In the past nine months, I've be able to attend three major LIS conferences - those of the Special Libraries Association (SLA) and the American Library Association (ALA) in June 2017 and the Public Library Association (PLA) just last week. After SLA, I wrote a bit about what I learned, but ALA was exhausting, and then the sh*t hit the fan in my personal life, and, well, I didn't write anything here again until ten days ago.
SLA and ALA were basically two entirely different worlds and gave me whiplash. Time, perspective, and PLA gave me a fuller understanding of the differences between the three conferences as well as enough qualitative data to generate some pros and cons. So in case you're weighing your options this year, here are a few observations and things to consider.
SLA Annual Conference
If you want to learn a new skill, this conference is for you. SLA places a strong emphasis on professional growth. The schedule is constructed to give you maximum educational opportunities, and all of the sessions I attended were extremely well done. Networking is also a big deal here. Attendees actively seek out new contacts, introduce themselves to each other, and trade business cards. First timers and students (I was both) are welcomed with open arms; it felt like the conference planners and more experienced SLAers all went out of their way to make sure I was comfortable and engaged. They cheered me on, encouraged me, included me, and offered help.
SLA's annual conference is (by far) the smallest of the ones I've attended, which is both good and less good. Personally, I really liked the size - it felt approachable, and it was awesome to meet people on the first day and then continue to see them in hallways, parties, and programs. However, if you're looking for a huge exhibit hall and lots of free books and swag, this conference is not for you. There were vendors and there was swag, but as someone who attended as a student (and has no purchasing power at work), most booths and I had little in common. However, small organizations are often more agile than larger ones, and SLA is no exception. Sessions felt fresh and brimmed with new ideas about business, librarianship, and ways of using technology.
Interested? Early bird registration ends April 6, though tickets will still be available after that date (and students don't have to worry since their tickets remain at one low price). This year, SLA's annual conference is in Baltimore, June 9-13.
ALA Annual Conference
If you want to be surrounded by 20,000 library folks, this is the conference for you. ALA's biggest selling point is its size - there are hundreds of sessions to choose from, a huge exhibit hall, and big name speakers (Hillary Rodham Clinton was the closing speaker last summer). There are sessions for every interest and every level of experience, and it's a great opportunity to expose yourself to the depth and breadth of Libraryland. Do you follow a LIS luminary on Twitter or listen to a library podcast? Do you work or go to school in a virtual environment? Odds are pretty good some those people will be at ALA in the flesh, so you could attend a session or event and meet them in Real Life. In the exhibit hall, there's a ton of free swag, book giveaways, emerging technology on display, and author signings. My favorite score was a signed copy of The Hate U Give, which I heart. And meeting Carla Hayden. That was dreamy.
ALA's large size is also, for me, it's biggest con. For one, the sheer number of people was kind of overwhelming and exhausting (at least for this introvert). I met some new people, and even followed up with some, but networking felt like less of a conference-wide priority than at SLA. Physically, the large size meant sessions were sometimes very far apart, and housing that many attendees necessitates a lot of hotels, not all of which are close to the convention center.
Interested? Early advance registration ends May 2, though tickets will still be available after that date. This year, ALA's annual conference is in New Orleans, June 21-26.
PLA Biannual Conference
Do you want a lot of free books? Then PLA is the conference for you. At this conference, the exhibit hall seems to be the centerpiece. There were only 2 or 3 hour-long educational session slots each day, and the bulk of the time was unscheduled. While there was a nice selection of mini (20-minute) programs in the exhibit hall, I wish there had been more time dedicated to learning. I bookmarked several sessions each time, so there was enough content to have two morning sessions, for example, with fewer choices during each hour. In addition, a lot of the sessions felt dated at PLA. I believe this is due to the submission deadline, rather than the fault of the speakers. The deadline for program proposals was nearly a year ago (April 14, 2017), which means a lot of the content last week was 12-18 months old. In case you hadn't heard, public libraries are evolving at an incredible pace, and social media and the interwebs exist, so new content is critical.
If you work (or want to work) in public libraries, PLA is a more focused choice than ALA. This conference is a good way to get out of your local bubble and learn from other public libraries' successes. It's also smaller, and thus, less overwhelming and more manageable. Networking is not a focus here, either, but I definitely saw people more than once and nodded in passing. The exhibit hall was smaller than ALA, but there were SO MANY free books. Happily, my hotel room was a short enough walk away that I didn't have to schlep heavy bags around with me all day.
Interested? Mark your calendars! PLA's next conference is in Nashville, TN, February 25-29, 2020.
Have you attended conferences you loved or didn't? I'd love to read your insights!