20,000 Librarians Walk Into Vegas…

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20,000 Librarians walk into a Vegas casino…

It sounds like the set up to a bad joke. 

Even my Ethiopian American cab driver got the joke.  Dropping me off at the Convention Center for the week-long ALA Annual Convention, he said, “Here it is party, party all day and all night.  But you women are quiet and thinking.  How can you be here?  It is almost funny.”

20,000 librarians, publishers, and other book professionals walk into a Las Vegas casino bombarded with cigarette smoke, slot machine clangs, loud music, and scantily-clad women.  With the dawning realization that this casino has no marked exits, the overwhelmed and bookish find that this stimuli dangerously overstimulates.  Repeat this scenario daily for six days and (please) don’t call me in the morning.

So why on this, the final morning of the Las Vegas ALA Convention, do I feel reluctant to leave?  Because no ALA conference in the past decade has made me love my profession and my colleagues so intensely.  Every teen novelist knows the drill, let you characters evolve in a new and/or threatening setting.  The plot-driven apocalypse/war/cancer/parent death will allow our protagonists to rise to the occasion, to fight anew, to discover themselves.

This ALA conference set up my own private dystopia.  (I chose to read that sentence to the tune of “My Own Private Idaho.”  You are welcome to do the same.)  Here is what I learned in my ALA Dystopia…

We Are Not Shushers
Yes, the music was loud.  Yes, it kept many people up when they needed blessed sleep.  Yes, hearing B52’s hits sung as ballads on Dueling Pianos in a bar dedicated to Napoleon breaks all cultural context.  But ALA-ers don’t dislike music or even LOUD music.  Libraries let people check out music for free and let bands perform (loudly) in their spaces.  Libraries have even let Curious City set up Ukulele Lending Libraries and tour a Fictional Band.  The difference?  Choice.  Libraries expose and lend, leading to free choice of music, not a forced consumption of “Love Shack” on piano as you struggle to find the nonexistent exits.

ALA-ers also want everyone to be heard.  My best evening of ALA was when five brilliant authors from EMLA, agent Erin Murphy, and myself headed to a Paris Casino hotel room with a bottle of Malbec so we could actually hear each other talk.  Librarians don’t shush.  They let the world express their opinion in the books it writes and they let patrons express themselves in every way possible.  Librarians are the vanguard of Free Speech and just speech and conversation in general.

Yes, the music was loud, but we did not dislike it because we were shushers, but because we can’t imagine a place where you all cannot be heard.

We Are Not Prudes
Kerry McManus at Boyds Mills Press said, “What I hate most here, is that it makes me feel like a prude.  And I am NOT a prude.”  Debra Cardillo of Live Oak Media lamented that you can see that the girls dancing on the bars with nearly nothing on, “take no joy in it.  Their eyes show that.  It is heartbreaking.”  I witnessed a man in my hotel hallway telling a departing woman, “That was way too much money for what I actually got.  You should be offering discounts!”

The objectification of woman’s bodies (by individuals and by every moving and still image) was flabbergasting.  Does saying so make us prudes?  No.  Every day libraries fight for sexual freedom, sex education, and the end to sexual violence.  From recommending It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris to responsible parents to hosting GLBTQ youth events to putting Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak into the hands of teen girls, librarians help teens and adults lead healthy sexual lives.

The women on the Vegas Strip that bared more in the casinos than most librarians bare on the beach do not get the wrath of my prudish judgement, but I do lament their one script for beauty.

Librarians stopped each other at the show to admire shoes, dresses, fabrics, glasses, jewelry, and witty t-shirt sayings.  I passed on my favorite dress company, eShakti.com to scores and a librarian passed me the name of the eco shoe company, MoHop.   We are not prudes.  We admire the uniqueness and beauty of bodies and the women within them.  Vegas Strip ladies, keep rocking your look, but consider other ways to be completely gorgeous.

We Are Not Opposed to Fantasy
Las Vegas has created a world theme park with “reproductions” of Paris, New York, Venice, Rome, and Ancient Egypt.  I respect the effort, but know that the books on our library shelves contain more adventure and unexpected moments than a billion dollar casino ever could.  Compare the novel The Passion by Jeannette Winterson to the Venetian Casino.  Compare even the illustrated streets of Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline to the fake painted ceilings of the Paris Casino.  Compare Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me to the New York, New York Casino.

Writers and illustrators bring us the stories of countless cities and worlds.  They ask us to believe, to imagine, and to participate in the story.  Las Vegas brings us cities and stories scripted for our ultimate pleasure (with no visible exit in sight).  ALA-ers might just prefer to go off script and build story with a more reliable (and cooperative) narrator.

