The Cafe across the Street

As I’m writing this the last few librarians visiting Denver for ALA Midwinter are finishing up their remaining obligations and getting ready to head home. In my case I’m back at work, just a few short blocks from the Convention Center that hosted us for the last several days, sorting through my handwritten notes and Twitter timeline to see if I can get a better sense of what I learned.

This was my first Midwinter, and will likely be my last for a while. I had been told in the past that this conference was much more focused on committee work and the “business” of running ALA, and that held true. I moderated a meeting of the ACRL First Year Experience Discussion Group, as well as attended a few other Interest and Discussion Group sessions, then effectively ended my “official” conference on Sunday afternoon with the President’s Program debating whether or not libraries are “neutral.” (They’re not, by the way.)

What set this conference apart from my previous ones was the number of “unofficial” events I attended–coffee, lunch, dinner, drinks–all taking place outside of the conference but still filled with discussions of libraries. After mulling it over, I think these extracurricular meetings were the result of a couple of factors. The first reason was that the conference took place in my home of Denver, and I was trying to show friends and colleagues some of what the city has to offer. The second reason, and this is the one I’ve been slow to realize, is that I now know a whole lot more people who work in libraries than I did a few years ago. Conferences like this one are our chance to catch-up and compare notes, and that sort of interaction is more often best conducted in the cafe across the street from the conference, rather than at the conference itself.

It’s that last point that’s drawn my attention. Something that struck me about Midwinter was that the crowd in the Convention Center skewed older and more experienced than what I typically see at Annual or ACRL. I saw a lot more people with titles like “Director” or “Dean,” and I consequently heard more people make statements that started with “What I have people in my library do is…” This isn’t inherently problematic, considering the committee-focused nature of the conference, and I honestly found it really valuable. It gave me a better awareness of administrative practices throughout the profession.

At the same time, I noticed that the crowd outside of the conference–the people meeting at the cafes and restaurants–skewed much younger. I attended a #critlib meet-up on Monday morning where I met several current MLIS students, as well as a few people in their first year or two of professional library work, and listened as they talked about their grad programs and upcoming job searches. This experience was equally valuable in that it reminded me of the common concerns of new librarians, as well as let me see that the discussions around this idea of “critical librarianship” are continuing with the next wave of library workers.

Still, I would have liked to have seen more interaction between these groups. I attended a few sessions where there were both grad students and library directors in the room, but those sessions tended to only include the voices of the latter. Which brings me to my main point: It’s incumbent upon those who are more established in the profession (like me) to get into more rooms with those with less experience. Then, once we’re there, we need to stay quiet and listen. We need to tell other established people to stay quiet and listen. If you have to talk, use that chance to ask thoughtful questions, then stay quiet and listen.

If there’s been a theme in librarianship for the last few months, it’s been discussions of “the pipeline,” by which I think people mean “the people who will work in libraries after us.” And for all of the conversations around diversifying the profession and changing the face of librarianship, I didn’t hear a lot from the next group of librarians in the Convention Center. They were there, to be sure, it’s just that other people did the talking and didn’t take much time to listen.

We need to work on that.