a local train brought into view the smiling face of our Secretary, who, being used to the insects of the locality, had without doubt enjoyed a good night’s sleep; and soon the New York and Brooklyn ferries brought in the rest of our party, and at a minute or two before 8 the special train was off — one locomotive, four cars, about twenty officials, and nine tourists. (Johnston 1891, 129-30)

That smiling face belonged to Frank P. Hill, the Librarian of Newark, New Jersey and the new ALA Secretary, succeeding Melvil Dewey. It had fallen to him to somehow move the East Coast-based library establishment west. He settled on a uniquely luxurious travel experience: he reserved an entire train that would tour the librarians across the country, from New York to San Francisco, and back again, with westward stops in Chicago, Denver, Sacramento, and an eastward sojourn through the southwest, starting with Santa Cruz, Southern California, a day trip into Mexico and a ride across the territories of Arizona and New Mexico. It cost $250.00 to travel from the East Coast, and slightly less if you were boarding in Pittsburgh or further points west. The fare covered a double-berth in a sleeping car, all meals, side trips, and excursion hotels. Cost-conscious travelers could share a double-berth, or fifty extra dollars would get you an entire sleeping compartment to yourself (ALA 1891, 4). By the time the train pulled out of Chicago, 41 librarians were aboard, or roughly half of the conference attendees, all engaging in professional chatter for the span of the trip. D.V.R. Johnston, Sub-librarian of New York, chronicled the westward journey for ALA, and wrote that “it was understood that each individual possessed at least one new idea on library matters, we all set to work to interchange — a work, by the way, which completely lasted out the trip” (Johnson 1892, 130).

Mr. Hill didn’t book just any train: he commandeered the pinnacle of railroad luxury, the Pullman Palace Cars of the Pennsylvania Railroad. A published tour itinerary went into detail about the train’s magnificence, declaring it “by universal verdict [...] the handsomest and best appointed passenger train in existence” (ALA 1891, 7). The vestibuled train featured two drawing-room sleeping cars, a dining car, and a “composite smoking car.” The librarians would be accompanied by a “Tourist Agent” and an “Experienced Lady as Chaperon,” furnished by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The composite smoking car was the social nexus of the train ride: “A compartment introduced between the baggage-room and the main saloon is fitted up as a barber-shop and bath-room. A regular barber’s chair and all the paraphernalia of the tonsorial artist are at hand. The rear section of the car is a smoking-room, furnished with comfortable rattan arm-chairs, a lounge, and two writing-desks, each surmounted by a small case of selected books” (ALA 1891, 7).

The sleeping quarters could accommodate both men and women: “The Pullman Vestibule Sleeping Cars composing this train are the best examples of nineteenth century car building. Each contains twelve sections of two double berths, and two drawing-rooms, containing two double berths and a sofa. Inclosed toilet-rooms for ladies and gentlemen occupy separate ends of the car” (ALA 1891, 7-8).

In describing the dining car, the itinerary rhapsodizes that “glistening silver and glassware vie in brilliancy with the spotless linen, and above the tables, in the spaces between the windows, potted plants are placed on shelves set in the hardwood” (ALA 1891, 8).


A Pullman Palace Car, circa 1890s, courtesy the Newberry Library

The train departed from Jersey City on Thursday, October 1st, stopping in Philadelphia to pick up additional librarians (the Boston contingent had arrived on the Boston and Philadelphia Night Express that morning). They would continue collecting librarians in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Fort Wayne. On Friday, October 2nd, they took a long stop in Chicago, so that the passengers could to tour the Chicago libraries, plus an unscheduled stop in Ottumwa, Iowa to spend a few minutes at a county fair running at “full blast” (Johnston 1892, 130). Since Denver, Colorado, was farther west than most attendees had likely ever been, it merited a two-day stay, as it was “one of the most pushing and cultured cities of the plains” (ALA 1891, 9).

The touring party also took its time in the Rockies, stopping to ascend Pikes Peak via a (still operating) cog railway out of Manitou Springs. Ill-equipped for the high-altitude temperatures, the tourists who went to the mountaintop all wore billowing red blankets stamped with the initials of the Pullman Palace Cars. Johnston wrote that “without doubt some thirty able-bodied citizens so wrapped in red blankets that the letters P.P.C. were worn on the small of the back, walking in solemn procession around the mountain top, was a sight for gods and men” (1892, 131). Charles Cutter (who had so ardently defended excursions) continued what was apparently a continent-spanning trend of nearly missing trains with his nearest miss yet. As the cog train began its descent from Pikes Peak, “somebody caught sight of Mr. Cutler [sic] plunging wildly through the snow on the peak and frantically waving his arms. The train was finally stopped in its downhill course, and the panting librarian climbed aboard, saved from a wintry night near the stars” (San Francisco Chronicle 1891).