We Are Not Alone
The ALA conference is a collection of librarians, publishers, vendors, book professionals, and the annointed authors and illustrators whose creativity inspires this whole industry of ours.  We ride on their merry-go-round and invite millions on board.  Librarians flocked to signings, workshops, and talks to get to know these authors and illustrators better and to try and find out how to better share their stories.

These authors and illustrators also felt the press of dystopia and looked to each other and the ALA-ers.  Author Mike Jung wrote on Facebook, it makes it possible for me to go to Las Vegas, a grotesque, ludicrously crowded place that practically beats you over the head with messages designed to make you feel bad about your life and yourself, and come home without going into a spiral of psychological doom. It’s because of the tribe, you know? The kidlit tribe.”

There is it.  We are a tribe.  A tribe offering an alternative to the unimaginative and scripted dystopia of America media and its distillation in the Las Vegas casinos.

ALA, you helped me feel the solidity of this tribe.

It turns out Las Vegas was not a joke afterall.

 

NOTE: I speak here of Casino Las Vegas a.k.a. The Strip.  The wider city of Las Vegas is mighty, full of intriguing people and institutions.  I also speak as an individual and NOT for all ALA members or librarians.

29 Comments

  1. LET’S NEVER EVER GO THERE AGAIN. And it’s an honor and a pleasure to be in the same tribe with you, Kirsten. *awkward high five*

    • High Fiv-ing Mike Jung back and probably missing because I am that kind of a dork.

  2. This is such a beautiful encapsulation of the weekend, Kirsten!

  3. This is wonderful! (Almost) makes me wish I was there 😉

  4. Wait a minute! Seven of you and one bottle of Malbec?? That’s just not right!

    • We creative types make do.

  5. I am currently conducting a survey about harassment and sexual harassment at ALA conferences. That point about Vegas being unsafe for women just by being Vegas, it really resonated with me and felt true to my experience. When I’m just at a REGULAR bar and there are women paid to dance on it, where does a mostly female profession fit into this? Where women’s bodies are constantly displayed for consumption?
    I don’t want to spam your site with my ALA Code of Conduct survey, but if anyone wants to click through to my site, I feel like the Vegas experience definitely qualifies as harassment.

    • Ingrid, so, so complicated. Women have the right to dress, perform, (and in Nevada even solicit) in any way they wish. The constant prevalence of one extreme of that choice and the lingering question of “is it always choice?” was hard to witness. Were we more than witnesses?

      • There’s a semi-decent documentary on Netflix streaming right now called Sex for Sale. It’s *mostly* about sex workers in Vegas. The conditions are horrendous. After seeing this doc, I thought, why were we there?

  6. Really well written!

  7. I am wondering “Curious City” if you were curious to venture away from the strip and see any of the other parts of Las Vegas? Where people live, work, go to go school, and go to their libraries? Did you visit any cultural institutions (where you had many to choose from)? Did you reach out to any of the librarians who live here and engage them in conversation about the history of the area and the collections their institutions hold? Did you visit any one of the wonderful state and national park areas surrounding the city that people travel from around the world to visit? According to this blog post it sounds like you did not even try to engage, only judge. Maybe I am wrong and in that case I would like to hear of your experiences away from the strip. I am offended that you have defined Las Vegas by a single street. Surely you wouldn’t spend a week in New York City and judge it solely on Times Square? Or Amsterdam by the Red Light District?

    • Thank you, Anne. You have every right to question my narrow assessment.

      I speak to my experience of staying on the Strip, going to the Convention hall each day, and attending events on the Strip. I am not speaking of the city in general. If the post will allow me to edit, I shall add “Strip” to my mention of LV.

      I am a great explorer of cities. In broader Vegas, I did have two lovely meals off the Strip one at Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant & Market (a few blocks from the convention center) and another amazing dinner at Taco Taco on East Tropicana Ave. Were it not for the cars of swell friends of friends that live in Vegas, those locations and transportation would have been hard to locate. I capped off the Taco Taco evening with a joyous hour at the Pinball Hall of Fame. I expected ironic and I got a full-blooded history of the art and institution of the game.

      I think I have been to every other convention city in the US and have found that exploration to be far easier. There is something about the path of the Strip that keeps you there and makes wider-Las Vegas seem a little unattainable. The heat also kept me from the street exploration I might embark on it other cities.

      A friend at the conference who is a New Yorker described her Vegas as being trapped in Times Square for a week, but much, much worse. No, I would not define New York by Times Square, but at conferences in New York, it is easy to have a broader experience.

      I was in Las Vegas is 2000 and spent most of my time in the broader city in the mountains. I would do so again.

      • I am so happy to hear you visited the Pinball Hall of Fame and has a meal at Meskerem! I apologize for being a bit critical, but I hear so much negative said about Las Vegas, just about all of it confined to just one part of town.It gets my gander up a bit. I wish I could have met you by happenstance at ALA and showed you around a bit more. As Marje commented, I hope you have the opportunity to see the “real” Las Vegas another time. Warm regards, Anne.

