Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 10: August 2004


ALA Conference Comments

Walt Crawford

I don’t have a proper set of notes from Orlando. I was part of the LITA Top Technology Trends panel, and anything I added to existing reports on that panel would be superfluous. I wrote up my notes on that and other sessions for work—but there’s little in those notes that would be valuable here. As usual, I spent lots of time in the exhibits, met lots of friends and acquaintances who I only see twice a year—and met a few people I know only from email, lists, and weblogs face-to-face for the first time—and found the conference wearying, confusing, and worthwhile. Pretty much par for the course, and Orlando was neither the best nor the worst ALA Annual site I’ve encountered—although it’s closer to the worst (a tie between Dallas and Miami) than the best.

Shortly after the conference, various threads started on both LITA-L and PUBLIB (and probably other that I don’t follow) related to Orlando, ALA Annual in general and ALA as an organization. The threads included a fair amount of heat but also more light than I’ve seen in some similar discussions, particularly when ALA’s Mary Ghikas (who is also, full disclosure, a long-time friend) put together a detailed “Response to post-Orlando questions.”

I’m not going to go through the posts comment by comment; you can do that yourself if you sign up for LITA-L or PUBLIB. Instead, I’m going to make this a point-counterpoint perspective, with points gleaned from some of the posts and counterpoints reflecting my own thoughts, those of others within the lists, or the ALA “Response” document.

Counterpoints appear in these smaller-type indented paragraphs normally used for extended quotations.

ALA Expense and Complexity

ALA’s dues are too high, particularly if you join all the appropriate divisions and round tables.

ALA’s basic dues are lower than those of most other professional societies—a lot lower than many. Indeed, for people making decent money, ALA’s dues are lower than several state library associations. It’s true that ALA divisional dues are higher than typical state association division and section dues; most members choose the one or two divisions that will yield benefits that outweigh the costs.

Conference registration costs too much.

ALA Annual costs less than many professional conferences, much less than most other conferences, and a number of other conferences charge extra for programs within the general conference. ALA is unquestionably one of the cheaper conferences of its size.

ALA is too big and complex. Maybe it should be an umbrella organization.

Without ALA’s size, it’s unlikely that the ALA Washington Office could be as effective as it is. Smaller organizations would be less effective at lobbying and marketing. I’m not sure most divisions (other than ACRL and PLA) could survive as independent organizations without huge dues increases.

Why doesn’t ALA have more local activities?

The state library associations are the “local chapters” of ALA. State associations elect councillors to the ALA council. As was explained in the July 7 memo, ALA tries to avoid competing with state associations when locating its conferences. If ALA had its own local activities, that could (and almost certainly would) be seen as undercutting state associations. Some divisions also have state chapters, some (but not all) of which are also divisions or sections within their state associations, and ALA has student chapters at some library schools.

Conference Complexity and Virtual Participation

ALA Annual has way too many meetings. Why can’t it be simpler?

This theme keeps coming up. There have been ALA committees on conference planning and simplification, and various moves to simplify. They’ve never really worked. Unquestionably, ALA Annual and Midwinter both have a lot of meetings; that’s one reason there are relatively few good conference sites.

The problem with “simplification” is that it ignores the reality of ALA and its divisions and round tables. I could name hundreds of groups that are irrelevant for me. Those for whom those groups are vital might say that my core groups are irrelevant. Yes, there’s the often-stated assertion that ALA has so many committees because people want committee appointments to put on their vitas (and to get funding for ALA), but that oversimplifies the situation.

LITA (uniquely) took a major step to reduce possibly needless organizational overhead when it abolished sections and all of the committees that went with them. LITA went further, basing most of the division’s activities and organization on self-organizing units (LITA Interest Groups)—and adding sunset provisions so that such groups disappear when they’re no longer vital. Quite a few LITA Interest Groups have disappeared thanks to the sunset provisions (with two or three asking to be dissolved before the three-year sunset interval was up).

No other division has followed LITA’s lead. It’s not clear that doing so would meet the needs of their members. If you look at LITA, it still has a fairly large set of subunits. At Orlando, one LITA committee heard concerns that LITA lacked focus in some areas and suggested that converting some Interest Groups to sections might stabilize the situation.

One tongue-in-cheek comment was perfect: “All of the meetings that I don’t go to should be cancelled.”

Maybe the conference would be simpler if “less important” business was conducted virtually.

