Perspectives on ALA

Reviews by Birmingham Public Library staff and trustees who attended the American Library Association Annual Conference in New Orleans June 21-26, 2018.

My Trip to the American Library Association Annual Conference
by Wardine Alexander, Birmingham Public Library Board Trustee
Posted July 9, 2018

(L-R) Birmingham Public Library Board trustees
Wardine Alexander, Fatima Carter, James Sullivan
As a child my place of solace during the long summer breaks (yes—back then we had three months vacay from school) was the local public library. The winding stacks of books and numerous magazines fueled my appetite for learning and adventure well into my years of high school and college. I continued that thirst (which helped to pocket some much-needed funds) by working as a part-time library aide at the Mervyn Sterne Library during my first work-study job at UAB. After graduation I obtained a brief part-time job at the downtown branch of the Birmingham Public Library (BPL) to help pay back student loans. So it came as no surprise my interest in becoming a BPL trustee. It seems I have come full circle and I am back to very familiar territory!

With this new appointment, I realized that public libraries have changed over the years and that I have a lot to learn on how to advocate for the 19 BPL branches and patrons. Therefore, I was so delighted that my first assignment (through the graciousness of my fellow BPL trustees) was to attend the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in New Orleans June 21-26! With great anticipation I previewed the many programs/workshops, list of outstanding speakers, and exhibitors expected to be on hand at the conference.

The Opening General Session on Friday (June 22) was no disappointment! To be in the same room with former First Lady Michelle Obama was so exciting. While previewing her upcoming memoir, Becoming (street date: November 13, 2018), Mrs. Obama shared tidbits of her life in the White House and on being a member of the first African-American family to reside there. I learned that with all the glamour, travel, and opportunity afforded during her years in the White House, our backgrounds were very similar, coming from a working-class home, to a professional career, while managing husband and family. It’s a path we share, like most Americans. The opportunity to hear from other outstanding speakers such as the first black female Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, to the Closing General Session on Tuesday (June 26) with Emmy-winning actress Viola Davis discussing her children’s book, Corduroy Takes a Bow (street date: September 4, 2018), were also very educational and thought-provoking.

The workshops were filled with lots of information to soak in and bring home, along with the networking opportunities to gain knowledge and insight from librarians, directors, and other trustees. I attended many workshops, but two resonated with me the most! One gave statistics on community engagement (or the lack thereof) for library users who took advantage of library classes, programs, or lectures offered at libraries across the country last year. The numbers were somewhat disappointing on how people do not take advantage of these free programs. Well, there’s my first assignment for advocacy—how to improve those statistics for next year! The other workshop, held on Sunday (June 24), was a panel discussion on “Brilliance, Magic, & Black Girls.” Each of the authors (and a blogger) shared how writing stories for young Black girls help empower them and bring “magic” or “brilliance” into their lives.

I don’t know how to describe in just a few words the experience of the vast number of exhibits and books on display in the Exhibit Hall! Something new for me were the countless “free” books that were given away during my daily visits, while attempting to see what was on display at each vendor booth. I look forward to being able to share and distribute those books (that I had to ship back home from the conference) with some of the local branches in my area.

Again, I thank my fellow BPL trustees for this learning opportunity and I look forward to utilizing the new knowledge and experience to adequately advocate for our local libraries and patrons!

Shawn Caddell Experiences ALA
by Shawn Caddell, Eastwood Branch Library
Posted July 6, 2018

Shawn Caddell (right) with author Alexis Marie Chute

This summer I had the pleasure of taking the train to New Orleans, Louisiana, and attending the American Library Association (ALA) Conference and Exhibition for the very first time. While this was not the first professional conference I had attended, it was by far the largest.

One of the things I looked forward to the most was exploring the Exhibit Hall. Prior to leaving for the conference, I viewed the list of vendors that would be in attendance. With over 900 vendors, I created a list of the ones I wanted to visit the most. The list mainly included vendors with whom BPL has partnered to bring databases and apps such as Mango Languages, hoopla, Libby/Overdrive, and BookPage to our patrons.

