Making Conferencing Comfortable

Editor’s Note: ACRLog is hosting a team of ALA Emerging Leaders. Each month one of our Emerging Leaders will contribute a guest post, and each will focus on some aspect of gearing up for the ALA Annual Conference in Washington, DC. Next up in the series is a personal reflection on being mentored at the ALA Conference by Rachel Slough, MLIS Candidate, 2010, Indiana University. Rachel’s co-author for this post is Sarah Wenzel, Bibiliographer for English & Romance Literatures at the University of Chicago Regenstein Library

One of the first things I did when I started my MLIS program was join ALA because I was told it was “the thing to do.” I didn’t exactly know what this meant, except that this was supposed to be important for my professional future. I was eager to attend my first annual conference last summer to get a better idea of what ALA is and does. In the months between the start of classes and the start of conference, I learned about ALA and became particularly excited about the opportunities to connect students and early professionals with experienced experts.

As the conference grew closer, I grew more nervous. I read about various events and sections, attended an ACRL 101 On-Point chat and talked with several of my librarian mentors. But I still had questions. Would I get lost? Would I be able to find sessions that were relevant and interesting? In all the enormity of the conference and the organization, would I be able to find a place where I felt like I belonged?

I was thrilled to find out that the New Member Round Table offers an Annual Conference Mentoring program, which pairs a first time attendee with a “seasoned” conference-goer to help ensure that the first conference experience will be a positive one. I took advantage of it, and was happy I did.

My conference mentor, and the NMRT Conference Mentoring program, played a large role in helping quell my nerves and make me want to become active with ALA as soon as I could. I was paired with Sarah Wenzel, and I received Sarah’s contact information several weeks before conference. We talked and emailed before the conference and also met once there. She introduced me to her colleagues, and invited me to join her at ALA division meetings. As a student, it was exciting to meet a professional librarian beyond my home institution who clearly loves the field and who is eager to mentor in-coming colleagues. As a first-time attendee, having a mentor gave me the guidance to navigate the ALA structure, confidence to seek out my own niche, and security in feeling that I was welcomed. Throughout the conference, I was delighted to discover how nice librarians are, and how eager many are to answer questions and to discern what I’m really asking. Having a conference mentor helped me to feel comfortable and welcomed both into ALA and the profession.

Participating in the NMRT Conference Mentor program has benefits for mentors as well. When I determined that I would be writing this post as part of my Emerging Leader project, I asked Sarah for her perspective on what it’s like on the other end.

Sarah Wenzel: This was the first time that I’d formally mentored a colleague, and I was glad for the chance to give back to the profession after all of the mentoring that I’ve received over the years. Most heartening to me was the chance to talk to someone enthusiastic and energetic as she discovered the joys (and, sadly, the logistical frustrations) of an ALA conference. Sharing my conference strategies with Rachel, who has slightly different professional interests than I, gave me the opportunity to think outside of my “home” section and to consider other areas than the WESS related activities that often frame my conference attendance. I was also reminded again of how closed and un-welcoming, despite our best efforts, our structures can seem. The need to make sections, committees and discussion groups more transparent and to reach out to new members once again became real to me.

In the same way that teaching is the best way to learn something or to force yourself to think about what you do in new ways, mentoring allows you to reexamine your assumptions and explore different aspects of the profession.

Seeing the perspective of someone who hasn’t attended ALA before refreshed my enthusiasm for the conference, and gave me a sense of re-discovering both the conference and the organization. Not least, I also have added a terrific new contact and colleague to my network of resources.

For those interested in participating in this year’s program as a mentee or mentor, Applications are due May 15.

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