APA Librarian Conference Travel Award: Reflections on the 2018 Public Library Association Conference

The most recent recipient of the APA Librarian Conference Travel Award, Aisha Conner-Gaten at Loyola Marymount University, used the award to defray the cost of attendance at the Public Library Association’s (PLA) annual conference in March. Patti Avellanet in APA’s Databases & Electronic Resources Customer Relations group recently talked with Aisha to get her impressions of the conference. The following transcript of their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

Patti: Hi, Aisha! I know you were really looking forward to attending the Public Library Association’s conference, in part to present your work on diversity. How was it?

Aisha: The conference opened on a chilly March Wednesday with the theme “Imagine the Possibilities,” which could not have been more fitting. Public library work varies so dramatically depending on location, staffing, funding, and community that imagining the possible (and sometimes impossible!) becomes an essential part to sustaining an engaged institution in support of its patrons.

Patti: “Imagine the Possibilities” sounds like a terrific call to action. What were your overall impressions of the conference?

Aisha: As an academic librarian a bit out of her element, the PLA conference made a definite first impression on me as both an attendee and as a presenter. I’ve been to a few of the larger academic conferences this past year thanks to travel awards like the APA’s and found there was a “feeling” that always permeates the venue: slight panic mixed with subdued professionalism. Some would call this the overall “vibe” or “culture,” but regardless of the namesake, I found PLA to be so different from my previous experiences. There was a general calm in the convention center as well as all the sessions. It made for really impactful conversation without the tinges of overwhelming haste that sometimes ruin the conference experience.

Patti: I can’t help but chuckle when I think of what “slight panic mixed with subdued professionalism” looks like when worn by a sea of people! It’s terrific that PLA felt serene and completely different in that respect from other conferences you’ve attended. How did your presentation go?

Aisha: Multiple PLA members came by to support my presentation, When Push Comes to Shove: Supporting Patrons of Color in Your Institution, and, after a dynamic session, attendees were very receptive to the presentation’s content and message. They were vocal of their support and criticisms and were not at all afraid to ask questions or share solutions as issues emerged. It really made our session feel more like an extremely large working group, hopefully with lasting impact beyond the conference.

Patti: It’s great to hear that your audience was so constructive, interactive, and solution-focused. Were there any particular events or groups that you found especially useful or welcoming?

Aisha: I did have the pleasure of attending a PLA recruitment session with my interested colleagues. I was glad to see that PLA really hopes to engage its members at all levels of involvement. The comparatively low levels of effort to work on a temporary taskforce or write for a blog are actively encouraged alongside the higher levels of effort involved in leading a committee, running for office, or working on an award committee. Some PLA members are library directors while others are part-time staff, but PLA seems to really haven taken into account its membership’s rapidly fluctuating time commitments and job schedules and made adjustments accordingly. I think that re-organizing around the needs of their members should prove effective for them long-term. PLA is also unlike many professional conferences I’ve attended in that it did not hold many committee or group meetings during the conference. My understanding is that much of that work is done offline, providing more time for attendees to acclimate to the conference environment and enjoy their overall experience more.

Patti: Not having to attend committee or group meetings sounds like a terrific opportunity to spend more time learning as much as possible from the conference sessions. Was the conference as valuable as you had hoped?

Aisha: I found the PLA conference very valuable. My initial hope was to gain insight from public libraries on how academic libraries like mine could better engage with their communities, and how the entire library staff is tasked with this endeavor. From this conference, I was able to see how work in libraries, specifically beyond large initiatives and strategic planning, can be impactful for the community.

Patti: PLA may not be a conference that many academic librarians would think of attending due to differences in patron types, funding, and other characteristics, but you clearly anticipated the benefits given the common framework of community support that public and academic libraries share. Were there any takeaways from this public library conference that you can immediately put into practice at your academic library?

Aisha: Two of the sessions I attended were very different, but the takeaways for my institution were very similar. One of these sessions included supporting career placement with very basic concepts – such as how to tie a tie from the Free Library of Philadelphia – and another involved a project preserving common heritage in Athens, Georgia. They both focused on evidence-based programming and project work with community buy-in from the very start. That meant the library recognized they could not do good work without the community and that they would remain accountable to that same community throughout the process. I think this is a key part of any library or memory work: allying with the community and remaining accountable to their needs and occasional criticisms.

Patti: How interesting – two sessions that exemplify very different but important supportive functions that a library can serve within a community. That tie tying workshop was only one of many terrific hands-on activities featured in the 2018 PLA How-To Festival that our readers might explore bringing to their own libraries! Is this a conference that you would recommend to other librarians?

Aisha: I would absolutely recommend attending, if not PLA itself then a local public library conference or event, to any librarian – and especially those in academia. While we do have different patron types, our work really does follow the same framework of support. Additionally, public libraries do not have the luxury of a very specific scope – everyone comes for all sorts of things – and often varied levels of funding, so they get creative and innovative in ways that many academic libraries sometimes do not. It is an excellent opportunity to exit our academic silo and hear how to better integrate dynamic community work in all parts of our institutions.

Patti: I agree that working to integrate within a community and dynamically support it, while remaining accountable to those you serve and breaking through boundaries of creativity to meet needs and solve problems can be a complex challenge, but one that offers countless rewards for librarians and patrons alike. It certainly sounds like your PLA experience helped to expand your vision of what is possible and increase your enthusiasm for these types of challenges in your own library. Best wishes to you, and thanks so much for talking with me today!

Would you or a librarian you know benefit from receiving an APA Librarian Conference Travel Award? From May 1 through July 31, 2018, the APA Librarian Conference Travel Award is accepting applications for conferences taking place from September – December 2018. Please visit the website for more details on eligibility, deadlines, and application materials.