The ALA Cone of Confusion

This is the part of the conference where someone usually says, “Well… not too many posts yet on the LITA blog, ay?” And I usually mumble something like “soon you’ll see more,” and then the posts do indeed show up.

My own reality is that within hours of arriving at ALA I am flying over the cone of confusion, rapidly losing radio contact with the tower. I am in the event… and trying to encounter it. Even if I thought I could blog and run, most of the time I can’t. As Michelle Boule noted, outside of the convention center and in the hotels where we do most of our programs, the free wifi mesh network drops off and our laptops become 4-pound notepads. So I try to translate what I’m hearing into near-real-time coverage, the talk ends, I gather up my stuff and go to the next event, with just enough time to squeeze into a chair near the door in case I need to leave, and soon my laptop is filled with Word documents with cryptic notes such as (all dialog guaranteed verbatim):

Speaker–good
Library = Books
How judge information?
Green letters hard to read

So that’s my summary of the LITA President’s Program–or rather a commentary on the limitations of the overtaxed conventioneer’s brain at mid-afternoon: green letters hard to read.

I was halfway through the program, scribbling away on my laptop, when I realized that I was basically hearing a mashup of the last four big OCLC reports. If you didn’t read these reports–Perceptions, Environmental Scan, etc.–the talk would have been very enlightening; if you had read the reports, the presentation was a useful reminder of key findings. What I found most enlightening, however, was that it took me thirty minutes to realize I was jotting down concepts I was already quite familiar with. Still, Cathy DeRosa is always a pleasure, it was a chance to sit near some of my buddies, and the hour was worth the reminder that yes, green letters are hard to read.

Speaking of reading, aside from seeing my friends–the real reason I go to ALA–I also escaped to a reading by Chris Rose, a Times-Picayune reporter whose vivid, honest post-Katrina essays have been gathered in a small book, “1 Dead in Attic.” He was dynamic, funny, and magnetic, and the crowd shouted and hooted for two hours as Rose read from his book against a photomontage backdrop of photographs of Katrina and the wrath she unleashed. I think I was the only tourist in the crowd, which filed into the room with electric energy, settled into a stunned silence as the photos began flickering on the screen, and then exploded at the first refrigerator joke (just say “refrigerator” to a local and you’ll hear a long yarn worth the telling). All through the reading the woman next to me kept yelling, “Get on now!” while the man to my left, who had earlier settled in his seat with the grim look of a husband forcibly dragged to a Sunday afternoon event, tilted his head back and laughed and laughed.

At the beginning of the reading I chatted a bit with the women to my right. When they found out I was a librarian, they began asking me questions. Turns out that they don’t usually attend readings. Would the author read from his book, or ad lib? Would he introduce new material? If they had read the book, would they be bored? Indeed, for these two women Library = Book, and furthermore, librarians = trustworthy. Even after they learned I didn’t work in a traditional library (they politely nodded when I described my job, but I could tell they were baffled), they continued to press me with book-related questions. I didn’t tell them that my knowledge about literary events comes largely from my non-librarian creative writing life. When I mentioned I had bought three copies of Rose’s book, one woman said knowingly, with a warm smile, “Of course you did.” As in, you’re a librarian–you buy lots of books!

We in librarianship have many challenges ahead of us, but as we RSSify and 2.0 and blog and wikify and federate our information and un-suck the OPAC, I hope we do not lose touch with the genuine magic of reading, and I equally hope we continue to leverage the very generous levels of trust the public has with us as an institution to go to bat for principles hardly any other profession carries as core values: privacy, the right to read, the right to access to information. We have such a preciously narrow window of opportunity, and if we can’t translate librarianship into a service for this century and the many changes it will hold, we will have lost something very important.