April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Choices, Choices… For the Tech-Minded, ISTE May Be More Useful Than ALA

Illustration by John Corbitt.

This month, librarians across the country are building their lists of can’t-miss panels, lunches, unconferences (participant-driven meetings), and exhibits as they gear up for the American Library Association (ALA) annual conference in Chicago from June 27 to July 2.

Other librarians are questioning how much ALA annual really serves their professional development needs. In a time of contracting budgets, layoffs, and demands for tech expertise in the library, is ALA still the must-attend event for all? Or is the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference in San Antonio from June 23 to 26 a better choice?

For the ALA faithful, the panoply of offerings—not to mention the essential social component—makes ALA annual a necessity. “There’s definitely a lot of friends who connect at ALA,” says Gretchen Caserotti, director of the Meridian (ID) Library District, chair of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) Children and Technology Committee, and a PLA (Public Library Association) and LITA (Library and Information Technology Association) member.

What else are ALA attendees looking forward to? For Caserotti, it’s the Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder Banquet along with tech programs like “Apps, Apps, and More Apps,” “Top Technology Trends & LITA Awards Presentation,” and the LITA President’s Program speech by Cory Doctorow.

Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) executive director Beth Yoke expects to be holed up in meetings for much of the conference, but she’s eager to see the 25 featured winners of the Excellence in Library Service to Young Adults awards, with programs ranging from one involving iPads and incarcerated youth to another called “Teen Fashion Apprentice.” What’s on Wendy Stephens’s ALA list? Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple, who’s delivering a keynote. The unconferences. And, “it’s a huge thrill to go to the Printz reception and the awards banquet,” says Stephens, a librarian at Cullman (AL) High School, ALA councilor-at-large, and the YALSA blog member manager.

Starr LaTronica, ALSC vice president and president-elect and youth services/outreach manager at the Four County Library System in Vestal, NY, will try not to miss “Think with Your Eyes!” a panel focusing on visual literacy. “In this heavily visual world, so much relies on being able to interpret visual cues,” says LaTronica, who praises the “serendipity” of the ALA conference experience, where the vast and varied offerings can lead to unexpected inspirations.

ISTE appeal

Serendipity, schmoozing, and star power aside, how critical is ALA to librarians’ needs? Not very, some librarians say. “Although I’ve gotten some great ideas at ALA, they’re still struggling to step up their game technology-wise,” says Gwyneth Jones, otherwise known as the “Daring Librarian” and a teacher librarian and technology specialist at the Murray Hill Middle School in Laurel, MD.

Particularly among tech-savvy school librarians like Jones, ISTE is now more of a draw. It’s not just that ISTE’s ed-tech focus provides more bang for their conference buck. School librarians—while often active in AASL activities within ALA—don’t always feel they’re taken seriously at ALA annual and prefer the vibe among ISTE’s mix of educators.

“I sometimes have problems with the way school librarians are treated at ALA,” says Jones. “When I went to ALA early on, I felt like people were thinking, ‘oh, you’re a school librarian, how cute!’”

By contrast, “when I went to ISTE, I felt embraced by everyone,” she says. “They didn’t care what kind of librarian I was.” Jones, now the PK–12 schools representative for ISTE and an ISTE board member, says it’s “a great way to represent my people.”

At ISTE, Jones found “inspiration to start my school library blog.” And, she points out, “there’s not just one blogger’s cafe but four” at ISTE, as well as an entire category of sessions on BYOD.

“I always make the choice to go to ISTE,” says Tiffany Whitehead, a teacher librarian at Central Middle School in Baton Rouge, LA, who blogs as the “Mighty Little Librarian.” “As a school librarian, I’m an educator first. The chance to network with other educators, classroom teachers, administrators, tech coordinators, and others is the most important thing I can do for myself.”

At ISTE, Whitehead will be hosting a tech playground where teachers and school librarians will informally present and share tips on tools and resources. Whitehead’s principal first suggested she attend ISTE, she says. “I would love to go to ALA for the atmosphere and the emphasis on books, but I feel that for my teachers and my students, ISTE is the best choice for me. I really am the technology person on campus.”

