I never gave it much thought, but I can remember wondering briefly in the past why the majority of librarians at many conferences seemed to be from academia. And now I know; it is probably because those of us who are academic librarians are required to attend academic conferences! I was even more interested to learn than not everybody is happy about this job requirement – a realization that surprised me.
As a former high school librarian I am accustomed to feeling fortunate to be able to attend conferences. When you are the only librarian in a high school, going to a conference involves the school hiring a substitute to cover the library in addition to funding your travel expenses and registration. And I was lucky…as a librarian at a well-funded private high school there was a budget to support my professional development which typically included at least one conference per year. Many librarians at public schools are understaffed, their programs underfunded and their ability to hire a sub and spend days away at a conference is extremely limited. I would imagine that many librarians in public schools would be absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to attend multiple conferences a year.
So, for me, going to a conference where I get to learn about trends, technologies and events that impact my chosen profession; network with other librarians and maybe even see a bit of a new city is a part of my job for which I am grateful. Most recently I went to Electronic Resources & Libraries (ER&L) in Austin and had a fabulous time. That is a seriously well-organized and enjoyable conference! And from talking to other librarians there I think that the feeling of being fortunate to be there was common. It probably helped that it was the 10th anniversary of ER&L and there were quite a few loyal attendees who were clearly proud of how far the conference has grown in a decade. I’m not sure if that sense of appreciation and gratitude will be quite as prevalent at future conferences.
At any rate, if you are new to academia you might be surprised to find out that going to conferences is required or, if not actually mandatory, it is at least strongly encouraged. You hopefully won’t be surprised that “attendance” really means “participation” because (not surprising!) the institution you work for is probably not going to support you spending a bunch of time out of town on a workday unless you are…working. If you do feel surprised to learn that conferences ? vacations…well, here is your reality check: conferences are great but if they are relaxing or easy then you aren’t doing it right.
So I thought I would write a bit about the conference experience of an academic librarian: things I love, things people complain about and maybe even a couple ideas for making the most of your time. My first tip would have to be: stay positive, don’t let people groaning about “having to go to a conference” bring you down. They are missing out!
First, a few things that are undeniably not-so-great.
1. You might have to pay for the conference yourself.
What?? Pay to WORK? Well…maybe. It depends on where you go and what your university’s budget is. Is there an amazing information-related conference in Maui this year? Expect some out-of-pocket. It might also depend on whether or not you got a presentation proposal accepted at the conference. It probably also depends on how many conferences you plan to attend. If you are going to several you are more likely to have to pony up some cash. And probably also pay someone under the table to do your work while you are away from your desk. (NO, just kidding, that is a terrible idea and you need to stop going to so many conferences!).
2. Preparing for a conference is time-consuming.
Whether you are doing a half-day workshop, a poster session, or serving on committees or in some other capacity there will be work involved to get ready for the conference. Do not put this off. Take it from me, who learned this recently from experience: finishing up a presentation at the last minute makes the days leading up to a trip much more stressful and unpleasant than they should be.
3. Attending a conference is time-consuming.
This seems too obvious. Maybe what I should say is that attending a conference is going to feel like it took up more of your time than it actually did. One day at a conference is not an 8-hour day; if you are doing it right it starts early and involves evening events (meetings, vendor dinners, networking events, etc). If you are an introvert you will find this much more exhausting than a typical workday. Expect to be tired; expect to be busy; expect to go back to your room at the end of the day and still have to type up your notes, respond to emails and prepare for the next day. Embrace the schedule and the busy-ness; it is worth it!
4. Coming back from a conference is always challenging.
This relates to number 3. When you come back you will have all the work you missed waiting for you. I recently spent three workdays at a conference and, over a week later, am still not caught up. How does three days away result in seven days of work overload? I don’t know, it just does.
So those are a few of the challenges. There are many more, I’m sure, but as I stated earlier try to stay positive. Plan conferences wisely and submit proposals early so that your institution is more likely to support your attendance financially. Carefully select the sessions and events you want to attend before you go to the conference but be flexible. I almost always tweak my schedule once the conference is underway but it really helps to have a plan first. Talk to your colleagues that are also attending. I did not realize until the second day of ER&L that I was not supposed to go to the same sessions as my coworkers. This is not a big deal but if I’d known beforehand I would have altered my schedule a bit.
Finally, I just want to say that the benefits of going to conferences far outweigh the challenges. I am always inspired to see the new ideas and technologies. One thing that is different now that I am in a larger library than I used to be is how much more contact I have with vendors and conferences are a great way to get to meet people that I’ve been emailing and talking to on the phone. I love that conferences give me an opportunity to meet people in my field that I wouldn’t otherwise get to know. When I was a high school librarian this was valuable because in that role I spent all of my time being the ONLY librarian and it was so nice to spend time with people who understood the challenges and rewards of my job. In the position I’m in now, it affords me an opportunity to make connections and to learn from others.
Even though it feels like I just got back from one conference — I still have a few notes to type up from ER&L — I am already gearing up for my next conference which is coming up in just a few weeks!