  8. Thank you. This was a very well-written post summing up how many of us felt

  9. I used to live in Las Vegas and worked as a public librarian (I moved not by choice but because my partner was offered a great job elsewhere.) I hate to say this, but I find your post an extremely narrow opinion based on only a small part of the city. This was not my experience as a resident, not even close. In fact, Las Vegas has some wonderful libraries and I am wondering why there was no attempt to even discuss them? The Clark County Library System recently received the National Medal for Museum and Library Service. The library at UNLV has an extensive collection of LGBT materials I think you would have found quite interesting. I have a number of friends who identify themselves as part of that group and who are quite happy to call Las Vegas home. Also, I am a feminist and I felt LESS objectified in Las Vegas than I did in other cities I have lived in, Boston and New York City included. While I cannot speak for the other women who live in Las Vegas, you made very blanket statements to reflect the variety of women who live and work in Las Vegas, not to mention the city as whole.

    • Marje, you are right to call me out on all of these things. I speak only of the Strip and not of the city in general. One of the perils of conferences in general is that my time to explore the city I am in is limited. I so often see what is between my hotel and the convention hall. So, my opinion is indeed narrow. I speak to the experience within that narrow context.

      I would amend the post to say the Las Vegas “Strip” if the post will allow me.

      I had the pleasure of a small tour of the larger city on the final night by friend of a friend who drove us by her library and described its glories. I would have loved to have seen it. I was there in 2000 and saw little of the Strip and much more of the city and the mountains. I would do so again.

      • Thank you for your response and I appreciate the conversation. If you ever are in the city again I hope you have the opportunity to see more! There are really some wonderful museums and places of natural beauty.

        • I’m a NY-er and I’d hate if someone commented on my city after *only* visiting Times Square. No one likes Times Square! It’s loud and awful, and in the 90s, it was super seedy, which, to be honest, was kind of fun in its own way (it’s been stripped of any character now). BUT, if that’s where someone spent their conference time, I’d understand their feelings. While I did get to explore the non-Strip parts of Las Vegas (and even traveled to a tiny town called Nelson about an hour outside Las Vegas), my *work* parts of the day were in the Strip. I walked through casinos full of cigarette smoke (you haven’t been able to smoke in a NYC bar or restaurant for a long time) and gamblers and mid-day drinking. I walked through streets full of sex workers and people/billboards hawking their services (and after watching the documentary Sex for Sale I realized how bad sex worker working conditions are in Vegas). That was my *work* day. I tried to get off the Strip at night, but that required a semi-expensive cab ride.
          If people couldn’t afford the cab ride (and even as a NY-er, I was surprised about what was way too expensive for me to partake in), the Strip was their life in Vegas. And for many of us, it made for a hostile/uncomfortable/unsafe work environment.

  10. I love this, beautifully said, and especially love your quote from Mike. It is the truth and as we read it we all recognized it. But I have to also agree with Ingrid, why Los Vegas? Why support the economy there which is pretty much based on addictions and immorality on the grandest scale (look at the environmental disaster caused by the use of so much electricity and water diversion from the Colorado as one example). Of course it is grand that librarians, and writers, and readers all could come together in spite of the black hole that is LV, and prosper. But still, why support it?

    • I have to disagree with you when you call Las Vegas “immoral.” Las Vegas is not confined to just one street, just as New York City is not confined to just Times Square. There are librarians and activists in Las Vegas too and this comment is extremely insulting to the work they are doing.

      I do agree with the environmental concerns you speak of. However, for better or worse Las Vegas now has almost two millions residents who make their livelihood here and raise their families. Las Vegas actually uses quite a bit of solar power and is home to the headquarters of Solar City, a major producer of solar energy. In addition, the hotels are models of efficiency and have pioneered methods of water recycling. You cannot say they aren’t at least trying to make things better.

      • Marje, You have good points. But just go to a beautiful quiet place in the high desert anywhere within hundreds of miles from LV and look in the direction of LV and you will see an otherworldly glow. Good they are trying to do better, but this is a city the makes in money in ways that harm people, the environment, and the planet. I have friends who live there, I know it’s not a totally terrible place, but it isn’t on any level a good place. Just my opinion. I realize others won’t necessarily agree.

      • Marje, like Kirsten, I’m inclined to amend my comments to say “Las Vegas Strip” instead of solely “Las Vegas,” as all of my critical comments about the city have also been about that one specific neighborhood. I’m not at all acquainted with any part of Vegas other than the Strip. Your points about the city as a whole being overlooked due to one street’s overwhelming presence in our cultural identity is well-taken, and if the convention had been held in a part of the city that allowed me to take in more of the area’s natural beauty (which I’ve not seen but have been told is genuinely stunning) and completely avoid the Strip (which I find utterly repellent), I would have been MUCH happier. I imagine the sheer size of ALA Annual makes that an impossibility, however, and as it stands, the time, energy, and money constraints I face when attending ALA usually mean my experience of the city is limited to the conference venue’s immediate surroundings. In this case, that was very much to my detriment.

