PLA 2016: Lessons Learned From My First Conference

“Are there, like, librarians in town?”

I overheard a man ask that question as my colleagues and I walked to Denver Public Library on Tuesday afternoon. Several thousand public librarians, including myself, flooded the mile high city for the Public Library Association national conference. While some people imagine us competing in shushing contests and knitting sweaters, most recognize that public libraries are innovative and imaginative spaces for all.

That innovation has to come from somewhere, though. I hustled to sessions, networked like a pro, and generally wore myself out. The 7 hour drive home with my Director, our children’s librarian, and our IT guru was spent giving excited, almost manic reports of our different experiences. Personally, I learned more than I thought I would at my first library conference of all time.

Perspective

Being my own department…of one…means that I can sometimes feel like an island in a huge ocean full of islands. What sets me apart? What should I be doing that I’m not? If you are one of the many directors or teen coordinators that I spoke with, all I can say is thank you. I naturally assumed that our library, which serves a population just less than 25,000, couldn’t possibly compete with huge branch libraries with solid funding.

I now know that we are actually heading in the right direction. All teen librarians struggle with pulling in high school kids,  and many of us are working more and more with STEM in our mostly open ended  programming. There were even large systems that we have surpassed.

What I Learned: Libraries don’t exist in a vacuum. Duh, right? It’s one thing to know that, but it’s another thing to realize it fully. If I’ve found it, chances are others have too. It’s what we do with it that makes us unique to our community.

Maker Skill Set

Audience, raise your hand if you think making looks easy. Now, show of hands all those who know someone whose skill set makes it look easy.

Being a teen librarian means having absolutely no inhibitions whatsoever. Or, having them and acting like you don’t. Last summer, I was voluntold to make a working “life size” game of Operation. That meant circuitry. Me and my history degrees must have looked like a deer in headlights. Now, having a full year under my belt, I look at the opportunity to learn a new skill like its a video game achievement that I must unlock. Like soldering.

What I Learned: Yea, I learned how to solder at PLA! It is so much easier than I assumed it was! But, having a safe, guided station for me to learn at helped tremendously! That, to me is what the maker movement represents: a safe place to pick up a new skill with which I can alter the world around me. I experienced the same thing I’ve been trying to give to my middle school students, which was powerful.

Planning

Our van agreed one of the best things the PLA planners did was bring Kari Chapin on board. Holy smokes, she is such a hoot! Her “Make It Extraordinary” booklet was the best tool I could have been given so early in the conference. Having a clear plan, a page for brainstorming, another for fleshing out ideas – I loved it! Her presentation alone gave me several program ideas that I am now able to plan through without having major hiccups along the way.

What I Learned: A lot of us like to think we are good planners, but we deeply need to acknowledge that maybe our current system doesn’t work…at all. Keep it simple, don’t overplan, and write out your ideas with more than keywords. Looking at a note that says “succulent rocket” only hurts me in the long run.

Data Matters

As much as I hate to admit it, quantitative data is a must in this line of work. Circulation numbers, program attendance, hours worked, etc. all are must haves if the department is ever going to expand. But, there is a way to connect the numbers to qualitative feedback! This is something that I have struggled with; I picture myself poured over a dated, 1990s era calculator trying to make it speak to me. But, coding data seems simpler and something more accessible.

What I Learned: Thanks to Kellie Cannon for speaking with me before the conference even got off the ground! Teen Asset Mapping was one of the best sessions I attended, simply because I face the same kind of situation in our small town. When people think teen services, they somehow don’t think of the library. I have struggled to involve certain organizations and people with the library’s efforts, but without knowing exactly how each different piece of the puzzle attends to the needs of our town’s teen population. Now, I have a clear plan for operating closer with existing services, and creating new ways to help our kids.


The future no longer looks scary. I have framework for future STEM programming, I have tools to help me avoid planning pot-holes, and I have a recharged perspective that makes me excited its Monday (trust me, that’s progress)!

Were you at #pla2016? If so, what did you learn? What’s the most important thing to know about being a teen librarian? Comments are great, people!

Go out and do something amazing today!

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