Blast From the Past: AISL Conference 1996

As I was thinking what to write for my December post, I thought back to when I was a baby librarian in my 20s, attending my first AISL conference. That was in 1996, when AISL was less than ten years old, and I was living in its “hometown” of Washington, D.C. As the conference also took place in D.C., that made attending it easy! At that time in my life, I wrote my grandmother long letters about everything I was up to, which included the conference. I dug up the letter that included my description, and what follows is a slightly-abridged version, with some added comments. I sadly didn’t find any photos I took at the conference, but here I am at my first school, Edmund Burke (rocking those 80s shoulder pads), along with a view of my library. Note the card catalog—it was the dark ages!!

April, 1996

The AISL (Association of Independent School Librarians) conference was a tremendous success; I’ve never had so much fun at a conference before! It began on a Wednesday at St. Alban’s, with continental breakfast in the library. At the local conferences I attend most people already know each other and don’t really talk outside their groups, but here, few people knew each other, so everyone talked to new people. People came from all over the country, and it was wonderful to discuss our libraries and find out we all have the same types of problems with students, faculty, teaching, equipment, budgets, etc. That’s the drawback of working at Edmund Burke as a solo librarian; no one really knows what I do so it’s rather isolating. I loved talking to people who not only understood but were interested in what I was saying! [2023 note: That conference, and the camaraderie, completely sold me on AISL, and I am so grateful I found the association at the start of my career.]

              The morning’s program focused on library facilities; planning a new one, moving, etc. An architect discussed the tendency of architects to ignore function in favor of looks, resulting in things like odd corners no shelves can fit in, solid railings behind which kids can hide, useless light fixtures, insufficient wiring, etc. They showed slides of lots of lovely libraries, and pointed out difficulties with all of them! Rather daunting, especially as the librarians who had undergone this process spent more time at their library than at home, and really immersed themselves in the project and the school. The dedication that requires!

              That afternoon we took school buses to visit some local school libraries. The first stop was Madeira. Their library is quite new and elegantly beautiful, though the lights are inconvenient. I spent much time talking with a local librarian about her automation system, which might work for Burke. I apprecited the chance to talk to someone from my local association without having dozens of other people clamoring for her attention! One thing I got out of the conference was many helpful suggestions and advice about CD-ROMs, automation, and technology in general. Since we’re just starting out with automation, I need to learn a lot more.

              Our next stop was an elementary school; Langley. They have a British librarian, and it was the only library we visited that had Enid Blyton books. Also, one of their librarians is a published children’s author. They have a wonderful story room; they painted all the walls as if you’re looking out over the parapets of a castle into a pastoral landscape. If you peer closely, you can even spot some unicorns. Apparently it was a real school community project, and took a long time (and some hair-pulling) to complete.

              Last, we returned to the cathedral and quickly glanced through the National Cathedral School’s library before heading to Georgetown Visitation, which has a spacious campus in Georgetown. They hosted dinner in the library, which used to be a barn. Again I was amazed that even though I was constantly talking to different people, everyone was pleasant and interesting and intelligent. [2023 note: I cannot imagine, twenty-seven years later, what on earth would have made me amazed to find that out! Now I just take that for granted with AISL!]

              The next morning we started again at St. Alban’s, with lectures on women characters in books for children, fiction and nonfiction. I heard the lectures on women’s history, women in music, women in math, and women in fiction. I was most impressed with the women’s history speaker; I guess I had never really understood before that women’s history was not just biographies of women, but the entire history of the gender, with entirely different landmarks from that of men. For instance, World War II was dreadful for men, but wonderful (in some ways) for women who were able to join the workforce. I’d never thought of it like that before.

              That afternoon included museum tours. As I live in DC I opted to go to work instead, but went out to dinner in Georgetown with several nice librarians from out of town.

              On Friday we left from St. Alban’s in busses and drove to the Library of Congress. After an orientation movie, we split into tour groups. My group visited the children’s section, located in an eyrie on a balcony above the incredible Jefferson reading room (circular). What an amazing place to work! The architectural details stand so close (arches, pillars, carvings), and bronze statutes perched on the edge of the balcony look out over the room. Michaelangelo and Bacon stood in the section where we were; larger than life. We discussed the children’s section and its various successes and problems (all LC has had funding problems like most government agencies), but I think the best part of the tour was simply the location.

              The children’s librarian had to take us back to the new building for our next tour, and to save time, we took the tunnels under the street. There were miles of them, all busy with people. We also saw a book tram–a tractor hauling bins of books on a special track.

              Our next stop was geography and mapping, which takes up an enormous amount of basement space. Acres, literally! We saw all sorts of maps, and most interesting, a scanner that could take antique maps and reproduce them so exactly on a massive color printer that from a distance, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. We also saw old fire insurance maps showing every house and street and building in every town in America; not possible to do anymore because people are afraid to go to the inner cities to measure buildings. Apparently the maps are still useful in that people can research the locations of old chemical plants, because the maps always list the products of particular buildings.

              That afternoon we went to the National Archives. My group took the walking tour first, through many sections the public never sees. Their stacks are narrow and dark and well hidden, and the building is honeycombed with levels. Originally they’d planned to build an atrium under the dome, but discovered they needed the space for documents. Of course we also visited the Constitution and the Magna Carta in the main public area. The lecture covered some school packets of primary source material the Archives has gathered. They have one on Jacksonian America, and are just working on a Women’s History packet. The speaker discussed the power of petitions before women could vote.

              That was alas the end of the conference for me, but I had a truly wonderful time!

Back to 2023. After having moved home to the west coast almost twenty years ago, I wasn’t able to attend as many AISL conferences as I used to, but each has still been a wonderful experience. Thanks to all those organizers who pour their heart and souls and time into creating those experiences.

8 thoughts on “Blast From the Past: AISL Conference 1996

  1. My first conference was in 2012, I believe. My experience was the same! I was welcomed into so many groups for lunches and dinners. The bus rides were a treasure trove of information as well! I came back determined to attend as many AISL conferences as I could. The information was far more relevant than my state conference.

    It was fun to walk back down memory lane with you! Thanks for posting!!

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