Manitou Springs – Pikes Peak Cog Railway, circa 1900, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, the westward passage over the mountains claimed one victim, none other than tour organizer Frank P. Hill. “Some of the more profane say that his lungs, long used to New Jersey malaria, could not stand the pure air of 10,000 feet elevation; but the more thoughtful said that that pressure of work in getting up the trip had exhausted his strength” (Johnston 1892, 132). After meticulously planning the itinerary, the ALA Secretary had to disembark to recover, waiting for the eastward train to pick him back up when the conference had ended. Despite this disappointment, his career prospered, and Mr. Hill later served as ALA President and eventually left Newark to become the head of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Once the train made it past the transcontinental divide, it crossed the Territory of Utah and into the state of Nevada, where the librarians were surprised to find a small public library in the remote and dusty whistlestop town of Carlin. Johnston wrote that it was “like a voice crying in the wilderness, and with one accord we rushed in upon the librarian, and wished him all manner of good luck” (1892, 132).

He also noted that the distinguished travelers impressed many of the residents of sparsely populated Nevada. “For at one of the stations,” Johnston wrote “we overheard a citizen inviting a friend to come and inspect our party, on the ground that ‘it was the smartest lot of people which had ever been seen in the State.’ ‘Are they all from Boston?’ asked the other. “Nop, they are not, for they don’t all wear glasses; but they look almighty wise just the same’” (1892, 132).

One other librarian was waylaid mid-tour, but of his own volition: Samuel Scudder disembarked in Truckee to catch grasshoppers before catching up a day or two later (San Francisco Chronicle 1891). While he did dabble in librarianship at both Harvard and the Boston Society of Natural History, he is better known today for his prolific career as an entomologist and paleontologist, so this should come as no surprise.

When the train arrived in California, it was met by a greeting party in Truckee made up of distinguished California librarians, who delivered fresh salmon, quail, figs, peaches, and grapes to the travelers, who offered in return black coffee and cigars. The easterners and westerners breakfasted together on the ride down from the mountains into Sacramento. They stopped in Rocklin to saw off a heavily-laden branch from an orange tree, which they suspended from the ceiling of one of the rail cars as decoration (Sacramento Daily Record 1891).

The westward passage of the train ended in Oakland. The bay was not yet bridged, so the librarians disembarked to conclude their journey: “A short wait for the ferry, a short ride in the cool fog drawing in from the sea, a twinkling of electric lights and a jingling of bells, the wheels ceased churning the water, and our journey was done” (Johnston 1892, 133).

“Useful and Important”

Mr. Putnam, so offended by excursions, was likely tsk tsking at the conference agenda: no meetings were scheduled to start before noon so that there would plenty of time for sightseeing. There was a banquet with the wealthy and eccentric rare-book collector Adolph Sutro at his Sutro Heights Mansion; there was a (chilly) cruise around the Bay (“they would have had a more enjoyable excursion if a fog had not enwrapped the hills and a cold wind swept the bay and the steamer’s deck” (San Francisco Chronicle 1891); there were tours of Golden Gate Park and Chinatown; a visit to the Stanford family’s horsefarm and the new college they had founded; there were side trips to Oakland, San Jose, and Monterey; there were readings by Poet-Librarians John Vance Cheney of San Francisco and Ina Coolbrith of Oakland. The Papers and Proceedings do list a number of speeches, presentations, and meetings, so it does appear they found at least a little bit of time to conduct the business of the American Library Association. In his historical account, President Green (1913, 230) wrote that “the convention proved to be useful and important, probably exerting no little influence in bringing about the remarkable degree of prosperity in library affairs which disclosed itself to visitors in California at the second conference of the Association held in that state, at Pasadena, in 1911.”

In a repeat of the debate at the 1890 conference, there was a quarrel during the conference’s eighth session over where the Association should meet next. The committee tasked with determining the next host location was divided on the subject. ALA President Green suggested Nantucket, paired with a chartered steamship cruise of the Atlantic Coast (ALA 1892a, 117). But ultimately the debate came down to an impasse between two diametrically opposing ideas: either meeting in Washington, D.C, which was conveniently located for maximum attendance, or at a remote resort, far away from the distractions and excursions of big cities. The choice of Washington won the day, but the anti-city faction was not done raising objections.

Later in the same eighth session, Oberlin College’s Azariah Root moved that the conference not be officially adjourned until the excursion train had arrived in Chicago. The train’s Composite Smoking Car would serve as a traveling conference so that the ALA could issue official edicts thanking every locality that hosted them along the way.

“A Funeral or an Opera Troupe”

The Pullman Palace pulled out from the Bay Area on Monday, October 19th, but it did not repeat its westward itinerary. Instead, the returning librarians traveled south. On the first day they lunched in a Santa Cruz redwood grove. Indiana’s Mary Eileen Ahern (1892, 149) journaled the eastward trip on behalf of ALA, and wrote of this excursion that “a beautiful stream flows through this forest,” but protects the modesty of her traveling companions, saying “I will not chronicle the pleasures and mishaps of the young ladies who enjoyed its pellucid waters.”

After refreshing themselves under the Big Trees, the librarians toured Southern California, starting with Santa Barbara followed by stops in Santa Monica, Redondo Beach, Pasadena, and La Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles, which, according to their tour itinerary, was an “ideal spot for health, scenery, climate, and pleasure” and “undoubtedly destined to become the social metropolis of the Coast” (ALA 1891, 27). The City Librarian of Los Angeles left a memorable impression on President Green. During a carriage procession through the city, Green (1913, 242) noted that their “span of horses was skillfully guided by the vigorous and sure hand of the accomplished and energetic librarian, Miss Tessa Kelso.”

