New Members Round Table Orientation

January 25, 2014

All right, so I’m not a new librarian and I’ve been attending ALA events since 2006, but since Philadelphia is my first Midwinter Meeting, I decided to check out the New Members Round Table (NMRT) orientation session Saturday morning.

Andrea Mullarkey of Berkeley (Calif.) Public Library moderated a panel discussion among several experienced librarians: Emily Prather-Rodgers (NMRT president), Ron Jankowski (ALA membership development director), Kay Kassell (ALA Membership Committee), Alice Knapp (Exhibits Round Table) and Siobhan Reardon (director, Free Library of Philadelphia).

The program began by having the participants play “orientation bingo.” Participants were encouraged to meet each other and sign boxes on the bingo cards. For example, I signed “technical services librarian” or “is on Goodreads” in support of others’ completing a row or column for bingo. This exercise in networking was a great icebreaker and conversation starter.

Prather-Rodgers started the discussion by explaining that Midwinter began as a meeting in which round tables, committees, and so on would converge to take care of official ALA business. Over time, exhibits and programming grew as part of Midwinter.

Acknowledging that the size of the meeting can be daunting for new attendees, Kassell suggested spending a lot of time with the conference program to find what interests you. Look for high-profile speakers in the front of the program, or in Cognotes. There are a lot of discussion groups too, not just meetings.

Regarding meetings, Knapp encouraged us to find committees of interest to us. Go to their meetings, observe and, if you want to help out, “you’ll get roped in” and they’ll never let you go, Knapp said.

Jankowski briefly mentioned the Networking Unconference, which, he said, is “for general discussions about whatever.”

Prather-Rodgers and Reardon confirmed that it is okay to leave a program if it is not what you expected or hoped. On the flip side, Reardon said that, if you’re presenting, expect people to come and go during the program.

  • Besides navigating the conference itself, panelists offered a variety of tips:
  • Expose yourself to something entirely new.
  • If you’re an introvert, pretend you’re not! Librarians are nice people. Ask to sit with someone having lunch alone, for example. (On this point, I’d like to add that I'm an introvert and decided at ALA Annual, where all the shuttles were crowded, I would talk to the person who sat beside me and find out what he or she did. It was painless.)
  • Join a round table or committee.
  • Go with a friend or acquaintance to a reception.
  • Meet librarians and exhibitors.
  • If you meet people here who—like you—are planning to go to the 2014 ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas, make plans ahead of time to get together there.
  • ALA staff, Convention Center staff, and the executive board members of any ALA unit are good sources of information.

Some participants said the exhibit hall was overwhelming. We were advised to treat the exhibit hall as a live laboratory. Talk to exhibitors about their projects and treat the exhibits like a continuation of programming rather than just a sales pitch. Even if you’re not responsible for purchasing, you can impress your colleagues with your knowledge about new products. You can navigate the exhibits more easily with the guide included in your registration packet. Logistically, it’s better to collect exhibit SWAG at the end of the day rather than the beginning, so you don’t have to lug everything around. If you pick up many items, you can mail it to yourself at the exhibit hall post office. If you are mailing only books—not even a single pen or button—you can use media mail, which is cheaper than first class. (Unfortunately, posters are not eligible for media mail rates.) Also, be sure to thank the exhibitors for their participation, especially those who are corporate sponsors; their underwriting is a major source of revenue for ALA and helps keep our registration costs down.

The panelists encouraged participation in ALA and NMRT in particular, emphasizing that there is something for everybody in the organization and that you will make colleagues for life. Though ALA is big, divisions (targeted to your job) and round tables (targeted to specific interests) are smaller. NMRT is a fast track to organizational leadership: If you join, you are guaranteed a committee appointment. They also shared some of their most rewarding ALA experiences at an ALA conference, which ranged from volunteering at the 2006 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans the year after Hurricane Katrina to being nominated for Executive Board service.

Asked for their tips for one thing to do at your very first conference, the panelists recommended (names removed to protect the innocent):

  1. Go to the Membership Pavilion and ask anything you want.
  2. Don't be too shy.
  3. Don’t drink too much, even if it’s free.
  4. Go to an awards ceremony.
  5. Quiet time is good. Plan to spend one night alone with a good book.
  6. Accompany someone who’s been here before.

This was a great program for getting one’s bearings, not only at Midwinter but at large library conferences in general.

STEPHEN M. BROOKS is head, Monographic Services Department, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Email him at stephen_brooks[at]


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