Posted by: ayounglove | July 28, 2008




Having recently attended for the first time both the American Library Association (ALA) Convention in Anaheim, and the Special Library Association (SLA) Convention in Seattle last month, some of my friends and peers wanted to know: What’s the difference? How do they compare?

First of all, I want to clear up the misconception that to SLA is a branch of ALA. Even though the acting president of SLA, Steven Abrams, attended and even spoke at ALA, the Special Library Assocation is, in fact, its own organization with its own budget and its own separate membership. SLA is also a lot smaller than ALA. The final head count for the SLA Convention in Seattle was 5,000. The ALA final count was 21,063 attendees.

Secondly, I want to be open and state that I am biased towards SLA because I’ve become an active member of my local chapter and was awarded a large scholarship at the conference in Seattle.  In contrast, I’ve found it very difficult to connect to the Oregon chapter of SLA.  To be honest, I’m not even sure that our state chapter does anything



aside from having an annual OLA Conference, putting out a quarterly publication and hosting a listserv.  While I greatly benefit from the listserv and have had the privilege of publishing in the OLA Quarterly, these benefits do not translate into a sense of community or involvement for me.  For my local chapter of SLA, there are frequent member meetings and events to attend — which is a great help to a distance education student like myself because it makes up in part for my lack of access to campus life activities and helps keep me in regular contact with practicing professionals.

Both the SLA and the ALA conferences were held on the West Coast this year.  Since I live in Portland, Oregon, this was especially convenient for me.  Seattle culture is much more similar to Portland culture than SoCal culture though and so I didn’t really feel like I was on vacation in Seattle so much as visiting a close friend.  In Anaheim though, it was sunny and there were palm trees and I went to Disneyland.  I know that we’re all supposed to hate Disney for being an evil corporate machine that commercializes childhood, but honestly?  Disneyland is so much fun.  I can’t deny it.  I would go all the time to Disneyland if I lived in Southern California even though I don’t watch their children’s movies anymore.

About the conferences though — there is a very large style gap between the two organizations.  Here is my general impression:

At SLA it seemed very clear to me why most members were attending: to network, improve their job skills and help others do a better job.  Vendors were there to sell us products and we were there to buy them.  A typical interaction with another SLA member would be for me to walk up and introduce myself, exchange business cards, and have the person I approached begin to give me advice or guideance about who was who and what at the conference is worth doing.  There were very few giveaways of physical objects, but lots of free food, drink and alcohol. 

People appeared to go to ALA for all sorts of reasons though: to job hunt, to attend required in-person meetings, to hang out with other libraians and have fun, to lobby Washington, to get free books, to have a vacation, to meet famous authors, to bring back specific information for a local library, etc.  The list goes on.  However, this means that a typical interaction with another ALA attendee for me was more like approaching someone and then having that person be either swept away by friends or a short exchange that didn’t go beyone swapping names because the other person has things to do, people to see, or is also confused and doesn’t know what’s going on either.  Which is unforunate.  There are so many different things to do at ALA that when I recently received a mailing summarizing all the various goings on, I realized that I only attended one of the events referenced in the entire booklet.

In the future, I may or may not attend ALA, but I will probably continue to attend SLA.


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