What I learned at ALA :: a newbie's perspective

I've been on twitter for awhile and I've been lucky enough to become online friends with a few teachers and librarians around the country. Every January and June they tweet about the American Library Association's conferences (Midwinter in January, Annual in June). During those few days every six months, all I could do was 1) be green with envy over the authors they met and ARCs they picked up, or 2) keep away from twitter so I wouldn't become green with envy. So, if the conferences sounded so good on twitter, why didn't I just go? Well, you have to understand, like all large conferences, these last at least four days, cost an arm and a leg just to attend (at least on a library media specialist's low hourly wage), and require traveling to distant locales like Chicago and New Orleans. It just wasn't feasible.

Well, no longer! This year's Annual was in Anaheim, not too far from where I live. The location impediment could be checked off the "Why I can't go" list. How about the attendance fee? It turns out you can get free exhibit floor passes through various vendors. True, that means you can't attend any of the actual sessions that help you become a better librarian, but visiting the exhibit floor is a great introduction to what the conference offers.

[I'll post more about my personal experiences at ALA Annual in a separate post.]

As I explained above, this is a long-ish conference, which requires travel for most attendees. Planning is key to making the conference experience as pleasant as possible. I can't speak for the packing part (I listed some other blog posts at the bottom) but I can share what I figured out as a first-time ALA attendee:

Things to bring:
  • business cards (be sure to have your social media information on there)
  • water, snacks, and lunch
  • iPhone or iPad
  • good walking shoes
  • a light cardigan (we're librarians/library people, that's what we wear!)
  • extra tote bags
  • rubber bands for posters
  • binder clip
  • pre-printed address labels (include email address, if possible)
  • cash and/or checks
  • pens, Sharpies, Post-It notes

Things I found helpful:
  • Plan, plan, plan! I took a couple of days before the conference to really check the conference website's exhibitors page (they have a schedule of major author signings by day and publisher), author websites/blogs, publisher websites/blogs, twitter, and Facebook to come up with a plan of who I wanted to see and what ARCs I wanted. (Library Journal puts out an ALA Galley & Signing Guide that was pretty helpful, although the books listed were mostly not kidlit.)
    ARCs and giveaways my map of the exhibit floor
    I put that information into a simple spreadsheet. It was also a good idea to print out a map of the exhibit floor and color in the booths I would be visiting most. ALA also has a Scheduler site and mobile app (the app may be specific to each conference) but I didn't want to create a log-in for it, and I prefer paper schedules for these kinds of things. In the end, I abandoned the spreadsheet and wrote a schedule of exactly where I needed to be and what I needed to be doing at what time and I just went down the schedule, checking off everything I accomplished.
    What my daily plan started out looking like  What my daily plan ended up looking like

  • As soon as you can, go through the Aisle by Aisle Exhibitor Guide & Coupon Book. (You get it when you register.) Some of the booths require you to bring the actual coupon in order to receive the giveaway, others are a bit more lax and will scan the barcode on your ID badge. (I missed out on the DK giveaway because I forgot the coupon at home.) It's also helpful to use your pre-printed address labels on the back of the coupons that ask for your contact info. a binder clip is handy to keep your paperwork together

  • I have a small cross shoulder purse that I converted into a hip pouch by shortening the strap and running it through the belt loops on my pants. The purse held my schedule & map, wallet, business card holder, a pen, and iPhone. I opted to keep it around my hips instead of across my shoulders because I had a backpack on (the first day) and I knew I was going to be carrying multiple (heavy) tote bags on my shoulders.
    my converted purse/hip pouch

  • Write your twitter handle on your conference ID badge, especially if you're active on twitter or plan to check twitter frequently during the conference. I met fellow readers in line waiting for authors and it was nice to be able to give them a business card and/or immediately search for them on twitter.
    ALA badge --> write your twitter handle on it

  • Don't be shy about talking to publisher reps; they're there to generate excitement about their books. You should also share your enthusiasm for any books you've read by their publishing house. Giving them feedback helps the publishers understand what readers want to read and what they need to keep publishing -- that can only benefit the reader (and the author!). I shared which books are popular in my library at Sourcebooks and the rep generously allowed me to have a couple of extra display books from the series I mentioned.

  •  Ask, ask, ask! Some publishers hide their ARCs and don't make public what they have. But they are more than happy to help you if you ask about specific titles. In fact, Random House has a sign out requesting that you ask the rep for an ARC. And if they can't give you one at that moment, they're pretty good about telling you when they'll be available. (It's also important to keep going back to the booth to see what new titles they bring out. Oftentimes they'll only set out a certain number of copies each day of a specific title so you might have to go back day after day before finally getting it.)

    I was rather shameless about asking them how a certain author's signing was going to go. I'd swing by before the scheduled signing and ask them if a purchase was necessary, whether the actual ARC was going to be available, and which table the author was going to sign at (it helps at big booths in particular so you know where to start lining up). That kind of information can help you prioritize where to spend your money and time.

