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State Street, Chicago

I bet our librarian predecessors never envisioned cooking demonstrations, a fun run, or video game discussions at a library conference.

While you’re at the American Library Association (ALA) conference in Chicago, or if you’re not in attendance but are there in spirit, here are six points to ponder about Chicago and ALA to help you affix your place in history:

-- In 1853, the very first conference was held in New York City and was attended by 80 men. It was 23 years before the next conference was held in Philadelphia, with 90 men and 13 women in attendance—from as far west as Chicago, and from England. This year’s conference in Chicago will showcase more than 800 organizations and may draw as many as 25,000 attendees from around the globe.

     [Photo:] The scene on State Street, downtown Chicago, in the 1890s.

-- The ALA conference was held in Chicago for the first time exactly 120 years ago, in 1893, in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exhibition. At that time, Chicago was growing at an astonishing rate and had a population of about 1.7 million people (compared to about 9 million today, which includes the metro area), making it the fifth- or sixth-largest city in the world at that time. Today, the fifth- and sixth-largest cities in the world—Shanghai, China and Manila, Philippines, including their metro areas—each have more than 20 million people.

-- When you venture out into the city of Chicago during this year’s conference, you’ll see a cacophony of people, cars, taxis, buses, limos, skyscrapers, restaurants, shops, and street performers. The first time ALA members explored the streets of Chicago in 1893, they were impressed by the paved roads that had been extended all the way out into the countryside, thanks to a bicycle boom. In addition, they were ogling the electric street cars that were beginning to replace horses, and marveling at the newly opened first lines of the “el,” or elevated railway. (You might be listening to the el clattering overhead as you read this.)

-- During the early years of the ALA, the headquarters of the Association was wherever the unpaid, elected secretary of ALA was located. From 1876 to 1890, this meant the Association met in the offices of Melvil Dewey at 32 Hawley Street in Boston. Today’s ALA is headquartered on Huron Street in Chicago and has a staff of 300, a budget of more than $33 million, and more than 62,000 members.

-- At the 1893 conference in Chicago, Alexander Rudolph introduced the Rudolph Continuous Indexer, marketed as a less costly alternative to the card catalog. However, only one person could use it at a time, and that, coupled with competition from Melvil Dewey's card catalog products, resulted in a short life for the invention. The 2013 ALA conference will feature multiple pavilions showcasing everything from multi-lingual and multi-format materials to cooking demonstrations, indie resources, mobile apps, comedy sketches, and celebrities of all kinds.

-- The aim of the Association, according to a resolution drafted at the 1876 convention, was "to enable librarians to do their present work more easily and at less expense." Well, who wouldn’t support that? Today, the ALA’s stated mission is “to provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.” One of the turning points from historical to modern librarianship occurred in 1939, when the ALA adopted the first Library Bill of Rights to set a standard against censorship—a move that defined librarianship as a profession committed to intellectual freedom and the right to read regardless of government dictates.

Probably the most concise way to sum up the role of the librarian—and the ALA conference experience—is with the ALA’s motto, which was adopted in 1892 and reinstated in 1988: “The best reading, for the largest number, at the least cost.”

We’d love to hear your comments about your conference experience or your thoughts on how librarianship and the ALA have changed.

01 Jul 2013 | Posted by Shannon Janeczek

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