Like a lot of campuses, the budget crisis brought on by the pandemic means that funding for travel has been suspended at my library for the foreseeable future Which seems okay since it might be a while until it’s safe again for people to gather in large numbers at events like these. And it might be a while after that before anyone actually feels safe doing it.
There are people in my library who are big fans of conferences, both for the networking opportunity and as a chance to present their work, and they feel this loss keenly. As for me, I’m a little relieved. I’m both a nervous traveler and a nervous public speaker, so conferences for me have always been experiences to be endured more than enjoyed.
That said, some of my favorite professional memories and most notable professional experiences have happened at conferences. Below are a few that come to mind.
The fire alarm at LOEX: My first time presenting at a national conference was at the LOEX Conference in Nashville in 2013. It was a solo presentation about something called the 4S structure and how I’d used that to create better group activities in my information literacy classes. (I still do.) I was really excited, especially when I saw that I’d been scheduled to speak in one of the larger rooms at the hotel, which ended up being reasonably full. Unfortunately, as I was speaking, the fire alarm went off. We all started to pack our things and leave. Then someone from the hotel (or the conference, I can’t remember which) told us it was a false alarm, that there was some kind of malfunction with the alarm system and to ignore it and continue the presentation. So we stayed and a few minutes later the alarm stopped. Then it started again. This time, we could smell smoke so we started to leave. We were told the issue had something to do with one of the elevators. I can’t remember if we evacuated or stayed or what but I know that nothing bad happened and I somehow managed to finish my presentation despite the interruptions. Luckily, the audience and I were able to find a way to laugh through the incident. It was definitely a very memorable first-time presentation. (Unfortunately, seven years later I’m still waiting for the proceedings from that conference to be published, but that’s another story.)
Seeing Stan Lee in Las Vegas: My very first ALA conference was the one in Las Vegas in 2014. Stan Lee was one of the auditorium speakers and I wasn’t savvy enough at the time to know that if you want to get in to see the more popular/famous speakers, you have to get in line early. By the time I got in line to see Stan Lee, the damn thing stretched all the way back to Terra Haute (to paraphrase Ralphie from A Christmas Story) so I really didn’t think I was going to get in. Luckily, I ended up about two-thirds of the way back, which was close enough to actually view Lee on stage (though just barely). I am a die hard MCU fan and getting to see Lee in person was really special. What I remember most clearly is that for some reason they had someone from ALA interviewing Lee on stage as part of the presentation, which turned out to be a poor choice because, well, people in their nineties tend to be a bit hard of hearing sometimes. This could have been embarrassing for both the interviewer and Lee but Lee saved the day by turning it into something of a bit. At one point, he responded to one of the interviewer’s questions by saying, “I didn’t hear the question you asked, but let me tell you why Superman sucks.” It was awesome and definitely a fond memory for me, especially now that Lee is gone.
Philippe Petit, also in Las Vegas: Philippe Petit was a name I didn’t recognize when I saw it in the conference program but when I read the description, I saw that he had been the subject of Man on Wire, a documentary I’d seen a few years earlier about a group of people who organized a caper to string a high wire between the towers of the World Trade Center in the 1970s. Petit was the guy who actually walked on that wire. Unfortunately, he was scheduled to speak in the deadliest of time slots (8:30 in the morning, relatively late in the conference) so his audience was on the small side, maybe about a third of what the auditorium could seat. He didn’t seem to care. He was lively and fun and gave us all plastic forks, asking us to imagine all the things we could do with it besides use it as a fork. I still have mine, along with the book he signed for me afterward. This was probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a conference before 9 a.m. and I was lucky enough to repeat the experience when Petit came to my campus last year to speak to a standing room-only crowd. Seriously, even if you have no idea who Petit is, if you ever have the chance to see him in person, you should definitely take it. He’s a wonderful speaker.
Singing “American Pie” in Chicago: Brene Brown is a speaker I’ve enjoyed ever since catching some of her early TED Talks about vulnerability. Like Petit, she also had a very early morning speaking slot but because she has a more recognizable name, a sizeable crowd woke up early to see her. She was at the Chicago conference to promote her book Braving the Wilderness, which is about humans’ need for community. In the book, she discusses several principles for fostering understanding between people in order to create a sense of belonging. One of these is to “hold hands with strangers.” To practice this, she had everyone in the large audience stand up and sing the chorus to “American Pie.” We weren’t asked to literally hold hands while doing so but it was still a strangely moving experience that I think about every time the song comes up on my Spotify shuffle.
Coming full circle: The first professional library conference I ever attended was ACRL in Philadelphia in 2011, just before I got my library degree. As a new professional, I was a little overwhelmed by the experience but I remember sitting in the audience at one of the presentations, watching the speaker and thinking, “I want to be the one up there someday.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware at the time that ACRL Conferences are somewhat notorious for their low acceptance rates. Which also meant I wasn’t able to go to another ACRL Conference for a long time afterward because I couldn’t justify the expense of going unless I was presenting and all of the proposals I’d submitted over the years had been roundly rejected (as had those of many of my colleagues, so at least I was in good company). Then ACRL 2019 came along. I submitted two proposals, one a contributed paper written with a group of former colleagues and another for a solo webcast on my own research project. To my great surprise, both were accepted. So at the conference in Cleveland, I got to realize my longtime goal of being one of the people at the front of the room at ACRL when my research colleagues and I presented our paper on employee turnover at academic libraries to a standing room-only crowd. And the next day I got to be the person at the front of the virtual room, which turned out to be good practice for the weirdness to come. Little did I know that less than a year later, there would be a global pandemic holding us all hostage in our homes. At least I got to experience that before things changed.
So those are some of my favorite conference memories from both the distant and recent past. Like I said, I’m not the most conference-savvy person but I hope that the day when we can all come together as a profession and create new stories to tell isn’t too far in the future.
Until then, I’ll be over here doing webinars in my pajamas.