Finally, the California tour ended with a stay at San Diego’s opulent Hotel Del Coronado, then just three years old. According to Ahern (1892, 150-51), the Southern California adventures included shark sightings, impromptu dances, a border crossing into Tijuana, and one incident in Redlands where an unnamed young women of the touring party attempted to steal a burro.

The Hotel Del Coronado, circa 1900, by William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), photographer, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

While all of this touring and sightseeing seems superfluous, it’s worth noting that in many of the stops the train made, the local paper covered the arrival of the librarians as a newsworthy event and mayors and local library officials came out to shake their hands. The tour served to increase the profile of libraries and librarians in these emerging communities when the public library movement was still in a fledgling state. Papers in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, and Topeka all covered the arrival of the touring party as if it were a major event.

The train rumbled through the territories of Arizona and New Mexico before turning northeast through Kansas on its way to Chicago. As the trains crossed the southwest, the travelers played “relic-hunter, curio-seeker, and sight-seer” amongst the Native American communities along the rail line (Ahern 1892, 151). Mary Eileen Ahern writes wistfully of evenings spent gathering on the train’s “back porch” — “night after night, as the evening shadows fell, ‘by ones and twos the company came.’” She added that “during the day, this same back porch served as a debating ground, resting place, meeting place, studio, and it was said poetry was inspired on that platform on several occasions.”

It was on the final leg of the return ride, after departing New Mexico heading towards Kansas, that Dr. E.J. Nolan, Librarian of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, moved to reconsider the resolution passed at San Francisco to situate the 1892 meeting in Washington, D.C. (ALA 1892, 124-26). While there was an objection that a small group should not be able to override the larger public vote in San Francisco, debate carried on anyways. According to Ahern (1892, 152), it was a lively discussion, with President Green “trying to keep his feet in the swaying car and order at the same time, energetically waving an Indian war club by way of a gavel, surrounded by members, each anxious for his own peculiar views to be adopted.”

Among those opposed to Washington hosting the conference were Dr. William Poole, who objected because it was “too hot” and “because in the South there were few libraries” (ALA 1892, 125). Frank P. Hill, who had been retrieved by the return train after recovering his health, also objected, and felt that the Association could override the vote in San Francisco whenever it wanted. Colonel W.H. Lowdermilk, a DC-based bookseller, and Miss E.W. Sherman of the Library Bureau, defended the “devoted librarians” in the south who were striving to improve circumstances there, and felt situating the conference in a place they could attend was for the best, and would help promote the cause of public libraries in the South. A compromise of sorts was reached: a motion was carried that the “first sessions of the conference would be held at some quiet resort, preferably Annapolis” before moving into Washington (ALA 1892, 125).

That evening the train stopped in Kansas City, where the tourists disembarked to sleep at the Midland Hotel. Nearly five weeks into their travels, the party must have had a strange look to them: Ahern (1892, 152) wrote that “as the long line of carriages wended its way to the Midland, speculations were heard on the streets as to whether it was a funeral or an opera troupe.”

The 1891 Conference was officially adjourned after a meeting in Chicago, though many librarians stayed on until the train arrived on the East Coast. Ultimately, the tour covered a total distance of 8,116 miles through 12 states and three territories (ALA 1891, 31).

And as for the 1892 conference? It was ultimately moved to a resort hotel in Lakewood in northern New Jersey. Of the 260 attendees of the 1892 conference, only three came from Southern states (ALA 1892b, 104). But there were day trips to Baltimore, Washington, and post-conference excursions into Virginia.

As for California, the American Library Association would not return until the Pasadena Conference of 1911. That time, Frank P. Hill did make it all the way west. The industrious Herbert Putnam, by then the Librarian of Congress, did not (ALA 1911, 282).


Emerging projects: My experience as an ALA Emerging Leader

Posted on 18 July 2014 at 11:55 am in Career, Musings.

Several people, perhaps considering their own 2015 applications, asked me about my experience as a 2014 American Library Association (ALA) Emerging Leader and how I felt the program helped me develop my leadership skills.

This prompted a bit of reflection on my part. I’d say that the line between the Emerging Leaders program and leadership training is actually an indirect one – but that’s a good thing.

There are other opportunities ALA provides – such as the ALA Leadership Institute – more directly focused on traditional leadership training, if that’s what you are interested in. The structure of Emerging Leaders is more in line with another subject I was interested in this year: project management.

Project Management

[A project is] a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result. A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources. And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal. So a project team often includes people who don’t usually work together – sometimes from different organizations and across multiple geographies.

– Project Management Institute

My 2014-2015 professional development goals at my place of work included gaining project management skills. My official vehicle for achieving that goal was attending a wonderful CARL preconference session led by California academic librarians Margot Hanson, Annis Lee Adams, Andrew Tweet, and Kevin Pischke. But the convergence of the preconference session and Emerging Leaders was perfect, as the experiences complimented and built on each other. Emerging Leaders gave me the practical opportunity to work on a project team and implement the concepts I learned at the preconference.

Emerging Leaders is structured as a team-based project that checks off all of the definitions of project management: a temporary group activity, designed to produce a product or service, with a defined beginning and end, and a defined scope and resources. Various divisions and roundtables of ALA propose projects. Four-to-six member teams of Emerging Leaders are assembled around those projects and given a discrete deadline (a poster session at ALA Annual) when they reveal their final products.