Whitehead is also president-elect of SIGMS, an ISTE special interest group (SIG) for media specialists. The many special interest groups within ISTE “play a large and meaningful role in what’s being put forward” during the conferences, according to ISTE CEO Brian Lewis. This year’s conference, for instance, offers more than a dozen sessions about educational video conferencing. The opening keynote speaker is gamification expert Jane McGonigal. “We’re trying to connect folks with what they say they want,” says Lewis.

Stephens, who is attending both conferences and presenting at ALA, points out that “there is a more eclectic crowd of people at ISTE” than at ALA. For instance, as a friend of hers said: “There are men there.”

Gender statistics aside, Stephens—whose school district has never paid for her to attend a library conference but did sponsor an ISTE trip—says, “more people at ISTE work in the educational enterprise. Maybe you feel a little more kinship with those people than a state librarian from another part of the country or an academic library director.”

However, she adds, ISTE inspirations can sometimes be frustrating. “You may go and see this wonderful app and find that it’s blocked” back at your school.

On the other hand, in Stephens’s view, ALA is sometimes out of touch with the daily challenges of school librarians. While useful to people “in rarified situations, there’s not much trickle-down to people who are in a more typical situation.” That would be librarians “trying to tread water and keep programs running on a basic level,” and those working on “nuts and bolts advocacy to keep your job.” However, Stephens believes, “You can bring back more tangibles from ALA—advanced reader’s copies; posters; pictures of you with the Caldecott and Newbery winners. That can be very good for morale.”


AASL president Susan Ballard acknowledges that some school librarians “don’t feel the love” at ALA and points out that ALA has taken steps to remedy this. “ALA is getting better and better at recognizing that we don’t exist in silos and we’re all interconnected,” she says.

How? Ballard refers to an ALA special presidential task force devoted to the current state of school libraries, as well as a focus on the Common Core curriculum. “I know when I go to AASL it’s not just your father’s Oldsmobile,” she says. “It’s as edgy as anything out there.”

AASL still holds appeal for Jones. “If I had to choose one, it would be AASL over ALA,” she says. And Whitehead will be presenting at AASL’s national conference in November.

In Ballard’s view, if librarians think that ISTE is more valuable to librarians than ALA, “we have a perception problem. People hear the word ‘librarian’ and they have a dated concept.” She adds, “I had a colleague in another state who said to his school librarian, ‘I have to think of another name for you, because when I say “school librarian,” I’m not getting any [financial] support.’ He understood what she did, but he couldn’t call her a librarian.”

However, YALSA’s Yoke points to ALA’s focus on “dynamic collaborations between school and public libraries,” the Common Core, and sessions on maintaining teen collections and new media, as huge selling points.

“A lot of the time we get this anecdotal information from school library members that the Association is more public focused,” Yoke says. However, she notes, a survey among 13,000 current, former, and potential ALA members showed evidence to the contrary. “There’s a perception that school librarians have different wishes and needs, but the survey did not bear that out,” says Yoke.

According to Lewis, “The library media specialist’s role is changing in terms of its interconnectivity across the school system.” He adds, “folks in school districts are looking for help, no matter where they are in the process of technology. They’re looking for clarity and support in how to effectively do what it is they’re expected to do.”

Among upcoming ISTE sessions, Lewis singles out “The Empowered Executive Team,” led by Steve Clemons of the San Diego Office of Education. The gist here is that better understanding and communication about what institutions are spending their tech-slated money on will ensure buy-in, communication, and shared decision making.

Caserotti, a technophile who’s gotten involved with ALA committees, says that ALA’s “support structure has been really empowering to me.” Broadly speaking, though, she worries that librarians are not keeping up with technology, despite high-visibility techies like Jones and Whitehead. Technology in the library is “like a car,” she says. “Some people will lift up the hood and take the initiative to learn how the car works.” But most people “take the car to the shop.” At ALA, she wonders, “how many people are stuffing their bags with posters,” and how many are saying, “yeah, I’m comfortable with tablets in the library?”

“Part of the beauty in ISTE is the connectivity to others,” says Lewis, who became CEO of ISTE last summer. “ALA’s conference is great and ISTE is great,” he adds. “Everybody who puts on an event like this works so hard to make sure that through whatever measures, we’re delivering terrific content.”

Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss (sbayliss@mediasourceinc.com, @shbayliss) is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.

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