ALA groups are trying to find ways to support virtual participation, at least as a way of allowing those who can’t come to conferences to have more role in the organization. But there are two problems with converting committees to virtual operation.

First: ALA’s open meeting rule. Unless personnel matters or awards are being discussed, ALA meetings cannot be closed. It’s important to ALA’s organizational ethics that nearly all committee and other meetings are open to observers. It’s not clear how that can happen when meetings take place via email.

Second: virtual committee meetings might reduce attendance at ALA and particularly at Midwinter. It might not; that’s just not clear. But if it did—if converting (say) 500 of the roughly 2,000 meetings and discussions at Midwinter and Annual to virtual meetings resulted in (say) 20% of attendees staying home from Annual and 25% staying home from Midwinter—how would exhibitors react?

As the July 7 memo points out, ALA units have already tried to make things simpler by combining functions. Nine of 11 divisions and 5 of 17 round tables hold “all committee” meetings, where many committees meet simultaneously at tables within a ballroom or other large space. As a result the number of meetings has declined in recent years even as ALA membership continues to grow.

Assuming that the problems noted above can be taken care of, who decides what’s important? Which committees aren’t worth providing rooms for but can’t be killed off? Are there discussion groups that should only be allowed to carry on discussions over the internet because they’re not important enough for room space? Anyone care to make a list—and defend it in front of those involved in the committees and discussion groups?

Even if meetings take place at the conferences, there needs to be more “outside” participation.

As one person commented, that’s a case where people need to act instead of suggesting action. “How about volunteering your time and institution to host an electronic discussion group for an ALA subunit that needs an electronic home?” This year, LITA-L saw more reports from LITA sessions than in recent memory—but there could have been more program reports, the sort of thing the LITA Newsletter used to specialize in. There still could be: the list isn’t reserved for official reports.

Could conference sessions be made available to those who can’t attend? Sure, for a price—but who pays that price? Webcasting is complicated and far from free. People could be “congrunting” or blogging from ALA already, and a few did so. Once again, such actions (unlike formal webcasting) depend on individual action.

ALA contracts to have recordings made of many formal conference programs—formerly audiocassette, now audio CD. The CDs were available on site, but they can also be ordered through ALA. It’s not the same as being there, but the one conference program I’ve heard on audio CD (because I was on the panel and got a free copy) was crystal-clear. Each CD costs $14; 79 programs were recorded (some using two or three CDs). If you’re a true enthusiast, for $885 you get the full 109-CD set!

Yes, greater electronic participation would be good—but it’s not easy, and the tradeoffs are difficult. (And, as others have said, there’s really no substitute for being there. The programs and other formal sessions I attend at an Annual make up much less than half of Annual’s value for me; at Midwinter, the informal values rank even higher.)

How does ALA choose conference sites?

The July 7 paper is, as I write, available on ALA’s website (click on Events & Conferences, then go to ALA Annual 2004). It’s fascinating and offers much more information on what’s involved than I can remember ever seeing in the past—even when I was a division president. What follows is excerpted and paraphrased from that document. Personal interjections are in square brackets and italics.

The key factors for annual are 400,000 gross square feet of exhibit space, 8,500 hotel rooms for peak nights (Friday-Sunday), and 350 concurrent meeting rooms within a “workable area.”

The first two are fairly straightforward; as one person grumping about ALA’s secrecy put it, there are a dozen or more cities with reasonably large conference centers and thousands of hotel rooms. On the other hand, 350 concurrent meeting rooms is “significantly beyond the norm.”

Additionally, ALA tries to stay out of the way of “host” state chapters—so, for example, conferences can only be held in Chicago or San Francisco in odd-numbered years because the state conferences are in the same part of the state in even-numbered years.

Other factors considered in selecting sites include accessibility by air and rail, local transportation (in addition to conference shuttles), the number of potential “regional” participants (those within driving range), availability of hotels with varied prices, hotels with enough “double/double” rooms (that is, rooms that can sleep four, which ALA uses more than most conferences), overall meeting costs, convention center technology, and a layout that will handle other needs in addition to exhibits (the ALA store, Placement Center, registration, etc.). “It is important to note that no site is all positive or all negative.” [That is, there really aren’t any ideal sites for ALA Annual. I certainly can’t think of any. Midwinter? I’d call New Orleans and San Antonio almost ideal, with San Antonio the best logistically. New Orleans appears to be off the Midwinter list.]