I was part of Emerging Leaders “Team C,” along with the wonderful Mari Martínez, Annie Pho, and Kyle Denlinger. We were asked by ALCTS, the ALA division for library collections and technical services, to deliver a white paper on social media practices with recommendations for how they can improve their outreach to early-career professionals. Beyond that straightforward request, we could develop the project as we saw fit.

Team C(at) with our project poster. Here we are later with our hair down.

We dealt with several moving parts: we had to investigate social media best practices for professional organizations, analyze how ALCTS is currently using social media, discover how ALCTS members and potential members would like to interact (or not) with ALCTS online, and put everything we learned into a cohesive “white paper” (we actually developed a website) that ALCTS leaders could refer to. The camaraderie we developed kept us accountable to each other, despite not having a traditional “leader” or supervisor. The four of us lived in different areas of the country, and would not actually be in the same room between Midwinter and Annual, making coordination crucial. It made for a perfect little capsule – it was petri dish project management. We had fun and put out a product we believed in.

Emerging Project Managers

I opened with the suggestion that the line between Emerging Leaders and leadership training was indirect, as there is not a special focus on the skills of individual leadership, or advancing into management roles in our professional careers. But I do think project management skills are very applicable to a different kind of leadership needed in our workplaces.

Our work as librarians invariably involves team-oriented, discrete projects: implementing a new service, redesigning a library website, and so on. We often will work on teams with no designated “leader.” To be able to work as a team, with a cohesive plan, without creating unnecessary workplace friction, is a valuable and necessary trait for librarians, and applying the principles of project management can be the key to success. That is the type of leadership we need as a profession moving forward.

I still wouldn’t suggest renaming the program “the ALA Emerging Project Managers.” Emerging Leaders has a better ring to it. And also a ring of truth.

Further reading:

ALA 2014: Luck be a librarian

Posted on 25 June 2014 at 12:44 pm in Career.

I’m hopping on a plane in a couple hours for Las Vegas for the 2014 edition of the annual conference of the American Library Association. There’s so much going at the conference of thousands, and I’m still figuring out my schedule. But here are the places I’m sure I’ll be.

Friday, June 27

The first day is busy, with the Emerging Leaders cohort of 2014 gathering for a workshop from 8:30 to 3, which leads directly into the Emerging Leaders poster session and reception running from 3-4pm. My group — EL Team C, comprising of Annie Pho, Mari Martínez, and Kyle Denlinger — has been working on a social media plan for ALCTS, the ALA division for collections and technical services. It has been great working with Annie, Mari, and Kyle. We just had a natural chemistry from the start and the process has been very satisfying, even if it did involve herding cats. You can see a preview of our advice for ALCTS — a dozen social media tips we shared on twitter yesterday (under the hashtag #ELCtips) — and if you’re at ALA, please come by the poster session!

Friday night? I can’t dance, but I might try.

Saturday, June 28

Day two features the hearing on the new draft framework for information literacy instruction. Classroom instruction is a big part of what I do, so this attending is a must. I am also going to seek out the Alexandria Still Burns project to see if I can participate. Otherwise, my Saturday afternoon is up in the air. Saturday night? Tumblarian meet-up, then Afterhours with EveryLibrary and the Librarian Wardrobe book release party.

Sunday, June 29

There’s a lot of good stuff going on Sunday. The session I’m most excited about is about threshold concepts, the model of information literacy instruction that heavily influenced the new framework. Two of the presenters — Korey Brunetti and Amy Hofer — had a huge influence on me early in my career when I saw them speak at the CARL Conference in 2010. I’m curious what they’re talking about in 2014.

Monday, June 30

Oh, Monday. Usually the cool down day of the conference, a chance to catch your breath, see a few people you’ve missed, and blow off steam as an attendee at Battledecks (or, as it has transmorphed for 2014, The Library Games). Not this year. Monday morning: I’m a panelist for #TumblarianTalk, moderated by Kate TkaPOW!. Monday afternoon: I’m the moderator, for What I really want to do is direct: First-time library directors discuss their experiences (join us! And be part of the chatter on #iwannadirect). Monday evening, I’ll be heeling it up as one of the agents of the Library Security Agency, or LSA, at The Library Games.


For the last couple conferences, Tumblarians have been sharing headshots so we can all recognize each other. Here’s my face, with my longest-ever beard that I’m taking to the insanely hot Las Vegas, because I am insane. If you see me walking down the hall, please say hi!


Midwinter’s night dream: My plan for ALA Midwinter 2014

Posted on 22 January 2014 at 2:58 pm in Musings.

Updated Jan. 22, 4:30 PST

I’m heading to the American Library Association’s Midwinter Conference 2014. I’ve been to two ALA Annual Conferences, but never to the Midwinter edition. This conference is largely focused on committee work, and less on public presentations, but I have been combing the scheduler to find the most interesting (to me) action going on. Here’s my plan.

Liberty Bell, flickr user Lee Bennett

Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, courtesy Flickr user Lee Bennett

Thursday, January 23

I’ll get to Philly on Thursday afternoon, with time to check-in to the Holiday Inn and head directly to the ALATT’s “Council Meeting” at a local establishment called the Tattooed Mom. It’s open to everyone and many of the 2014 Emerging Leaders are planning to meet up there. You’ll find it on this handy map, along with all the other socials and conference hotels.

