ACRL 2019: Some thoughts

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So last week I got a chance to stop by the ACRL 2019 Conference in Cleveland. Somehow, this was only my second ACRL Conference (my first was the one in Philadelphia in 2011). Below are some thoughts.

How times have changed

The last time I attended the ACRL Conference,  I was on the verge of graduating from library school and terrified that I would never find a job. At the time, I had experience working both in public libraries (as a library clerk and an intern) and a university library (as a graduate assistant) and figured that whichever part of the field I ended up in would depend on which type of library hired me to a full time position first, assuming I was able to find a position at all. But I do think I must have been leaning toward university library work even then because I remember being at the conference in Philadelphia, watching the presenters at the podium and thinking, “I want to be up there someday.”

I don’t know if I ever expected to get there, but eight years later, I got to be one of the people at the podium!

My favorite sessions

Before I get to that, though, I want to talk about a couple of great presentations I saw while I was there, including “What’s Next?: Reimagining Mentoring and Leadership Development” (presented by Juliann Couture, Jennifer Knievel, and Jennie Gerke) and “’I’d Say It’s Good Progress’: An Ecological Momentary Assessment of Student Research Habits” (presented by Emily Crist, Sean Leahy, and Alan Carbery).

One of the specific goals I had for this conference was to attend sessions about what to do with yourself once you hit that vague “mid-career” period that seems to lay somewhere between the first and last five years of your time in the profession. I’m currently in the process of going up for tenure and I know I’d like to go up for full librarian at some point (assuming I get tenure), but I don’t have much sense of how to get there. “What’s Next?” really fit the bill for me. As part of the presentation, we had to identify a goal and some barriers to us reaching that goal, then collaborate with the person next to us to try to think of a solution. I found this to be a useful exercise even before we got to the “sharing” part but then it turned out the librarian I was sitting next to was someone who has a strong interest in helping librarians reach the full level and who also happened to have some good advice about my specific concern, which was basically how meet the expectation of excelling in service at a national level. So that worked out well! Anyway, that whole presentation turned into a great conversation and I feel like a lot of the people there really got something concrete out of it, which was great. If you have access to the conference materials online, I highly recommend the worksheet/handout the presenters created as a great mentoring conversation starter.

I was really interested in “I’d Say It’s Good Progress” because it’s an example of a study of research, which is a thing I get excited about these days but learning about the mechanics of the study Crist, Leahy and Carbery did was really fascinating. I feel like designing formal research studies is something of a weakness of mine so I really like hearing the details of the creative approaches some librarians take and this one, which involved a daily survey checking in with student participants about their progress on a research project to get a sense of their research habits in real time, sounded really cool. I’ll be excited to see what they find in the second round of research they’re conducting now.

Also: Viet Thanh Nguyen. Because of my flight schedule, his was the only keynote presentation I was able to see and it was GREAT. What great energy he had, even as he talked about such serious topics, including his experience as a refugee and the need for decolonization in the United States. Plus, he took a lot of time to answer questions at the end, which I always really appreciate with famous speakers at conferences.(1)

Team tardigrade

So the first session I participated in as a presenter was for a contributed paper that I and a group of former colleagues (Amy Fyn, Christina Heady, and Amanda Foster-Kaufman) called “Why We Leave: Exploring Academic Librarian Turnover and Retention Strategies.”  I haven’t talked as much about this research here as I do my other stuff (the contextual nature of research, the role of research in creative writing, the 10 books project) because even though it’s an important and interesting topic, I am very much the Fourth Author on this and am generally just happy to be along for the ride. But judging by the number of people who were in our audience, this was something that really struck a nerve with people. An audience member tweeted our slide of librarians’ top areas of dissatisfaction with their jobs and it got quite a bit of response.

Okay, but what’s a tardigrade? Are you sure you want to know? Because I kind of wish I didn’t.

While we were putting our presentation together, it was suggested by a member of our group that we should have a mascot. Something resilient. A turtle was among the first suggestions. Then: the tardigrade.

Tardigrades are, apparently, the toughest little things in the known universe. They are micro-animals with segmented bodies and, like, a tubular mouth? They look a little like worms but also with legs? Also they can live in space? I mean, okay. Actually, when I first saw a picture of one, it reminded me of the Acharis from The Neverending Story (book version), which are supposed to be these sad little worm things that do nothing but cry because they are so ashamed of their ugliness (but their tears create a precious silver filigree and also a beautiful lake).(2)

Anyway, it turns out people make jewelry of these things (the tardigrades, not the Acharis…probably) so if you were at our presentation and you were paying attention, you might have noticed that the four of us were wearing little necklaces with tardigrade pendants. Go team!