  • Friday night (the first day the exhibit floor is open to the public) is pretty crazy and frenzied, probably because the publishers had the most books out at once and no one had any sessions to go to. If there's a book you really want, this is the time to get it. If you can only plan for one day, make it Friday! (Some of the books I picked up for free on Friday night were being sold on Saturday; I think it's because the author came by and autographed them.)
  • Bringing my lunch on Saturday was a great idea. There are food vendors near the convention center, in the Hilton's lobby area, and nearby, but if your time -- and money -- are precious to you, bring a sandwich and some healthy snacks.

  • I ran out of cash, which turned out to be a blessing and a curse. Besides giving away ARCs, most booths also sell already-published books at deeply discounted prices ($5~$10 for hardbacks, $2~$5 for paperbacks). Cash and checks are accepted, and a few booths can handle credit cards. You should also be aware that some booths require a book purchase to either get an ARC or have a book signed by an author.

    I didn't understand this system until I got to the exhibit floor on Saturday and I didn't bring much cash, nor did I have any checks with me. Simon & Schuster (which, I think, was working with local indie bookseller Mrs. Nelson's) had a credit card machine but none of the other booths I went to had one. Consequently, I ran out of cash before the afternoon signings that I really wanted to go to (R.L. LaFevers, Laini Taylor, and Adam Gidwitz), all of which required a purchase. I was bummed that I missed these signings, but it also saved me from buying books I already owned/read so I could get ARCs or an autograph. Like I said, it was a blessing and a curse. (Of course, after I got home, I realized one of the bills I thought was a $1 bill was actually a $5 bill -- I totally could've gone to one of those signings! Grr!)

    Nicole (a friend of a friend) has a nice recap of ALA and some tips, especially about the last day, which I missed.

  • Be polite. I didn't come across any rude behavior while I was there, but if you read around the book blogosphere you hear about people's misbehavior on conference exhibit floors. Practice common courtesy and decency and everyone will have a good time. Don't be greedy or pushy with the ARCs, and I shouldn't even have to say this, but don't steal! The publishers provide ARCs and access to books that aren't published yet as a service to readers, librarians, and bookstore owners. It's really unacceptable and unethical to take more than your fair share (especially if it's for reasons not purely motivated by love of reading and books).

    There is etiquette surrounding ARCs and what you do with them, but I don't know all of the details. My friend Alethea gave me some advice but I should probably do some research about the proper use of ARCs (blog giveaways, circulating in libraries, etc.).

Things I found not-so-helpful:
  • Oddly enough, a backpack wasn't so helpful. The exhibit floor is crowded, you're rushed, and it's hot -- all things that are not conducive to you having a backpack to stash your loot in. It might be helpful to have if you're planning to carry non-essentials/infrequently accessed items in it (i.e., your lunch for later, a water bottle, your sweater, extra business cards, etc.).

  • My friend suggested getting the tote bag at McGraw Hill. It's a great bag, but it was a tad on the cumbersome side because it's wide. It kept bumping into things (and people!) every time I turned my body, so I ended up leaving it in my car trunk and stashing ARCs and posters in it.

  • I was contemplating bringing my SLR camera; I'm glad I didn't! You will seriously become weighted down with books; having one more thing to schlep around and bring out to use is a hassle. My phone camera (even my old iPhone 3GS) sufficed, and it's easier and quicker to then tweet or post the pictures online.

  • As much as I emphasized planning for the conference, over-scheduling and trying to stick to the entire plan will kill you. It's certainly OK to go in with a detailed plan of everything you would like to do/see, but be realistic and don't be disappointed if you don't get to everything on your list. I had originally planned to attend Friday through Sunday, but I pooped out by mid-afternoon on Saturday. I wisely decided to skip Sunday to rest so I could attend the Caldecott/Newbery Banquet that night. Sure, I missed some authors I really wanted to meet but it would've taken me days to recuperate if I had forced myself to go on Sunday.

Final thoughts:

I won't lie -- as excited as I was about going to ALA, it was an overwhelming experience. I can only imagine what it would be like if I had to go to actual conference sessions in addition to trying to get to author signings (oftentimes in two totally different places). It worked out well that I only had to concentrate on getting around the exhibit floor.

In the mad rush of trying to get ARCs and meeting authors, you can get swept away by a sense of urgency like you have to get this or that book, or that you're not getting the most of the experience because you missed out on something. Once I accepted that I could only do so much and it wasn't the end of the world if I didn't get to everything on my schedule, I started to explore and discover books that I might've overlooked otherwise. It also helped me to be more selective about what I picked up. What I really wanted was already a substantial number of books so I'm glad I started telling myself to cool it with the grabby-grabby hands; my husband thanked me too.

It's important to take a few moments every once in awhile to remove yourself from the hustle and bustle and take a breather; call someone and share your excitement, start reading one of your ARCs, hydrate yourself, get some fresh air, anything that will energize you. Remember to have fun, meet people, and share the love of books!

Other sites that help you with packing and conference attendance:

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