‘Tis the Season…Of Conferences
Spring and summer seem to be conference season. All of my library blogs have been full of conference schedules, rehashes, and opinions on anything and everything to do with conferencing. I went to ALA Annual last year, which was an incredible experience. I wish I was able to go again this year, but being unemployed for four months really put a hole in any potential conference budget I may have had. I also really wish I had gone to MLA, but I didn’t know I was going to be a medical librarian until it was too late to get the early registration fee and get approval from work. SLA Annual is next week, and even though it’s near by in New Orleans, I wasn’t even thinking about going until it was too late.
I love conferences mostly because I love to travel. Everything about travel excites me, from the plane ride to staying in hotels to experiencing a new city. But I also love conferences because of all the people. When the librarians descended on Chicago last year, I felt as though I was part of a group. Everywhere you looked there were librarians with their large name tags, frumpy clothes, and bags loaded down with freebies. It was very thrilling to know that I was part of such a large contingent.
I had hoped that going to ALA last year would help me get a job. Obviously, it didn’t, but I did come out with some great contacts and a great experience. Even though I’ve only been to two library conferences, here are my 10 tips to having a better conference experience.
1. Wear comfortable shoes. I can’t stress this enough. Big conferences tend to be in big cities and conference locations can be massive. Be prepared to walk a good bit from presentation to presentation and then be prepared to dash across town in a half an hour. Heels are not good for this activity. I know this from experience.
2. Dress appropriately. This can mean a variety of different things, but what I mean here is dress nicely, but comfortably and suitable to the weather. Conference dress tends to be business casual, but if you are presenting or planning on meeting any VIPs, I would dress more business than casual. Also, conference spaces tend to be freezing, so wear layers and bring a sweater or a jacket. You can read more about my strong feelings toward librarian’s fashion sense here.
3. Stay at the conference site or main hotel. Obviously, this is difficult to do, especially if you are on a small budget, but it’s something I plan on doing from now on. I choose to stay a little off the beaten path at ALA last summer and every time the bus came by to pick us up, it was already full. I was always late and frustrated to boot. Plus, it’s a good idea to stay where a lot of people are for the best networking opportunities.
4. Talk to strangers. Some of the best conversations I’ve had at conferences were on the bus, in lines, and waiting for presentations to start. It took me a few times to get over my reservations, but once you see how interesting it is to talk to other librarians, you’ll want to talk to everyone. The bus was a great place to meet people in Chicago; once I ended up sitting next to an assistant dean of libraries at a major academic institution and we had a great conversation in which she shared lots of job hunting tips. So talk it up!
5. Bring more business cards than you think you’ll need. I thought I had brought enough to ALA, but ended up giving them all out in the first two days. I brought tons to my state conference and barely handed out any, but I was glad I had brought so many. Better to be safe than sorry.
6. Attend some social functions. Many of the evening events cost money, but are worth it. They are good networking places and after a long day of conferencing, you need to relax, get a drink, and have some fun. My favorite events have been the library school receptions. It’s great to see old friends and professors and see what everyone’s up to.
7. Devote at least a half day to the exhibits. This is especially true at ALA and probably events like PLA and MLA. Exhibit areas seem to go on forever and you want to have plenty of time to see everything, talk the people you need to talk to, and get your free stuff. On that same note, allow some time at the end of the conference to go back through and get any other freebies you may have missed. Vendors are handing out tons of stuff at the end, so don’t miss out!
8. Plan your schedule before you go. You should always know what you want to go to, but allow for some flexibility. You may hear of something awesome or you may want to accompany and new friend or colleague to something you wouldn’t normally be interested in. Don’t be afraid to get up and leave; if something isn’t interesting, it’s okay to leave and find something else.
9. Don’t over schedule. I’m a big planner so I had a huge schedule ready to go on the first day. I was so tired and my brain was on overload by 4:00, I couldn’t make it to the president’s speech. That was dumb because I heard the keynote speaker was amazing. I learned my lesson since then and know now that the value of conferences isn’t in the presentations, but in the conversations on buses, interesting people you have lunch with, and new ideas you gather from the exhibits.
10. Have fun! A conference is a great professional development resource, but it should also be fun. You should come away from a conference with excitement about your profession and fresh ideas ready to be implemented. Meeting new people, learning new things, and networking with colleagues is really what a conference is all about.