By Helen Chang, Becky Lockhart and Mikelle Mora
The American Library Association opened its annual conference  in New Orleans on June 24. We attended the conference as representatives of the FCC. Our purpose was to help educate consumers, librarians and educators on important issues such as Broadband  and E-rate . During the event, we spoke to attendees, disseminated information and attended sessions. Below, we have shared our ALA experiences with you.
Helen, Becky and Mikelle
Helen: I was last in New Orleans for the ALA Conference in 2006. At that time, New Orleans was just recovering from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation and most conventions had re-scheduled their events to other cities. ALA, however, decided that the conference would go ahead in the Big Easy even though a sizeable portion of the convention center was still undergoing repair. Their reasoning? The best way to help New Orleans recover would be to bring business to the city. And, the best way to do that would be to go ahead with the conference in New Orleans as scheduled. The city responded with an overwhelming welcome. Now, five years later, the massive convention center is in full operation and the city is humming. More than 20,000 people were in attendance and the FCC was among over 900 exhibiting organizations.
Becky: Before I attended the ALA conference, I didn’t know much about the ALA  except for its general mission and information that I had gathered online before my trip. My colleagues who had been before told me it was a huge conference with a wide variety of exhibitors, but I didn’t get the full effect of how dedicated and passionate ALA is until I experienced it myself. Our FCC booth drew hundreds of people from 40 states and the District of Columbia as well as several countries outside of the United States. As I talked to this diverse crowd, I learned a great deal about how the FCC plays an important role in aiding libraries across the nation and educating citizens in our communities. Not only did several people thank us for being there and the work that the FCC does, but many people shared their stories with us. The most interesting to me were their experiences with broadband. A few people told me they lived in states where most of the population is rural and there is still no broadband access.
Mikelle: I had been to ALA once before. It was a great opportunity to see so many librarians and educators come together to learn ways to better assist their consumers. As many attendees visited our booth, sharing stories and ideas, it was truly amazing. Many people thanked us for being there and had a deep appreciation for the work we do. It was truly amazing to see the ALA community come together to help get information and resources to the consumers who need them.
Becky: I attended a session titled “Building the Future: Addressing Library Broadband Connectivity Issues in the 21st Century ,” given by Bob Bocher of the Wisconsin State Library and Fellow of ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy. Mr. Bocher covered information about the broadband landscape as it relates to libraries. Through data he presented that was collected by ALA, he affirmed that E-rate directly affects the broadband access that libraries receive. Because of broadband buildout, made possible through grants, over 60,000 libraries nationwide are able to receive broadband access. He cited the goals of the National Broadband Plan and the particular importance of E-rate reform. Today, 65 percent of public libraries offer the only free internet access in their communities. This statistic was particularly interesting to me because it made me realize the importance of libraries and the direct impact that FCC regulations have on so many consumers.
Mikelle: I attended the E-rate session. There were several panelists, including John Noran of the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), as well as four women from Arizona and Louisiana who shared their experiences with the E-rate program. Mr. Noran focused on simplification, placing more emphasis on getting broadband into the schools and libraries, and the increasing demand for funding. He also stated that USAC’s biggest obstacle is the lack of follow through and the applicants working on E-rate staying abreast of changes within the program. To help facilitate the growing need for the E-rate funding, USAC has created an outreach initiative called Helping Applicants to Succeed . The HATS initiative contacts participants who have faced challenges with the program and provides targeted training to help applicants become more successful. He emphasized that these visits are not audits or compliance visits, they are simply to help solve problems and to provide information. Lastly, Victoria Yarbrough from the city of Sierra Vista stated that when her library started with the e-rate program, they began asking for small amounts of funding. In 2009, they increased their funding to a half million dollars and with their advanced equipment and service, their public library system shut down the city’s internet. I was truly impressed with the dedication to her library and her community. She was just one example of the amazing people I met at ALA.
Helen: It’s always surprising how willing consumers are to share their perspectives about FCC issues. As a result, we fielded a wide variety of questions and comments on topics from e-rate to net neutrality to wireless tower siting. Of particular note, is that one of our own, Jamal Mazrui, Deputy Director of the Commission’s Accessibility and Innovation Initiative, received the Frances Joseph Campbell Award for his innovation model for library programming and services for people with print disabilities.
Becky: ALA members truly care about their communities and push for broadband access as passionate advocates for their libraries. Not only did I learn a lot, but I left New Orleans with a new admiration for ALA and their dedication.
Helen: As a former librarian, it was great to see the FCC and libraries working together to get information and resources to the consumers who need them.