February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

ALA and ISTE: How Best to Plan, Learn, Network, Party, and Follow Up

Illustration by Richard Faust/ lindgrensmith.com

Illustration by Richard Faust/ lindgrensmith.com

The June countdown is here. The American Library Association (ALA) brings its annual event to San Francisco from June 25 to 30, and the International Society for Technology in Education’s (ISTE) conference will take place from June 28 to July 1 in Philadelphia. Whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned pro, here are six tips for you to get the most professional development bang for your buck.

Plan! “The largest part of my prep has to do with [finding] where things are located,” says Derek Ivie, youth services librarian with the Suffolk (NY) Cooperative Library System. Thousands of librarians poring over floor plans would agree; determining the lay of the land in advance is essential. Ivie looks for opportunities to use public transportation, considers what parts of the conference are walkable, and identifies times when he may need a cab.

Studying the conference schedule early is also a must. Leah White, head of popular materials at the Ela (IL) Public Library, goes through the session schedule and highlights “everything that looks interesting. I weed down from there and prioritize [what] I want to try first, then plan a backup [if] that session isn’t exactly what I am expecting.”

Organizing your list of must-see vendors also helps navigate the vast exhibits hall. White prioritizes the issues in her community for which vendors “may be able to provide solutions.”

Use the tools. Take advantage of the tools provided by conference organizers to plan your time. ALA’s online scheduler and its mobile version “are improved after each conference, based on technology updates and user feedback,” says ALA marketing director Mary Mackay, who adds that more people use them every year. The ALA program books are viewed mostly as reference tools these days, Mackay says; attendees use the online scheduler to set their hour-by-hour calendars. It’s invaluable to Ivie. He says, “I’m the one who would write my entire schedule down and then lose it or have it crushed at the bottom of one of my many tote bags.”

The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) Local Arrangements Committee posts a restaurant spreadsheet, while ISTE offers a guide to local points of interest and a link to Philadelphia’s convention visitor website designed for ISTE. Check for shuttle bus tips, too.

Consider linking the scheduler info to other calendaring tools such as Google Calendar. Shannon McClintock Miller, a 2014 Library Journal (LJ) Mover & Shaker, uses Google Calendar to connect with her ALA and ISTE “conference besties.” While it helps them to meet up at events, it also “keep[s] us a little more grounded, which is important at big conferences.”

Twitter is indispensable for those who are attending virtually, following session-specific hashtags, and networking in advance (#iste15 and #alaac15 conversations are well underway). Miller recalls her first ISTE conference: “I had been connecting on Twitter for about a year and had all these wonderful people I became friends with,” she says. “The moment I got [to the conference], I saw people I knew from Twitter, and it was like seeing old friends.” Wendy Stephens, the librarian at Cullman High School (AL), says, “I really started to love Twitter through the added layer of experience it adds to conferences.”

Joyce Valenza, assistant professor and director of the MLIS program at Rutgers University and School Library JournalNeverEnding Search” blogger, likes to use Storify (storify.com) to curate conference posts from Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and elsewhere into a single timeline/narrative. She also suggests Voxer (voxer.com), a walkie-talkie-esque app, to keep in touch with others. Such tools “crowdsource the conference experience,” amplify new voices, and can serve as an archive, Valenza says.

Unplug, unconference. ALA’s Networking Uncommons and other peer-to-peer activities are increasingly popular, reflecting feedback from attendees who want to “[move] away from the idea of everything taking place on a stage,” Mackay says. Attendees can gather in ALA’s Networking Uncommons in small groups for quick meetings and to hold impromptu sessions, polish presentations, or relax. The 2015 Uncommons will feature the popular participatory Guerilla Storytime sessions, among other events.

This year’s Unconference, described by ALA as “a participant-guided experience that harnesses the unstructured conversations that people usually have between conference sessions into the conference itself,” takes place from nine a.m. to noon each day. Amy Musser, children’s librarian at the Denver Public Library, describes how the unconference sessions are structured in a recent ALSC post. Attendees brainstorm topics for discussion in small groups and then reconvene to report on what they talked about. Musser’s table discussed ideas relevant to youth services and early literacy programming. “It was wonderful to have a platform where every individual was encouraged to voice their questions, concerns, and thoughts,” she writes.

Similarly, ISTE offers ISTE Unplugged, a series of alternate conference programs and events, as well as a Blogger’s Café, described on the ISTE site as “an informal, couch-chairs-floor gathering area in the conference center for bloggers, social media mavens, and anyone else who wants to find and connect with others.”

Donna Sullivan-MacDonald, president of the ISTE Librarians Network, likes to attend Hack Education, a day-long unconference encouraging collaboration and conversations. At last year’s event, “there was time for individuals to share their favorite new tech tool or resources,” she says. “I came away with so many amazing recommendations!”