The current schedule—subject to change—includes Chicago (2005, 2009), New Orleans (2006, 2011), Washington, DC (2007, 2013), Anaheim (2008, 2012), Orlando (2010), Las Vegas (2014), and San Francisco (2015). New York City may turn up again in the future, and Boston and Philadelphia could become summer sites if hotels and convention centers expand.

Chicago should be better next year: There’s a dedicated bus lane between McCormick Place and the primary cluster of hotels or “campus.” According to this document, San Francisco wasn’t expelled from the list (as some of us thought)—but there were insuperable difficulties for 2007 and 2011, the two earlier dates discussed. Anaheim is new; Las Vegas returns after almost 30 years.

Orlando will be reconsidered—but even now, six years in advance, it could cost ALA more than $170,000 to cancel the contract. Anaheim isn’t like Orlando, even if it is a car-oriented “Disney city”: more than 4,000 hotel rooms are within easy walking distance of the convention center, connected by sidewalks; the climate’s different; and there’s good rail service.

Why so many different sites? Because 25% of an average conference’s attendance is regional—more than that when you add exhibits-only attendance. There are also regional exhibitors. Midwinter helps bring ALA to even more areas. Midwinter sites include Boston (2005, 2010), San Antonio (2006, 2012), Seattle (2007, 2013), Philadelphia (2008, 2014), Denver (2009) and Chicago (2011, 2015)—and San Diego’s being considered for a later date. [Seattle’s new and, I’m guessing, a good possibility. You already know how I feel about Philadelphia in January…]

ALA can’t schedule all 350 rooms in the convention center without paying a fairly large fortune. Convention centers give meeting rooms to conventions abased on the amount of paid exhibit floor space. If more rooms are available, they cost much more than they would in hotels. And in places like Washington, DC and San Francisco, “all the convention center meeting rooms” is still only 60 to 80. The rest of the rooms need to be in hotels; the trick is keeping the size of the meeting “campus” reasonable. [I don’t believe it was reasonable in Orlando—and that’s not ALA’s fault. In fact, 1,419 of 2,298 total sessions were held in the four convenient properties—the convention center, Peabody, Rosen Center, and Rosen Plaza. But that left more than 800 spread over many miles.]

The conference includes 250 to 300 “tracked” programs and a bunch of other programs, plus 180 or so discussion group/interest group sessions, hundreds of catered events and close to 1,400 other business meetings. Unfortunately, those many meetings tend to get shoved into smaller portions of the conference calendar over time because attendees want to come in late and leave early. So in Orlando, there were 654 sessions Saturday, 717 Sunday, 437 Monday, and 90 Tuesday.

Annual is expected to contribute around $1.5 million net revenue to ALA, in addition to $1 million in overhead. Exhibits provide roughly half of Annual revenues, registration roughly 25%. The paper also provides some specific expense categories—including $200,000 to $250,000 for shuttle buses.


Some people loved Orlando. Some were reminded of ALA in Miami—and that was almost never a fond memory, since Miami was an extremely difficult conference. Some said “It’s always too spread out,” some argued that San Francisco’s the only place with good weather, some said 22,000 attendees can’t be wrong.

I thought Orlando was better than Miami or Dallas—but not by a lot. I didn’t mind the heat (which I expected). I found the humidity drained my energy (but also expected the humidity). I did not expect the sheer distances and the pedestrian-hostile nature of International Drive. I did not expect the difficulty of finding reasonably priced food within walking distance of the convention center. And I certainly did not expect that, if you asked for a cab (especially to get back from a restaurant), chances are you got some car with a driver who would charge whatever they felt like charging.

Unfortunately for Orlando, the “22,000 attendees” estimate was wrong. According to Library Journal’s post-conference report, fewer than 20,000 people attended ALA Annual 2004—the lowest since 1994, except for Toronto. Between 1995 and 2002, attendance ranged from 21,130 (Atlanta in 2002) to 26,542 (San Francisco in 2001), with most conferences having 23,000 to 24,000 attendees. 1994? That was Miami: 12,627, just over half the attendance in Chicago the next year.

In Closing

As I was starting to organize this odd perspective, LITA came out with a bombshell of its own: personalized email saying that the Board is raising LITA dues by $15. I never knew that the LITA Board could raise dues without a membership vote, and I believe the increase will cement LITA’s place as the most expensive division. What do you get for your money, and is it worth it? That’s another discussion and I’m not the one to start it.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 10, Whole Issue 53, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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