Exhibit Hall Reflections: Where are the pens…and where are the BOOKS?!?

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Finding a block of time (three to four hours, usually) to case the exhibit hall is always challenging, but it’s a vital part of being a good conference attendee. After all, it’s this part of my time at ALA that allows me to have hands-on new product time, to say nothing of really talking to representatives and sometimes company owners so they can be more responsive to my needs.

But there were a few things that were well, off, with the exhibit hall this year. I pride myself on not having bought a pen for about six years (coincidentally the same amount of time I’ve been going to ALA), but where were they this year? I usually bag 30 to 40 pens but they were scarce as hen’s teeth. When they were present, you’d find them on interior tables in the booths guarded Cerberus-like by hulking vendors. So much for the scoop and dash! I ended up coming away with around 10, which seemed like a meager haul.

On the other hand, I had way more tote bags (nice ones, not the sleazy kind) and three t-shirts, which are usually really, really hard to get unless you win one (and these were just given to me for chatting). Now, I might not have looked at the latest Oriental Trading catalog recently for giveaways, but I’m pretty sure that tote bags and t-shirts are still more expensive than pens. So what’s the deal? Thank goodness I went to NECC a couple weeks ago to up the pen quota.

The only thing scarcer than pens were the one thing you expect to see in abundance at a library convention – BOOKS. Oh, there were books you could buy in all the publisher booths, but the usual piles of Advanced Reader Copies (known as ARCs) that are piled up on tables for perusal and the taking (librarians cannot add ARCs to their collections, so if we like the book or a member of our staff or Library Advisory Board raves about it, we usually order a few copies for the library, hence the sale) were notably absent. I finally realized that all the ARCs were staying hidden under the skirted display tables and that you had to ask, a la Oliver Twist, for them. “Please, sir, have you any young adult titles for the high school audience?”

I suppose there isn’t anything morally wrong with this except that the publishers don’t exactly bring a large staff to person the booth, so everywhere I went there was one librarian hogging a vendor in order to effectively milk them for as many ARCs as possible (more power to them) with the remaining dozen or so librarians standing around like impatient cattle in front of the milking barn. For most of the booths, I couldn’t get to the representative (unless I wanted to double my time spent on the exhibit hall and I already had taken three and half hours). Little, Brown & Co. and Candlewick Press are my two favorite publisher booths (because I think just about everything they publish is such high quality) and they did manage to give me a couple ARCs each. In the end, I ended up with five or six ARCs and not the 20 or 30 I usually ship home. I’m going to read Another Faust on the plane and one of the other waiting librarians booktalked me, Eyes Like Stars, which sounds right up my kids’ alley (they were out of ARCs) so I’m going to get that too.

Granted, I went at a busy time. Late morning/early afternoon is what we call prime author time and if you want to see hopped up librarians, watch a group of them in a line as long as the exhibit hall aisle they’re in, waiting to talk to someone famous. Celebrity sightings? Try Sherman Alexie (who is SO handsome in person and seems really nice because he was posing with people signing his books – if you haven’t read his YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian you are sadly missing out on a great experience), Roald Dahl (I know, Ethan said, “I thought he was dead!” but he looks terrific, thin and old, but vibrant enough to kick the butt of any giant peach), and Melina Marchetta, who was pushing her new book as well as the paperback reissue of Saving Francesca. Laurie Halse Anderson had been there before I got to the hall to great acclaim and I missed my buddy Sarah Dessen (to her relief, I’m sure, since I was so psycho the last time I spoke with her at an ALA conference) who has a new book that looks indescribably amazing and which I will order as soon as I get home.

Two vendors really blew me away. The first one, Mango, has not only a cool name (they actually served you Mango smoothies while you watched the demo – food and drink was another trend, but damn it, just give me pen!) but is a really neat product. It is a totally web-based language teaching program. Obviously no web site replaces a teacher and this site has conversational recognition as it’s goal, so there’s no grammar or literature taught, but the interface is seriously hawt but I didn’t expect I’d love it so much until the vendor started trotting out the features. He was focusing on a language that doesn’t share our alphabet so we’d be at more of disadvantage, focusing on Levantine Arabic (which I didn’t know, so nice guess). Showing us the basic greeting and response first lesson, I became blown away by the cultural notes and details built into the program. What we were learning, “Marhaba” transliterated, is a culturally neutral greeting appropriate for Muslims or non-Muslims, but there were a few other greetings more specific to the religiously observant Muslims and it was really cool to hear the differences, what they meant and the explanation. Mango grades it’s pricing by FTE for schools and it has a major mission about getting into all kinds of libraries. In addition to the modern languages we teach at Sem (French, Spanish, and Russian), it also had several languages that represent our kids’ countries of origin, and I’d love to see kids playing with learning some basic greetings and conversation (hello, couples!) to extend our global perspective. Ethan and I were saying we would love to be able to at least politely greet or say thank you to our advisee parents from another country since they are kind enough to learn a little English for us.

The other vendor that impressed both Ethan and I were the Library Flash Drive people. They really make flash drives for anyone (in fact they made the giveaway drives we got at NECC with the ISTE logo and some documents and links already preloaded on it) but they just rolled out the most amazing lanyard drive. Everyone loves a lanyard (props to poet Billy Collins), but rather than the flash drive dangling precariously from the end of the lanyard, this new model has a clip on the end for keys or an access card and what looks like a buckle a little ahead of it. But the buckle is the actual drive, just pop it off and you’ve got the USB flash drive available.

But wait, there’s more! They also have it come with a little “dog tag”, a printed metal disk customized with your name that sits on a ring right next to the USB, so say you accidently leave your drive in a computer (gasp!), you dog tag is right there so people know who to return it to. But what really has Ethan and I interested is the possibilities for a school application. For free, the company will print your logo and name on the lanyard and laser it on the flash drive. Cool, right? But they will also customize the dog tag with anything you want – including all the names of your students, and send it to you alphabetized. AND you can send them files ahead of time, and they will preload every flash drive with them prior to shipping.

So let’s say you’re a new student at Sem, and you arrive at school and in the registration line you receive a Sem lanyard flash drive with the school handbook, policies, links to all the major webpages (our daily schedule, the library, etc.), the course catalog and master schedule, and anything else the school wants you to have. We print no paper, you can’t use the excuse that you couldn’t find on the website, and you have a ton of storage, way more than our network server can currently accommodate (the drives start at 1 GB and go up to 32 GB). If we ever get to the point where we decide to have more of open source approach to computing, Ubuntu, the Linux-based operating system, can be launched right from a flash drive with all the user specs necessary. I’m sure there are lots of other options I’m not even thinking of, but for $9.99 per kid, it’s pretty flexible.

So another exhibit hall, another conference. What am I going to write with though?