This is the first conference blog post I’ve written in a long time. I guess we’re getting back to normal, gradually. As we all know, ALA Annual 2021 was, for the first time, an online conference, after the coronavirus pandemic cancelled the 2020 conference entirely. Was this year’s version the same as past ALA conferences? No – but in some good ways. Attendance at breakout sessions seemed remarkably high: hundreds of people at programs on minutiae of cataloging and what-not. This was the first Annual Conference since the formation of Core (replacing ALCTS, LITA, and LLAMA), and I did perceive a scarcity of programming in technical services; I hope this isn’t the new normal. Fortunately I can do something about that, given my two appointments to Core committees, specifically 1) Metadata & Collections: Acquisitions, and 2) Metadata & Collections: Technical Services and Systems.

At the program of the Core Cataloging Norms Interest Group (IG), participants in one of two breakout rooms discussed “The Haunting of Cataloging Decisions Past: Migration and the Challenges of Data.” Many attendees stated that their libraries either recently migrated to a new system or were planning on doing so in the near future. Unsurprisingly, Alma stood out as the prevailing choice, so we are in good, or at least plentiful, company. There seemed to be a wide variety in how much data cleanup libraries had managed to do prior to migration. Some had done a lot, and some had done none. This doesn’t surprise me, really, as not every library has the necessary personnel or expertise – by which I mean Kathy Martlock. I came out of the session glad that we were able to do so much cleanup at ZSR prior to migration. The particular data cleanup challenges participants described were varied and local, yet the general experience of having a messed-up database seems universal. 

Erica Barnett from Western Carolina University led a discussion at the Core Creative Ideas in Technical Services IG meeting entitled “New Technical Services Pandemic Workflows: What Will Stay?” One common change was shelf-ready processing for books, which we ourselves expanded at ZSR this past year. Another common experience was the loss of staff and the recognition that departments might never get back to their former, pre-pandemic size. Zoom meetings are here to stay, too, for better or for worse (or both). Post-pandemic, cross-training looks especially important as fewer staff have to wear more hats. And reliance on paper records looks pretty undesirable where it can be avoided. 

At the ACRL Technical Services IG meeting, Jill Kehoe from SUNY Maritime College gave a genuinely fascinating presentation about her library’s efforts to integrate the collection aboard a ship – yes, an actual ship that deploys for humanitarian aid – with its main, land-based collection. And you thought you had problems. In the same session, Susan Kromrie from Southwest Baptist University (Missouri) talked about workflow and job description changes that were necessitated at her library by excruciating budget cuts imposed by the university. Soul-searching was done, priorities defined, and services trimmed. One of her takeaways: “Take care of yourself and be kind to one another.”

Equity, diversity, and inclusion were the overarching topics at the meeting of the Core Role of the Professional Librarian in Technical Services IG. I opted for the breakout session “EDI: Where Do We Begin?” Some libraries have begun proactively creating local subject headings rather than wait for the Library of Congress to officially change outdated/offensive ones. There was discussion of whether the MARC 386 field was an appropriate place to note personal characteristics of the author; some felt it was, while others expressed concern that if you do this only for some authors (noting things like race, gender identity, etc), you just might make matters worse, inadvertently othering individuals while implicitly defining white-male-CIS as the default.

On the last day, I got to see Barack Obama speak; this was quite a privilege, one I don’t take for granted. His appreciation for libraries was clearly sincere; and whereas I am often struck at ALA by a general bias in the direction of academic libraries, I think he was primarily picturing public libraries when he praised our profession. I didn’t mind. Obama’s dialogue with Lonnie G. Bunch III, the first African-American secretary to the Smithsonian, was pleasantly collegial; you could tell they knew and thought well of one another. I always find President Obama’s high-level view of American society comforting, even as he acknowledges the challenges we face. He seems to remain sincerely hopeful, which isn’t always easy. It’s nice to know that someone who knows more than I do sees cause for optimism.