Friday, January 24

Why would I head to Philadelphia in the depth of winter, in the midst of a polar vortex? I’m a part of the 2014 edition of ALA’s Emerging Leaders program. I’m in “Team C.” Our task is to deliver a plan to ALCTS to amplify their social media outreach. Consequently, my first full day of the conference, Friday, will be taken up with Emerging Leaders activities: meeting from 8:15 to 4:00pm, followed by a Presidential Reception for this year’s class from 4-5:30pm, and a 7:00 social for EL participants and alums at the Field House. To top it off, Urban Librarians Unite is organizing a 9pm gathering in the same venue — perfect — I won’t have to head out into the cold.

Saturday, January 25

By Saturday, I get a little more Philadelphia freedom to pick my spots. My current plan (of course, all subject to change):

Sunday, January 26

Monday, January 27

After that, I’ll fly home in time to sleep in my own bed Monday night.

If we’ve never met, and you want to know how to recognize me, I’m 6′5″, bearded, and look a lot like this fellow. I’ll also be live-tweeting during the conference on the #alamw14 hashtag.

Let me know if I’m missing out on a Must-Do in the comments.

On Emerging Leaders 2014

Posted on 6 November 2013 at 11:50 am in Career.

What I’ve known for a couple weeks now is finally official. I will be a part of the American Library Association’s 2014 class of Emerging Leaders. I’m very excited to take part in this program; some of the librarians I admire most are alums, and I count several friends among the 2014 class.

I’m also excited about the number of names I don’t recognize. There are a lot of great people doing great work around the country, and I look forward to making new connections and learning from what they’re doing, starting with the ALA Midwinter Conference in Philadelphia, a city I’m happy to go back to (although as a Californian I’m not quite sure how to deal with being back east in January. I literally have no “winter” clothes).

One of the exciting aspects of Emerging Leaders is that it takes a cross-section of the profession — public librarians, academic librarians, special librarians, and school librarians; information professionals of every stripe. I’m firmly in the academic librarian camp, but there is so much we can learn from what our colleagues from the other divisions are doing in terms of collections, outreach, marketing, and instruction. If we stick to our silo, there’s so much we miss out on.

Onward to Midwinter!

#ALA2013: Librarians in the Windy City

Posted on 4 August 2013 at 2:05 pm in Events.

The ALA Annual Conference of 2013 was a tad different from the 1913 edition chronicled previously on this site. Instead of hundreds of participants, there were tens of thousands. We were in Chicago, since the Catskills can no longer hold us. But we still had a lot in common with our forebears – we discussed the public perception of libraries, how to broaden library appeal, and serve underserved communities just as they did one hundred years ago.

Gamifying Libraries

On Saturday morning I attended a session on gamification in libraries, emceed by Bohyun Kim, writer and editor at ACRL’s TechConnect blog and a librarian at Florida International University. It featured a mixed panel of academic and public librarians, each with a unique take on this emerging practice. “Gamifying” is the adoption of board or video game elements in outreach or instruction. Most of the examples incorporated digital badges, something Char Booth recently wrote about.

Different libraries are applying these concepts in radically different ways, from a children’s reading program in a Michigan public library to using it as an orientation and instruction tool at a California law school library.

One of the most fully developed examples is at the University of Huddersfield, in the UK. They have an interactive game that students can opt-in to called “Lemontree” (, which awards them digital badges and points based on their use of the library. Walking in after midnight earns them the “night owl” badge, while checking out ten or more books at once earns a “strongman” badge. Each of these badges are worth a certain amount of points, and as they climb a leaderboard, the more their eponymous tree grows from seed to sapling to mature lemontree. It’s fun and cute and even pits the different academic schools against each other.

Screenshots from Lemontree at the University of Huddersfield

Information Literacy Standards

Saturday featured a forum on revising the ACRL Information Literacy Standards. An ACRL committee has been formed and was reporting out to a very crowded (and opinionated) room of instructional librarians. The forum’s goals were two-fold: provide the attendees a timeline for the committee’s work, and get official feedback on two questions: 1) how libraries are currently using the existing ACRL standards in their work, and 2) what librarians feel is missing from the current standards.

There were various opinions offered on the latter: teaching guidelines for the different standards; detailing a picture of an information literate student; a request that we embody practices rather than “standards;” etc.

There was also discussion of the “-literacy” lexicon: pan-literacy, media-literacy, meta-literacy, and other terms that I am rather suspicious of (though I like and use the term “information literacy,” it sows enough confusion amongst non-academics, and I’m not sure we need to add more).

SpringShare’s New LibGuide Interface

I visited the SpringShare booth on the Exhibitor Floor to get a preview of the LibGuide design. I appreciate the ease of use when designing LibGuides, but their look is quite dated and design options are limited. Without completely changing the core concept, the new interface and design possibilities are a notable improvement: instead of set, fixed columns per page, box width can vary (e.g., you could place a horizontal box along the top of a page and place columns below it); boxes are no longer restricted to a single content type (e.g. you could mix images, mirrored database links, and highlighted books in a single box); new visually appealing tools such as lightboxes allow for more creative image use; and you can create tabbed boxes. The general look is improved, too: corners and edges are more rounded, and the default appearance is smoother and more pleasing to the eye.

