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Heading to ALA; Reflecting on AAM

Posted By Christina E. Newton, Monday, June 27, 2016
As I head to Orlando for the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference, I’m given to a range of emotions as well as memories of my recent experience at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Annual Conference in Washington, DC.  I always enjoy the AAM conferences, from the excellent sessions and inspiring keynotes, to the fabulous evening events where the red carpet is always rolled out for attendees. This year was no different, but my experience was indeed altered by seeing it through the lens of my fellow cohort members of the Collective Wisdom: Libraries, Archives and Museums (LAM) Conference Exchange (LAM cohort). Comprised of 18 representatives from these fields, our mission is to attend our respective national conferences – 12 actually attending – with the goal of breaking down barriers and determining paths toward potential collaboration in continuing education/professional development (CE/PD). I’m honored to have been chosen to participate in this project, and have the opportunity to engage with this incredible group of people from across the country and beyond!

My fellow cohort members inspired me but also made me question the museum conference routine. Working at a museum association where developing a conference is what I do, I felt torn throughout. I felt like an outsider, someone not from a particular institution like my colleagues, but also like an interpreter, trying to help explain why something was the way it was, as best I could. I guess I felt a little protective being almost on my home turf and of AAM as the big brother of us state museum associations. 

Interpretation seems to be the continual thread for me so far and I imagine that will continue throughout the experience as I next move into the unknown waters of libraries and archives. I’ll be able to tell you that associations can only do so much about the temperature in the meetings rooms and timing of the shuttles, but I’ll certainly rely on my colleagues to explain what all the acronyms mean at ALA.

Acronyms! Good grief! Sure they’re convenient and roll off the tongue, but only for those who are in the know. Otherwise, they create barriers for those who are not. Let’s start with “LAM!” (I recall one of the hardest things about starting my job at “VAM” was trying to decipher what all the letters meant that my coworkers would refer to.) 

For example, AAM has 22 “professional networks” that offer opportunities to its members to engage in specialized focus areas (i.e., development, education, etc.) Even though I’ve been involved with the association and am signed up in “PRAM” (Public Relations and Marketing) I still have no idea what many of the groups do because they are recognized by their acronyms and I don’t receive information about them. It’s always felt like an insiders club. This off-putting format was highlighted at the annual “Marketplace of Ideas” that feature round table discussions, poster session presentations or information tables. While I understand the affinity group concept, it felt exclusionary especially with the confusing signage of acronyms that felt symbolic of the barriers we were experiencing not only as conference attendees but also in understanding our roles in this project and eventual outcomes.

One of the most enlightening sessions was one that was suggested for our group on “Museum Jargon.” This fascinating panel conversation focused on how words and “shared speak” can be tricky and misunderstood, whether in an organization or among the field. The audience engagement was overwhelming. Words were shouted out with abandon and others laughed, shook their heads, or groaned. Obviously, everyone has been on the receiving or giving end of “preservation, conversation, education, stewardship, experiential, development, interconnectivity, diversity, community, curate, engagement;” the list went on. We assume we’re on the same page when using a word, but it’s often not the case. The room shared a knowing nod when the word “museum” was shared. I was relieved to hear that everyone agreed that “museum” carries so many connotations for so many people, both positive and negative. In our own organization, I have hesitated to use it when our members represent historic houses, art galleries, botanical gardens, science centers, and so on. But what else can we use? Of course I had to throw in “acronym” as my word, and received knowing nods and moans of agreement, and in fact, AAM’s affinity groups were mentioned as immediate barriers within the organization / field.

Following the conference, we discussed what our “ah ha” moments were. For me, it’s these “language barriers,” which seems more accurate to describe foreign travel, but isn’t that we’re doing, each of us, visiting a foreign conference land. There may be typical educational sessions and keynote speeches, but differences certainly exist in roles of jobs, specialized fields, level of education, training opportunities, and technology (understanding and availability). 

I was wowed by the cohort members’ observations, questions, ponderings, resolutions, and incredible insights. I felt small at times and overwhelmed by our task. If we can’t even decipher what a few letters mean how can we possibly begin to communicate and break down substantial barriers between our fields?! But here we are, a cohort of interpreters. 

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Tags:  AAM  ALA  archives  conferences  libraries  museums  professional development  Virginia 

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