A report from Library Land

I recently attended the American Library Association annual conference in Washington, D.C. -- the mother of all library conferences. According to an ALA news release, there were 19,513 attendees -- and I believe it. The gathering was so huge that I knew my college housemate was there -- and never saw her once in three days (she is a university library dean and operates on a whole different level of librarianship). What did I learn? For one thing, from the moment I stepped into the Convention Center to pick up my registration packet, I realized this was my tribe. Everyone looked a little familiar, even though I didn't know any of them. This conference was one of the first times I've felt real regret for not going into this field earlier in my career -- even though I value everything I learned from journalism and other jobs.

It was an exceptionally well-organized conference, which I suppose comes from having these down after all these years. Everything was in the room specified, at the time specified. Events started on time and did not run over their allotted time. A lot of conferences could take a few lessons. For me, it was a nice mix of literary celebrity and practical info. My only complaint is that not much seemed geared toward little libraries like ours -- and I know there are a lot of us out there. No doubt that's because little library staffers don't have time to attend ALA conference organizing sessions, or make their name in the field as speakers. But it's worth keeping in mind because I bet a big part of ALA's constituency actually comes from little shops.

There were some big name writers there -- Toni Morrison as the keynote speaker at the opening general session, John Grisham, Junot Diaz, Dennis Lehane. It was interesting to see the difference between librarians as an audience from a purely literary gathering like the Key West Literary Seminar or the Miami Book Fair. Librarians seemed purely appreciative, not needy in the way that literary eventgoers can sometimes be, and I liked that. Naturally all the writers made sure to give props to libraries and librarians.

Some other mostly random observations and quotes:

What is it with the librarians and Second Life? I just don't get it -- and I don't want to and I won't. Maybe it's because I associate it with a particularly unappealing former work colleague but it just strikes me as creepy. Isn't Regular Life enough, or more than enough to keep up with? I suppose this is just how others feel about Facebook but that's cool. No one's forcing you to do any of those things. It just seems like I never hear any references to Second Life ... except from strangely enthusiastic librarians.

"You don't walk into Nordstrom's and say, 'please show me your inventory management system.'" Stephen Abram of Gale, talking about the way we present our online public access catalogs to patrons.

"We are living in a golden age of comics and book design." Audrey Niffenegger, author of "The Time Traveler's Wife," "Her Fearful Symmetry" and the upcoming graphic novel "The Night Bookmobile."

Dennis Lehane said the first nine screenplay adaptations of his novel "Shutter Island" tried to change the story to have a happy ending -- and they all sucked.

The panel called "Isn't It Romantic?" -- which featured six very nice and funny writers of romance novels -- was held in a room that was way too small for the crowd, in stark contrast to other sessions that had much bigger rooms and were half full or less. I think that speaks to the dissing of genre in general and romance in particular (I didn't check out the couple of scifi sessions I saw on the agenda so I don't know if those had similar room assignment/crowd issues). Too bad -- because we know they're popular with readers and obviously with a good section of librarians, too. Speaking of stereotyping, I think I was at the exact median of age, body size and apparel choices in that room -- making me feel both at home and strange, like when I see Swedes whom I've never met and am not related to, but who sort of feel familiar.

And this isn't ALA or library-related at all but if you go to Washington and have limited museum viewing time, I cannot recommend enough visiting the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. They share the old U.S. Patent Office building and they are both fantastic museums that are also a reasonable size to take in. The Portrait Gallery side, in particular, offers a nice precis of American history at the same time as seeing some cool paintings. And I got to see a genuine painting of Elizabeth I there! (Yes, she's not American but she played a role in early English settlements.) The real thing! The guy who painted that was looking at her! That gets my Tudor geek on, big time.

Of course, if you're interested at all in libraries you will probably visit the Library of Congress -- I'm embarrassed to say this was my first visit there but it was so worth it. What a gorgeous building, and monument, to the mission of libraries and their centrality to our country. And it's a working library, too. The tour was great, with all the cool architectural and artistic details explained and they had a great exhibit called Exploring the Early Americas. Highlighted in this exhibit is a map from the early 1500s by German mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller, for which the Library recently paid $10 million. Why, you might wonder, would our national library pay $10 million for some German map? It turns out this was the map in which Waldseemüller named that big continent to the west after one of the early explorers: Amerigo Vespucci. OK. Now I get it.