Nostalgia? For a conference? Yes–although technically, ALA Midwinter isn’t a conference. It’s the ALA Midwinter Meeting, and the terminology is significant, as you’ll discover if you blow into San Antonio looking for lots of thoroughly-described formal programs with speaker panels and the like.
You won’t find many of them. Only the ALA President and a few ALA offices are allowed to hold formal programs during the ALA Midwinter Meeting, I assume because the intent is that most people shouldn’t have to pay for two conferences a year–and to clear the way for Midwinter’s formal purpose. Which is business meetings and informal discussions. Thousands of them (quite literally).
Midwinter is a time for committees to get their work done (although they also meet at Annual, and those with serious agendas almost certainly carry out online work between conferences). Midwinter is the time most awards committees meet and make decisions (although they’re the one class of committee that could meet entirely “virtually,” since awards committees are exempt from ALA’s open-meeting policy). Midwinter is when interest groups (LITA), discussion groups (every other division), and committees firm up formal program plans for Annual and start working on program ideas for the following year’s Annual.
Some IGs and DGs also have topical discussions during Midwinter; sometimes those discussions loosely resemble programs. (I’m afraid LITA’s Top Technology Trends “trendspotters” Midwinter session has moved too far from a bunch of folks tossing around ideas and chewing on them to a fairly formal set of presentations, although I understand that San Antonio may see some moves to deal with the situation. I’m no longer part of the group, so that’s all I know.) Some divisions do a good job of publicizing the plans of their IGs and DGs at Midwinter, so that people can see which ones they’d like to drop in on. Some don’t. The new handbook may do a better job in this regard (any descriptive material would be a better job); we’ll see.
Midwinter exhibits tend to be relatively heavier on technology and services, mostly because they’re lighter on publishers, at least in the past. They’re a lot lighter (in the past, at least) on author signing sessions and thousands of people hauling carriers through the aisles picking up free posters, which can make Midwinter exhibits a much less frenzied affair and much better time to actually look at what’s happening with systems and services.
A bunch of bloggers offered good advice for conference-goers right around the time of ALA Annual 2004. I covered some of them in Cites & Insights 4:9 (July 2004)–if you just want that essay, it’s here. Most of the advice works for Midwinter as well, but not all of it, since there basically aren’t formal programs and panels.
I like ALA Midwinter. I’ve always thought it was the easiest way to explore possible committees and interest groups–to see what would make sense to get involved in. It runs at a less hectic pace than Annual. And San Antonio is, in my opinion, the ideal city for Midwinter: The weather’s usually fairly good, and most of the the hotels and conference center are conveniently joined by the Riverwalk, along with loads of restaurants and several miles of scenery. (By the way, I submitted material to a wiki for the first time in conjunction with Midwinter–the San Antonio “radical reference” wiki subset. I submitted the original “Getting around conference sites,” which has since been enhanced by “jp,” who–among other changes–found the Riverwalk map that I was unable to find. “The Riverwalk is your friend” is something I firmly believe, if you’re able to walk with no difficulty and across sometimes-less-than-smooth paths.)
So what’s the nostalgia? When I started going to ALA, almost exactly 30 years ago, Midwinter was a small event. I particularly remember the ones held in Washington, D.C., near the zoo: Almost everyone stayed in two hotels across the street from each other, and the claim was that if you sat in the Sheraton’s lobby bar (a true lobby bar, right out in the middle of the lobby) long enough, everyone you knew in ALA would come by. It seemed like the truth at the time. Chicago Midwinters were also memorable (and not for the cold).
Midwinter with 3,000 or so participants was a very different animal than the current Midwinter, which is about as large as Annual was a couple of decades ago. I won’t say “better” or “worse”–just different. (So was Annual, to be sure, but mostly in terms of scale; even back then, it was too big and complicated to get my head around.)
Do I miss those Midwinters? Not really. but there’s a little nostalgia.
Suggestions? I don’t have much to offer that isn’t already on that wiki site or in the 2004 C&I piece. Don’t overschedule. Do try at least one new group (I plan to!). Do enjoy the city, at least a little bit. If you get a chance to visit the Big Enchilada, San Antonio’s main public library, it’s worth a visit. (I do remember the all-conference reception at the first San Antonio Midwinter after that library opened: A wonderful event at an impressive facility.) (Once you see it, you’ll know why it’s been called the Big Enchilada.) Do stroll the Riverwalk–see how many friends you encounter at the various riverfront bars and restaurants, and along the surprisingly long walkway. The wiki offers some suggestions for other parts of San Antonio, and could certainly use lots more suggestions (including more non-vegetarian restaurants).
Oh, and if you’ve never done so, attend one ALA Council meeting. I think every ALA member should do that once–and for most of us, once is enough.