There are also new administrative features. They have an automatically updating A-Z list (powered by SerialsSolutions), easier ways to reuse content (not just reusing links and boxes), and the ability to edit HTML templates.

SpringShare is not forcing an adoption date on client libraries. The new system will be available starting this fall and libraries can migrate when they elect to. Existing LibGuides should move seamlessly into the new system, gaining more appealing curves but otherwise remaining the same. The SpringShare representative also said they’d be willing to provide clients with a sandbox account to experiment with before migrating to the new system.

Overall I was pretty impressed, not only with the look of the new product but their method of roll-out and information sharing.

MakerSpace at Chicago Public Library

“#makerspaces” in libraries seems to be the new “thing.” I took a tour of Chicago Public Library’s new Innovation Lab, which is currently hosting a MakerSpace. The tour was followed by a panel talk featuring representatives of several public library systems each with their own take on MakerSpace. Briefly, a MakerSpace features tools that help people create and craft; this can run the gamut between sewing supples to 3D printers, paper for zines to soldering equipment. Detroit Public Library’s MakerSpace is geared towards teens and has numerous workshops (e.g. bike maintenance, fashion design). Chicago’s is officially adults only and is heavy on the 3D printers and modeling software. It’ll be interesting watching this moving forward, and I wonder which academic libraries will find a way in on this trend.

Digital Public Library of America

Have you seen the Digital Public Library of America? Executive director Dan Cohen spoke at ALA to introduce the DPLA and how it operates to the attendees. It’s an online platform that brings together digital objects and collections from over a dozen partners (with more to come) searchable from a single interface. Contributors include the Smithsonian, the NYPL, the Internet Archive, and a number of universities. In addition to search functionality, content is curated into browsable exhibitions, and the DPLA makes its API available to creative app developers.

Tumblarian 101

Librarians on tumblr: officially a thing. Four of my favorite people, Molly McArdle (formerly of LibraryJournal), Erin Shea (adult services librarian, Darien, CT), Kate Tkacik (corporate research librarian) and Rachel Fershleiser (Tumblr lit outreach guru) spoke about how and why libraries and librarians are using tumblr in increasing numbers (including me).

Tumblarians assemble! I joined up with Erin, Kate, and Molly for brunch.

Why tumbl? More characters than twitter. More social than Wordpress. More flexibility in posting, and the ease of reblogging. But best of all is the community, the vibrant, active, and positive librarian community that shares ideas, offers advice, and supports one another.

For those of you not already a part of that community, you can sign up in seconds. Tag your posts with “libraries” and “librarians” and we will find you!

Tumblr tags: metadata is your friend (photo courtesy @sophiebiblio)


I was asked to serve as a guest judge for the Librarian Wardrobe Walkoff, a fundraising party for EveryLibrary, the pro-library political action committee (PAC) founded by John Chrastka. Joining me on the judging panel were Courtney Young, Trevor Dawes, Celia Perez, and Patrick Sweeney (I felt like a minor leaguer called up to pitch in the majors). It was a fun gathering and helped spread the word about EveryLibrary, which already has three electoral victories under its belt and is turning towards California for a fall campaign. Chrastka’s mantra is that he wants to corner the market on “smart + fun” librarians, and channel their enthusiasm and energy into the ideas and momentum EveryLibrary needs to be an effective advocacy force. If this party was any indicator, there was smart + fun in spades.

Librarian Wardrobe Walkoff contenders strutting their stuff; myself with Sarah Houghton.

EveryLibrary is bringing the smart + fun to California with a fundraising brunch on August 18th – if you’re nearby, get your tickets and come out to support this great cause.

Wrap Up

The ALA Annual Conference has a universality no other library conference can match. There is tremendous value in learning from our peers in different branches of the profession, something that doesn’t happen at specialized conferences. It’s important to see what else is happening outside of our individual niches: what issues are of concern in special libraries, or what new marketing ideas are working well for publics. If you get out of your own specialized silo, you come away with a lot of new and exciting ideas, and a better sense of what’s going on in the profession as a whole.

I enjoyed the positive kinetic energy. At both the sessions and at the social events there was a tremendous enthusiasm for what’s going right and what’s working well in the field. There is something very affirming about spending a weekend with colleagues and peers who love what they are doing. You go back to your day job full of energy and ideas, and the confidence that comes from connecting with the people you admire. I’m already looking forward to 2014 and what I’ll learn next.

#ALA1913: Librarians in the Catskills

Posted on 24 June 2013 at 10:51 am in Events.

The ALA Annual Conference of 2013 is bearing down on us. Tens of thousands of librarians – myself included – will descend on Chicago this Friday. The modern iteration of ALA Annual, for better and for worse, is the very model of a modern major conference, with an exhibitor floor, professional presentations, vendor parties, dubious swag, and, hopefully, learning and growth experiences for the assembled librarians.

I was inspired by a passing comment on Facebook last week to look up the 1913 Papers and Proceedings of the American Library Association Annual Conference, exactly one century ago. The older Proceedings are in the public domain and most are scanned in Google Books (though some wonky metadata can sometimes make specific ones hard to find).

