We Gather Together

Yes, librarians do have conferences.

April 16, 2015

Not long ago, when returning from a conference, the driver of the shuttle I was taking from the airport asked me whether I’d been on vacation. When I told her I was returning from a library conference, she was astonished. “Librarians have conferences?” I don’t always think on my feet, so I never found out why she found that so surprising. Perhaps she thought librarians wouldn’t have much to talk about.

In the past few weeks I’ve been a bit busier with conferences than usual - than ever, actually. At the end of March I was at the Association of College and Research Libraries biennial conference in Portland, Oregon, where the association celebrated its 75th anniversary with a record turnout of nearly 3,400 attendees. After a week at home I was off to the wonderful LILAC conference in Newcastle, a moveable feast in its eleventh year which welcomes a few hundred librarians from many countries to compare notes on information literacy. It's an even that feels incredibly intimate thanks to the excellent planning and the opportunities to gather and chat between sessions (and eat copious amounts of cakes, scones, sandwiches, and other goodies). From Newcastle, I went to Austin where the Texas Library Association annual meeting is still in full swing though I couldn’t stay for all of it. I’m not sure how many attendees are there, but it’s the largest state library association, with over 7,000 members, and an awful lot of them are there.

Oh, yes, we do have conferences. They are opportunities to learn, talk to vendors and publishers, and make and meet friends, with those hallway or over-a-beer conversations often leading to collaboration and inspiration. We have a lot to talk about, and a lot to learn from one another, like most professions.

Of course, many people think they know what librarians do, and it primarily involves moving books around or sitting quietly and reading. It could be worse. At least we aren’t generally regarded with hostility (though sometimes people who worry about overdue books find us a bit scary).

There are times when our low profile is problematic, as when strong library leadership is pushed out because higher administrators want to call the shots without inteference or when staff cuts are made with the assumption that libraries somehow run themselves without human effort. Given our strong service ethic, our tendency toward self-effacement, and all the practice we get with patching over the damage done by rising costs and shrinking budgets – pas devant les patrons – we make the job look less demanding than it is.

But in spite of all that, it’s rewarding, interesting work. If you’re considering the profession or advising students who are interested, you might get a glimpse of what librarians do by browsing conference programs - or, perhaps more profitably, by reading the thoughtful posts at the collective blog Hack Library School or at Jessica Olin’s Letters to a Young Librarian.


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