You’ve made it to Chicago…now what?

There are a few good reasons why, if you are going to work as a librarian, you need to be an active member of the American Library Association. And for me, friendship is number one.

It’s not like I’m some loser who needs to spend hundreds of dollars to travel halfway across the country to ALA’s Annual Conference (the big one in June) or the Midwinter Meeting (the smaller one in January) just to meet new people. But the most valuable part of ALA is the one-on-one relationships I’ve developed.

They’re the lifelines I use when I need someone to edit my résumé or prep me for an interview, provide a model for an RFP, explain in simple terms what the hell FRBR is, review a grant application, or just kvetch—for the millionth time—about that gap between the ideal library we all dream of and the libraries we work in.

But more than anything, it’s through ALA that I meet people whose work—as the kids say—is awesome. Who make me think differently and more creatively about libraries. Whose ideas I can steal. Who make me look smarter.

Can’t this kind of interaction happen through social media? Of course, and it does all the time. But social media extends the friendships I already have—the ALA conferences give me a chance to meet people I’ve only known virtually. It’s both/and, not either/or.

Another reason for attending ALA is the “truthiness” issue. Have you ever signed up for a webinar thinking, great topic!—only to discover that it is sponsored by a vendor and is basically a sales pitch? This erosion between editorial content and vendor message is everywhere in libraryland, and it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference.

I’m not saying that vendors are the bad guys and we’re the good guys. But here in 2013, we are awash in advertorial culture, and the only people I trust to give me an honest appraisal of a vendor product or service are my peers, preferably in a face-to-face conversation, something the old-fashioned ALA conference facilitates perfectly.

Finally, there is the biological imperative. Like dogs, librarians are social animals, with the same need to run with the pack and hang out with people who want to both save the world and organize it at the same time.

Unique among professions, librarians have this overwhelming desire to share their experiences, and as different as the 9,000 public libraries in this country may be from each other, it often feels as though we are working toward our future through one collective conversation. And ALA is the center of that dialogue.

To the uninitiated, the ALA Annual Conference can appear vast and bloated, confusing and redundant. And it is. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources for first-timers, packing tips, survival guides, and even programs at the conference to help you get your sea legs. And to that list, I’ll add one more. Here are 11 rules to follow in order to have a successful, lifelong relationship with ALA.

1. It’s all about you. As is true in a lot of situations, if it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it. You have enough jobs to do at your library, and in your personal life you’re probably saddled with shopping and cooking or laundry and cleaning. No one needs more tedium. Opening session turns out to be a self-indulgent snooze fest? Walk out. The panelists at the RA program on genre-bending are just reading their slides, slowly? Take the handouts, and run.

2. Join up! The best experiences at ALA come through committee work. This is where you’re going to meet people. Seek out committees that reflect your passions—contact the division president or committee chair and let them know you are interested. Most committee meetings are open, so drop by, listen in, and see if the work interests you. ALA makes believe that committee appointments are highly sought after, but that’s only true for committees like Newbery or Caldecott—where you either get elected, or have to suck up for years.

3. Hit the show floor. Many librarians seem to think that the show floor is a maze you walk through collecting swag and galleys. Wrong! Spend some quality time with the publishers and vendors—it’s likely you will be working with these folk for years to come and good relations can serve you well. Let them know what’s succeeding—or not—with their products. As customers, we have an opportunity to shape our environment. One of the savviest librarians I know approaches her key vendors with a problem she wants them to solve (“It takes me 10 screens to order a book. Can you make it two?”).

4. Respect “the trinity.” Never schedule more than three sessions a day, and considering how far-flung conferences can be, even that can be a stretch. Plot it out like a four-star general: can you really get from Chicago’s McCormick Place to the Palmer House in 20 minutes? Have backup programs at each venue in case of a flop. And while you’ll attend some programs because they have a direct impact on your job, make sure you also hit up events that feed your interests.

5. Directors: please pay. Ever wonder why an ALA conference can be mistaken for an AARP conference? It’s because in most libraries, it’s the director, and maybe a few of the other managers, who get funding for ALA. Here’s a vow I wish everyone would take: managers must pay their own way; new librarians get the dollars. It’s not that library managers are so fabulously compensated—we’re not. But for a whole host of reasons, we need new library workers to find their place at ALA. And they’re not going to unless we support them.

6. Be open to unanticipated consequences. Here’s the secret: you know that schedule you created, with all the programs you want to attend? That’s just a fallback, in case nothing better comes along. Most of what you learn at ALA will come about in ways you can’t plan, usually from casually meeting up with people. Be open to the unexpected: a free ticket to the Newbery-Caldecott banquet that lands in your lap, or lunch with a guy whose blog you’ve been reading for years.

7. Never lead, always follow. In general, leadership comes in two varieties within ALA. There is the ALA Council, which is basically the same thing as the student council in high school. Remember how much of an impact student council had on your life? Then there are positions within each division, like serving on the board of directors. Before you accept a leadership position—and one might be thrust upon you awfully fast—think carefully if that’s how you want to spend your time. Me? I’d rather keep the magic alive and not know everything about ALA’s inner workings.

8. Make way for authors. The roster of authors appearing at the Annual Conference is astonishing, and except for some of the children’s and YA writers—where you are tapping into crazed fandom—the crowds can be much smaller than at BEA. For starters, check out the Meet the Author series and the PopTop Stage, both on the show floor. Even if you have nothing to do with collections, it would be a shame to miss out on some of these great author events. And check out the picks in this issue for appearances by authors at their publishers’ booths—it is a great way to meet an author you’ve always enjoyed.

9. Do the opposite. I’ve always thought that the Top Tech Trends program should be full of readers’ advisory librarians. And ACRL directors should be getting up at dawn to attend the Youth Media Awards. But while that’s not going to happen, you should stretch a little and pick one program that’s way outside your comfort zone. I’m going to a session called “The ‘Twilight’ of AACR2 and the ‘Breaking Dawn’ of RDA.” I haven’t a clue what it’s about.

10. See the city. One side benefit to attending ALA is that you get to see a lot of the country—or at least those cities that can accommodate conferences of 20,000. Budget time to get away from the conference. I have friends who always seek out the local knitting shop or leather bar, aquarium or a four-star restaurant. If it is your first time in Chicago, seek out an architectural tour—you won’t be disappointed.

11. Go to one big event. At every conference, there are always a few mammoth parties hosted by the big ILS vendors or book distributors. Yes, you would rather stay back in your hotel room and soak your feet in ice. But you can’t say you’ve truly been to an ALA conference without attending at least one of them. The children’s librarians will have formed a chaste conga line. That goth serials cataloguer will be off in the corner, locked in passionate discussion with the hot Elsevier rep. The YA librarians—the only people left in America with purple hair—will be comparing their new tats. And the lady dancing on top of one of the speakers, arms pumping, pearls swaying, lip-synching to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”? Yeah, you interviewed with her six months ago. For a job you didn’t get.

Go ahead. Jump on in. These are your people now.