By Lauren Seegmiller
Once you start wading into the world of professional organizations, you’ll find that there are almost as many organizational conferences as there are acronyms for them.
This year, I attended the joint conference of the Colorado Library Association (CAL) and the Mountain Plains Library Association. MPLA/CALCon. MPLA/CALCon 2016 was the third professional conference that I have attended. One year before, I went to CALCon 2015 and then six months ago I attended the Public Library Association Conference when it was in Denver. Even in the course of a year, I’ve learned a lot about attending conferences and I feel like every successive experience gets better and better.
Why attend a professional conference?
I mean, in a word: “networking.” When I first started working in libraries, I had hoped that my wildest introvert dreams would come true and my professional qualifications would speak for themselves. Surprise! The library world is just like anywhere else: interpersonal connections are important. Conferences are a great way to make those connections and get outside your organization. Even if you’re not on the job hunt at the moment (though one day you could be), meeting new people can give you an insider’s view into how things work in other systems.
Speaking of getting outside your organization, conferences are a way to keep up with trends, perspectives, and practices occurring outside your library. Some states actually require librarians to log the hours they spend doing professional development as continuing education credits and conferences can fulfill this requirement. But whether you need them or not, library world moves fast and so these presentations can be a great opportunity to see what’s happening now in your arena or some others you may want to explore.
Tips for Maximizing Your Time at a Conference
Read carefully. I’m currently a paraprofessional and at my first conference I wound up at more than a few sessions aimed at supervisors. Look at who is presenting and where they are from if it’s listed. If you’re from a large urban library with multiple branches, will it serve you well to see a presentation given by someone from a single, rural library? Sometimes you have to read between the lines to figure out the presenters’ intended audience and scope.
Plan your sessions. If you can get ahold of the program ahead of time either through an app or on paper, take some time to note what interests you. I like to sit down with a paper program, read through, and annotate what I’m interested in. This also reminds me that there are times when I have to choose between sessions and to keep revisiting as the day goes on.
It’s better to fade away than to burn out. You don’t have to attend every single session. If nothing spins your wheels in the 11am slot, you’re under no obligation to attend. Conferences are tiring and you don’t want to yawn your way through a presentation and get nothing from it. I know that when I get tired that I’ve stepped on the train to Cranky Town. If you need more sleep, leave early or arrive late if you have to.
Remember that you’re being watched. Not to be all Big Brother-y about it, but people can see and are seen at conferences. You’re constantly giving an impression of yourself, so be conscious of it, whether that means how you dress, what you say about your current position, how much you have had to drink, etc. I pack a hand mirror and little flossers because there’s always something in my teeth. You can’t and don’t have to please everyone but remember that people do judge you based on appearance, behavior, actions, statements, and spinach-teeth.
Take care of your needs. I already talked about sleep, but it’s a big one, and so are other physical needs like hydration. You also have other obligations. All the conferences I’ve been to have coincided with my being a grad student, so I’ve usually got a bag full of homework with me. If you have an assignment around or during conference time, consider asking for an extension. If you need to give someone gas money so you can do your reading in the car, do it. If not having protein gives you a headache, pack some jerky (and some mints, for afterwards).
If you’ve been to a conference, leave us a comment with your tips. Also, check out what our friends over at Hack Library School have had to say about conference attendance!