        • You are right, Mike, the area around LV is stunning. All the more reason I’m so disheartened by the damage done by the city. Yes, it is the Strip that is partly to blame, but as I said just the amount of electricity sucked up (and the resources to make it) is even more stunning, in a bad way. And the whole city exists pretty much to support the strip.
          But regardless of that, ALA brought some beauty and class to the LV strip, and that is only good!

  11. Very well written, but I wonder if the stark contrast doesn’t point to a larger issue where librarians don’t ACTUALLY know the full spectrum of their communities. Las Vegas attracts people from all walks of life and I wonder how many of the people that apparently annoyed and offended attendees actually use libraries. Perhaps libraries have become bastions for a more narrow slice of the overall population. I do live in Las Vegas and love it here. I agree that there is a much wider life beyond the strip that most attendees missed. However, I still can’t help but feel that the utility of libraries is limited rather than broad for the general population. Maybe librarians should go back to their institutions and help their patrons learn more about gambling and other leisure pursuits that they will engage in when they come to Sin City. Think of it as a “what I learned in Vegas” opportunity.

    • David, thanks for the comments. 1st just have to say, none of the views in my post were expressed by librarians. I am a book professional who is lucky to help serve librarians, but I am not a librarian nor is anyone else quoted in the article. The generalities are all my own.

      2nd, I think librarians as a whole DO know their communities in ALL their diversity in ways that no other institution or individual community servant does. They serve without judgement, often with joy, and are doing incredible innovative things to get outside the walls of their building to engage their communities.

      I have friends that love the Vegas Strip, find it the perfect way to cut loose. I have family that lived in Vegas and loved it. I, myself, vacationed there (even got married there) in 2000. Vacation is one thing, living there is another — a conference is quite another. This post is simply about a 6 day period when I and others tried to get work done in the middle of the biggest party in the world. It is like cramming for the final exam when the rest of the campus is finished for the semester and is celebrating. You have to admit that the setting is odd.

      Again, the oddness is expressed by me, not by an entire profession.

      • Librarians, just like anyone, can be dedicated to their customers/patrons and still feel unsafe/uncomfortable in the workplace (this workplace being the conference). We don’t need to martyr ourselves 24 hours a day. Being uncomfortable doesn’t make us bad librarians.

  12. I’m finding some of the reactions to Kirsten’s article baffling. First of all, I AM a librarian, and I’ve worked in urban and suburban settings; I attended ALA with 3 colleagues, and saw many friends from a wide variety of libraries there. To a person, they ALL agreed completely with Kristen’s sentiments about having ALA in Vegas and not a single one wants to ever go back there. We’re talking librarians of various races, ages, sexual orientations and “lifestyles”. Admittedly this is anecdotal, but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen this many of my colleagues agree on anything.

    Second, I’ll take the word of the residents that there’s more to Vegas than the strip, and that we didn’t fully explore the “real” Vegas. However, comparing the Vegas strip to the Amsterdam Red Light district or to Times Square is somewhat disingenuous. Few tourist brochures feature those 2 aspects as THE thing to see in those cities, and it’s pretty easy to visit without going near them. Not so with Vegas. From the moment you exit the plane, you are thrust into the casino culture, with slot machines in the terminal. The major convention center is in a casino: it’s impossible to walk from your hotel room to your meetings without passing though more slot rooms and bars. This is not at all like attending a conference in other major cities (and I’ve attended in New Orleans, Dallas, Miami, New York, Washington and Chicago). Yes, they all have seamy sides, but as Kirsten said it is much easier to work around them and to get out to other cultural activities within the tight timeframe of a conference. If you have to rent a car to drive outside the city to get to an attraction, (like Hoover Dam) then in my book it doesn’t count.

    Let’s face it, for most people, (including apparently your chamber of commerce) the strip IS Vegas, whereas New York is not just Time Square. If there’s a way to have a conference for 20,000 in the “real” Vegas; I’m all ears, but as long as the conference center is in the LVH then you will have to count most of us out.

    As for drawing on my Vegas experience to teach patrons how to gamble: as with any topic on which I am not an expert,(which like everyone is most) my goal is to give the patron the best source of info. A week spent in Vegas is not gonna make me an expert, anymore than a week watching the World Cup has made me a soccer pro. There are many things I personally disapprove of that I’ve helped patrons research: tax loopholes, SAT cram courses, anti-abortion arguments. Doesn’t mean I need to spend my conference time (or my vacation time) learning to do those things. myself.

    • Very well said Lesley. Thank you.

    • Brava!