Doing a webcast versus doing a presentation

My second presentation was a virtual webcast that I did from the conference site: Research is Not a Basic Skill. The advantage of a webcast, I found, was that I got to read straight from a script and not feel too weird about it.(3) Well, except for those two times I lost my place and my life flashed briefly before my eyes but that passed relatively quickly.

The disadvantage of a webcast is that you don’t get a sense of how the audience is responding in the moment. During the contributed paper presentation, it was a little overwhelming to have so many people in the room staring at us, but it was nice to have immediate feedback. Things like people nodding their heads in agreement or holding up their phones to take pictures of our slides. Or laughing at something funny one of us said as part of the presentation.

During the webcast, I had the chat window, which I saw was very active while I was talking but had to keep in the corner of my eye as much as possible because I didn’t want to get too distracted by what everyone was saying. So if I want to know how everyone was responding in the moment, I’ll have to go back and review the tape, so to speak.

Speaking of which, I had about twenty minutes for questions at the end because I couldn’t stretch the presentation long enough (see below) and I got quite a few great, thoughtful questions. I tried to answer as best I could as we were going along but there are a few things I think I need to put more thought into so I can answer them more fully, especially the question about critical information literacy. I’m hoping to follow up at some point with a post that does a better job of addressing some of those questions than I might have done in the moment.

All that said, the part I felt most awkward about was the bit of self-promotion at the end. My last slide was always going to have contact information and stuff about my Twitter and this blog, so there was always going to be at least some of that. But then I needed to stretch my presentation a little so it wasn’t, like, egregiously short and sticking in a few slides at the end about this stuff was one of the only ways I could think of to do it. It felt a bit shameless and awkward but I really do want to start a conversation about these ideas, so you gotta do what you gotta do, I guess.

Cleveland rocks (I think)

I didn’t actually get to see much of Cleveland, but generally speaking I thought it was a nice place and I liked that a lot of the cool stuff was in relatively close proximity, unlike when I went to Chicago and New Orleans for the ALA conferences the last couple of years (though I also enjoyed my time in both those places). There also weren’t, like, huge crowds everywhere or huge amounts of traffic which made it feel very much like My Kind of City. (This is coming from someone who feels that Albany is the perfect size even though it has been disdainfully nicknamed “Smallbany” by the many NYC natives who live and/or work here.)

Also: I have to admit, I did not understand the appeal of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at first. I may have made a snotty comment about how one of their exhibits featured a chair that Elvis Presley apparently…stood next to? IDK.(4) Anyway, it grew on me once I left the exhibits and found the permanent museum and even though I did not get to see John Lennon’s glasses (because apparently they have not been at the Hall of Fame for quite some time) or, really, any Beatles stuff (because there was a silent disco going on in front of that particular display), I did get to see the dress Cyndi Lauper wore in the “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” video and therefore my life is complete.

Those are some initial thoughts. I hope everyone had a great conference! If you were there and you find this post, feel free to share a little about your experience below.


(1) Also, purely by coincidence (no, really…I pretty much didn’t look at the conference schedule until the day before I left for Cleveland, including my own sessions), Viet Thanh Nguyen was one of the Pulitzer Prize-winning authors I quoted in a previous post about how you can sometimes find evidence of fiction authors’ research in the paratextual information in their books, including the acknowledgements.

(2) I first read The Neverending Story when I was twelve and have read it about fifteen times since then, most recently about two years ago. It is such a weird book. Like, what happens to the Acharis specifically is just…so weird (but also possibly a little racist?). If you have only ever seen the movies, it’s worth a read, especially if you can get a full color hardcover copy.

(3) I know you’re not really supposed to do this. They even tell you specifically not to when you go to the training for virtual webcast presenters. Also I’m sure the local Toastmasters group I recently joined would have Some Feedback about the fact that I read straight from a piece of paper the whole time. What can I say? No one could see me. I made a choice.

(4) Okay, he didn’t just stand next to it. I’m sure his butt actually touched the chair at some point, but the photo that went with the display only showed him standing next to it.

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