Once the Exhibit Hall opened, however, I found myself completely overwhelmed. The Ernest Morial Convention Center boasts over 3 million square feet, which equates to about 11 city blocks and a third of that is devoted solely to exhibit space. In other words, the place was huge!

After overcoming the shock and awe of just how large the space was and how many vendors were present, I began my exploration. I had a mango smoothie at the Mango Languages booth, took a selfie with Dr. Hayden at the Library of Congress booth, told a 45-second story in the NOLA Storybooth, and was the last one in line for autographed copies of debut author Alexis Marie Chute’s books. They literally turned the lights out on us!

Additionally, I picked up several ARCs, spoke with representatives of some of the biggest publishing houses about upcoming titles, and picked up loads of awesome goodies and swag.

One of the most memorable experiences I had at this conference was meeting Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden. Meeting Dr. Hayden was particularly special because not only is she a librarian, but she represents two minority groups with which I chiefly identify: women and African Americans. Seeing all that she has accomplished gives me hope that I can do the same, for it is a daunting task to strive for something you have never seen accomplished. It is for this reason that I now have a fuller understanding of what people mean when they say “representation matters.”

Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden and Caddell

Another reason meeting Dr. Hayden was particularly notable was because when I told her that I was an aspiring public librarian, she gave me the most wonderful advice on my education and career. She told me to use my work in the public library as a foundation for what I will learn in graduate school. She also let me take a selfie with her. I will cherish that brief yet insightful interaction for years to come.

The following day the "Now Showing @ ALA Film Program" hosted an advanced screening of the public. The film stars Emilio Estevez as a public librarian who bonds with the library’s “regulars,” many of whom are homeless. When a particularly bitter cold snap hits the city, the patrons stage a sit-in and turn the library into a temporary homeless shelter.

I was especially moved by this film’s portrayal of the homeless and ostracized. It opened my eyes to the way we perceive and interact with these patrons—we often lack humility and we respond from a place of fear, disgust, or ignorance. It is my belief that viewing this film will spark the conversations needed to debunk the myths of homelessness and allow us to evaluate the way we view and interact with this demographic.

On the shuttle, I spoke with a lady who works for the Texas Public Library system. She had also seen the public and she began to tell me a sad story about a branch in their system that had been labeled “the homeless branch.” She was near tears when she told me how non-homeless patrons avoided that particular branch. Needless to say, she was eager to recommend this movie to her library director as part of a campaign to elicit empathy for this population.

I think the most enjoyable part of the conference were the impromptu conversations with library staff from other states and who held positions that differed from mine. For instance, I conversed with a library director, a media specialist, and a page. It was very interesting to gain insight into the inner workings of how other libraries are run and staffed.

One thing that really stood out to me was the increase in the use of technology in libraries. There are companies who can, through a series of modifications, make a library run in the absence of staff by creating a specific space that patrons can have afterhours access to check out materials. I thought this was a great idea for patrons who work during operating hours. While it is highly customizable to fit a library’s specific needs, there are certain components that every library must have such as book lockers, security codes, cameras, etc. In other words, to outfit a library with this technology is very costly.

In this same vein, I have come to the realization that to be a 21st century librarian, I must be tech savvy and open to technological change. Everything from the way we check out books, to granting internet access, to maintaining our collections, to gathering statistical information relies on technology.

If I am honest, I am somewhat afraid of the extent to which we rely on technology in the library. I say that because one of the greatest joys that I have as a library employee is interacting with my patrons. I can only imagine how boring and long my days would be without recommending a book or hearing how well a patron liked a book I suggested.

I think we are already on our way to a hands-off, self-serve approach in our libraries. I have been a patron at a library within our system that brushed off a patron interaction with me in favor of my using the self-checkout.

While technology can be a good thing, I think we should adopt it in moderation.

I consider myself blessed and fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend this conference. It is my earnest hope that BPL will continue to provide staff with opportunities that foster an environment of continued education.

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