In 1913, the librarians gathered in Kaaterskill, in upstate New York’s Hudson River Valley – a far cry from the recent history of Chicago, Anaheim, and New Orleans, and next year’s Las Vegas. The 1913 conference featured 892 participants, with the host state leading the way with 316 attendees, while my home state of California only sent four on the cross-country trek. One can only imagine the scene in the Catskill resort town. Did any flock of librarians choose to take a moonlit walk to the Kaaterskill Falls with a bottle of wine or two under their arms? The Proceedings close by chronicling a post-conference librarian trip by train, steamer, and automobile through the Adirondacks, including a group swim in a mountain lake.

Kaaterskill Falls

Kaaterskill Falls for Frank Moore and Dan Hodermarsky by Stephen Hannock, photographed by flickr user p_a_h.

“As Others See Us”

One of the most intriguing portions of the Proceedings is under the heading “As Others See Us.” The ALA President of the time, Henry Legler (chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library), sent a letter to the “eminent men and women in the United States and Great Britain” requesting “brief expressions touching our own work.” Accompanying the letter was a question relevant to the individual recipient, which included Andrew Carnegie, Winston Churchill, W.E.B. Du Bois, John F. Fitzgerald (JFK’s prominent maternal grandfather), and various other leaders in society, business, and the arts. Noteworthy answers were read aloud at the conference.

Most of the questions asked are as illuminating, if not more so, than the answers. The questions that librarians saw fit to ask society’s leaders tells us a lot of what they thought of their own profession at the time. Here are ten of the 22 original 1913 questions (language unaltered):

  • Should our public expect the library to supply all the “best sellers” hot from the press?
  • Is the negro being helped by our public libraries?
  • Is cooperation between the public school and the public library developing in the right direction?
  • Should the public library exercise censorship over the books it circulates?
  • What rank should the library have in the scale of the community’s social assets?
  • What is your conception of the ideal librarian?
  • Is it wicked for our libraries to amuse people?
  • Are our libraries helping to make better citizens of those from over-seas?
  • Is the modern city library engaging in activities outside its proper sphere, e.g. lectures, story-telling, art exhibits, victrola concerts, loan of pianola rolls, etc.?
  • Need librarians apologize for circulating a large percentage of contemporary fiction?

“The Color Line in Literature is Silly”

W.E.B. Du Bois, the civil rights activist and co-founder of the NAACP, answered the second question above pointedly. It is not a surprise that libraries operated under systematized racist policies in 1913 and were not welcoming to blacks and other cultural minorities. Du Bois stated clearly that while libraries could be a great benefit, those in the north often intentionally made blacks feel unwelcome and those in the south systematically barred blacks from entering (“rigorously excluded”). His closing comment was that “it would seem a statement from the American Library Association to the effect that the color line in literature is silly, is much needed at present.”

It seems as if Du Bois’ words largely went unheaded; in a report on services to black patrons that occurred on the second day of the conference, Rochester public library director William F. Yust condemned the dismal state of library services to blacks in the south, but insisted that blacks were universally welcome in northern public libraries, in direct conflict with Du Bois’ observation. Yust also advocated for segregated blacks-only libraries in the south (with white leadership). The ALA was not, unfortunately, ahead of its time.

The conference record is a little better when discussing immigrant services. Prominent author and immigrant-rights activist Mary Antin delivered a rousing speech (it still reads well today) on the value and importance of immigrants to the American economy, and the importance of library services to those communities. The Proceedings notes that her oratory was hailed with a standing ovation. After Antin spoke, librarian Adelaide Maltby, who was the director of the Tompkins Square Branch on New York’s Lower East Side, added nuts, bolts and statistics to strengthen Mary Antin’s argument, and specifically argued in favor of collecting library materials in the native languages of their immigrant patrons. For 1913, this strikes me as forward thinking. However, a third presentation on the subject of immigrant services was startling for its xenophobia and bias against immigrants. One can only hope that the speaker, St. Joseph public librarian Charles Rush, was not greeted with the same acclaim and ovation as Mary Antin.

“Yet to answer a single question”

After I posted the original “As They See Us” questions to Facebook, my friend Patrick Sweeney, a public librarian, wrote that he was discouraged – “it almost seems like we have yet to answer a single question after 100 years.” While I understand his point, I would argue the opposite. I see tremendous positives in some of the questions the 1913 ALA saw fit to ask. It’s true that we still grapple now with questions of censorship (although, fortunately, the ALA’s stance on the subject is quite clear), what types of materials and services we should supply to our patrons, and what our core mission is (as hinted at in the 1913 questions about the “ideal librarian” and “proper sphere”).

However, the fact that these questions were asked suggests that the librarians of 1913 were already looking to expand our services beyond book circulation. Some of the creative programs going on in modern libraries – Patrick’s guitar lending program, Chicago Public Library’s exciting new Maker Space – are echoes of these questions. Would the ALA have asked about hosting lectures and victrola concerts, lending player piano rolls, and exhibiting art, if some libraries weren’t already doing just that? Would the ALA asked about the partnerships between public schools and public libraries if such partnerships weren’t already forming? Would they have wondered at the propriety of lending immoral “modern fiction” if many libraries didn’t already do just that?