Stephens feels that “informal learning at ISTE is almost unavoidable…any place to sit essentially becomes a point of learning.”

White adds that “some of my most important learning moments happen in hallways, restaurants, and bars. It’s so invigorating to be surrounded by your peers.”

Linda Braun, youth and family learning manager at the Seattle Public Library, notes: “When I first started going to conferences, I felt like I had to always keep busy with programs…Now, I take more time looking for those outside ideas and networking with colleagues.”

Embolden thyself. If you are shy, be confident that bravery pays off. “Feel free to walk up to people you don’t know and start talking to them,” says Braun. “In most instances, people are really friendly and remember what it was like to be at a conference for the first time.” Experienced conference-goers can return the favor by inviting new friends along to meals and events. “Adopt someone who looks lost. Some folks are flying totally solo and might need a friendly moment,” says Valenza. All-committee meetings are a great way to network; jumping in as a committee volunteer will immediately connect you with a new group of colleagues.

Start with an upbeat attitude as opposed to entering an event with complaints, suggests Patrick “P.C.” Sweeney, administrative librarian at the Sunnyvale (CA) Public Library, in an LJ article. Use eye contact and body language to move past awkward moments, and move away from the wall in order to start mingling, adds Sweeney, also a 2015 LJ Mover & Shaker. People love to talk about themselves, Sweeney notes. Waiting in line for food or an author signing is a great opportunity for conversation. Some of Derek Ivie’s queue questions: “Did you read his/her newest book? What else have you done at the conference?”

Get invited to the party. There’s a plethora of parties and special events at each conference, but how do you get in the door? Use Twitter, says White. She follows the conference hashtags for clues as to what extracurricular events might be appealing and asks fellow conference attendees about their evening plans.

Carefully plan which vendors to visit and which mailing lists to join, and invitations to publisher events can follow, says Jessica Lorentz-Smith, an Oregon high school teacher and librarian. An extra bit of socializing with exhibitors can strengthen the relationship. Lorentz-Smith likes to have something to attract a conversation, such as wearing a fun library- or reading-themed T-shirt. A few extra steps outside of your comfort zone can yield networking opportunities.

Debrief with discipline. Afterglow is nice—but good follow-up will make the conference truly valuable. Miller is sure to “[organize] all the things I picked up, go through my notes, and most of all, make connections with the people I met.” Stephens generally blogs about her experience and downloads presentation material she may want for the future. She also sends a “spate of email to the teachers in my school with new resources for them to try.” Also consider sending thank-you notes to select vendors or presenters.

Some librarians need to create a report or for their administration to ensure future conference attendance. Lorentz-Smith doesn’t have a requirement from her principal, but she asks if she can tell him what she learned and show how it could help their school. She also makes a spreadsheet of the items she brings home and shares them with other librarians.

“In order to receive recertification credits for ISTE attendance from my local licensing board, I need to create a timeline of my activities,” says Sullivan-MacDonald. In addition, she does a write-up for her state school library association’s website.

Patience may be needed after returning back to work—and back to earth. “A lot of the programs and vendor wares you will see [at conferences are about the] ‘future of libraries,’” notes Susy Moorhead, a member of the Local Arrangements Committee for the 2015 ALA conference, in a YALSA blog post. “Work towards creating similar programs or offering similar services when you get back to your library.”

Plan well, enjoy the opportunity, and follow up boldly. Happy conference!

April Witteveen is a community and teen services librarian at the Deschutes (OR) Public Library.


Exhibit Hall Tips

Review the map and vendor list in advance and head first to the vendors you’ve noted as being important. You’ll feel more comfortable after your first successful visit.

Think before you take. It’s hard to turn down piles of free books, but do you have a plan to deal with them all? Too much swag will cost you money at the post office or airport.

Be friendly. Exhibitors and vendors are paying for their spots, and this supports the conference. Also, be friendly to those sharing your exhibit space; no one likes to be elbowed at a hot booth.

Follow the rules. Wheeled carts or bags are generally not allowed in exhibits halls, as they can create a hazard. If you require special assistance, contact conference organizers.

Find the fun events. Pop-up programs, themed stages, and author/illustrator presentations are scheduled throughout the conference.


Key Items to Pack

Business cards Feel your work-issued card doesn’t represent you? Design conference-specific business card or try out a Moo card (moo.com).

Portable device charger Try searching for “lipstick-style” chargers for extra portability.

Good shoes Find a multi-purpose shoe that will keep you going through a day in the exhibits hall and a night of networking, or pack an evening pair in your daily tote.

Snacks Running between sessions means not having time to stand in the miles-long concessions line. Bring protein-packed snacks like trail mix to keep your energy up.

Water bottle Skip the lines (and the landfill) by bringing your own canteen and filling up at water fountains throughout the day.

Watch Joyce Valenza’s video: Packing with Joyce

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