The 1913 Proceedings make it clear that libraries have been pushing against the limits of our “proper sphere” for over a century now. Innovative library programs are building on a century-old legacy. Our professional forebears were already looking to provide new services to their communities. When a critic derides libraries as obsolete in the Age of Google, it’s worth remembering that libraries are not only more than just books today, but that they’ve been more than just books for at least a hundred years. We are building on the innovations of the past, not tearing history down – it’s an evolution, not a revolution – and we would do well to remember that as we engage in the latest debates.

Unfortunately, there will be no train or steamer to take us to the Adirondacks when ALA 2013 wraps up, and I doubt Kaaterskill could handle 20,000 of us for a conference. But a look back at our past (warts and all) helps us as we move forward into the future.

Dewey + His Decimals: ALA in NOLA

Posted on 1 July 2011 at 11:15 am in Career, Events, IASC, Musings.

This past week I got to attend my very first American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference, a dizzying gathering of over 20,000 librarians (a far cry from the 1876 inaugural event, with its paltry 103 attendees). I got to attend various professional presentations, meet online contacts and make friends in real life, explore New Orleans by foot, trolley, and ferry, and, much to my surprise, perform in the improvisational slideshow competition Battledecks.

I have organized sessions I attended and events I participated around a couple of the most recurring themes.


Cushing Library is currently implementing a new tool for our end users to use for search and retrieval of our items in our collection. This system, called WorldCat Local (WCL), finds and retrieves items be they print or online, and whether they are book, article, journal or other media. WCL and similar products are referred to as “Discovery” systems within the librarian profession.

I attended several programs relating to the implementation of Discovery systems. Two directly related to the implementation of OCLC’s WCL technology, tasks I am involved in right now, and another on the rate of return various libraries have seen since their implementation of Summon, a competing but similar product to WCL offered by ProQuest. There is strong evidence, from both libraries operating WCL and from libraries utilizing Summon, that full-text article retrievals are up, most notably from smaller, more specialized sources. At WCL libraries, print circulation tends to rise post-WCL implementation as well.

For example, the University of Idaho, which has implemented WorldCat Local, has seen usage over print materials rise 20%, interlibrary loan requests rise 34%, and a 78% increase in full text article downloads. Summon libraries, such as the University of Houston, saw a 50% rise in full text article retrieval. They have also found that the Summon search service is pushing users to finding underutilized resources, such as special collections and multimedia items, and that it favors direct journal services (such as Sage) over aggregators such as EBSCO.

Information Literacy

Part of my continuing duties at Holy Names University is my role as an instruction librarian. I provide information literacy education to students via workshops and research help sessions.

One of the best instruction-related programs I attended was Making Information Literacy Instruction Meaningful through Creativity. The three speakers were current or former faculty for ACRL’s highly-regarded Immersion Program, a “boot camp” for instructional librarians, and the session reinforced many themes that are part of Immersion training — creative lesson planning; interactive, motivational presentation styles; and pedagogy grounded in research and assessment.

In addition to these presentations, I also had chances to sit and talk shop with a good mix of other instructional librarians, such as Michelle Millet, Tiffini Travis, Lea Engle, and Nicholas Schiller. In Schiller’s case, I’ve been reading his articles and stealing his classroom ideas for a year so it was great to get a chance to admit that to him. He didn’t seem to mind.

Out and About

New Orleans: what a city. While I admit I’m not such a fan of colorful drinks in plastic cups — I’d rather have one well-crafted cocktail than a half dozen cups of syrup-flavored alcohol — I have to admit that New Orleans knows how to have a good time, and a good time I had, passing from place to place with a gang of roving librarians I befriended. It’s hot in New Orleans in June (that’s not a newsflash, I realize), but the heat and humidity didn’t keep me from walking continuously from the Garden District, to the Warehouse District, along the river and into the French Quarter, and back again throughout the conference. Café Du Monde was naturally a regular destination, both late at night and after lunch, and I was shocked that a plate of three beignets was only two dollars and change — here in San Francisco, our tourist traps won’t sell anything for less than five dollars.


While I expected to meet hip, smart librarians from Brooklyn (and did) (stereotypes for the win!), there were smart, interesting people coming from all corners of the country — Indiana, Texas, Florida, and even Southern California. In between the beignets, coffee and occasional cocktails there was plenty of sharp chatter about information services, instructional technique, and emerging tech. All of it pointed to my original thesis in founding the Information Amateurs Social Club — that the best, most enlightening professional conversation happens in the informal air of casual conversation. Preferably with a drink in hand. Between the ALA Dance Party, the ALA Tweet-up, the ALA Facebook Afterparty, the Radical Reference Social, the HackLibSchool Social, and all of the more informal connecting in between (including a trip to the Voodoo Museum), I met many of my internet heroes and formed some genuine bonds of friendship I’m going to hang onto. And hopefully, someday, all of them will move to San Francisco. It’d be killer.

IMG_3983That’s Lauren and Lea in the middle at the Radical Reference Social


No report on the goings-on in New Orleans would be complete without mention of Battledecks, the competitive, improvisational battle of slideshow presentations that concluded the conference Monday night. My participation was not strictly speaking voluntary, but it was thrilling to speak right between Lisa Hinchliffe, President of ACRL, and widely known executive and public speaker Stephen Abram. However, I’m going to save my extended thoughts on that experience for a future post — once the videos have weaseled their way online and I can embed my performance right here on The Pinakes.