Conferences Full of Academic Librarians

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.

erlpic1So, 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!

A Day (or 3) in the Life

Yesterday I spent an hour going through my inbox, turning each email that needs attention into a task, saving the ones that I need into relevant folders on a shared drive, deleting some, categorizing some and then dropping some into an inbox folder so that I can keyword search them if I ever need them again. It was so satisfying. Now my inbox has exactly one (ONE!!) message in it and that message has been in my inbox since my first week here at UNT. I guess I’m saving it for a rainy day. Of course, now my task list is longer than it was before I started doing inbox organizing so…

Anyway, looking at my ever-evolving task list made me realize how varied my days really are. I am preparing for a presentation at the Electronic Resources & Libraries Conference at the end of this month. For the introduction to my presentation I am writing a description of a “day in the life” of an Electronic Resources Librarian in an academic library. I am struggling a bit to do so, however, simply because no two days are alike. That is one of the really great things about my job as an academic librarian, actually! There is very little down time and things are different every day, always interesting. Seriously, if you get bored doing this job then you are not doing it right!

Instead of writing about ONE typical day I thought I would do three days. That way I can summarize a “typical” (really, though, there is not a “typical”) day spent mostly at my computer, a “typical” day that involves more collaboration/meetings with members of my division and a “typical” day that involves more work outside of the division. I would say that a majority of my time is spent working fairly independently or interacting with others mainly online. Interspersed with that, though, are days where I go from one meeting to the next. And one day a week I office in the main library at a desk in Research and Instruction instead of at my official desk in the Collection Management building off campus. So here are my never-typical three days:

Day One: Let’s pretend that this is a Monday. Actually, I just looked at my calendar and completed-task list to see what I did last Monday. (So: Last Monday):
•   Pulled a list of ebooks that were recently added to one of our online reference collections; created a spreadsheet to organize the titles by subject areas and subject librarians; emailed each subject librarian to let them know about our new acquisitions.
•   Spent 30 minutes trying to answer a seemingly-simple question from a professor about ebooks that, as ebook questions usually do, got complicated and involved emails between myself and, eventually, five other librarians before the question “How much of an ebook can be put on course reserve and in what format?” was finally answered.
•   Spent another hour or so trying to answer more seemingly-simple questions, these from a student who was having trouble understanding how our ebooks work and how to interact with the various ebook platforms. The question “How do you check out an ebook from the UNT Library?” seems so simple…but, trust, it is not simple to answer.
•   Learned that one of my collaborators on a presentation for the upcoming ER&L Conference is not attending the conference or interested in participating in the presentation at all. Began working on a new outline to restructure the presentation to include content from two instead of three presenters. (Sigh).
•   Fielded some random promotional emails from vendors, decided which products being promoted might be of benefit to various people or departments in the library, emailed various people in various departments to determine if there was interest. Saved all feedback in appropriate files for future product evaluations.
•   Pulled usage statistics for a Graduate Library Assistant to add to our ever-growing database of statistics.
•   Updated the Promotions Workflow. Part of my job is promoting our electronic resources – because what is the point of buying them if nobody knows about them. Another important part of my job is creating workflows for what I do because, in some ways, I’m creating my job every day. I document processes for everything and I keep these updated constantly.

Day Two (What I Did on Wednesday):
•   On Wednesdays I office in the main library with some of the Research & Instruction Librarians. This gives me an opportunity to have some face time with colleagues that I otherwise only communicate with by email and/or phone.
•   Established an inter-departmental workflow for cataloging, maintaining and promoting electronic resources purchased by a faculty support department.
•   Spent a frustrating amount of time trying to figure out if IP authentication was working for a new database and, if not, why not.
•   Chatted with several subject librarians about various ER-related issues including how to get access to the images in a specific journal when the digital access we have only includes text, a possible future research/publication collaboration, and several upcoming trials that were requested by faculty.
•   Created a LibGuide modules for a database trial that went live and communicated the availability and parameters of that trial to various subject librarians.
•   Did some last-minute confirmations and planning with a vendor who spent the day at UNT on Thursday.
•   Emailed my student mentees to check in with them, see how their spring semester is going.
•   Attended a meeting of the University Undergraduate Curriculum Committee of which I am a member. Was surprised and pleased to see that there were pastries!

Day Three (Finally Friday):
•   Spent a fair amount of time on email communicating with vendors (got set up for a trial of several interdisciplinary databases we are looking at, followed up on some invoicing issues, etc).
•   Checked in with librarians in my department to determine how close we are to completing recent orders for electronic resources. It is my job to ensure that once an order is begun the process is completed within a reasonable amount of time. Orders involve, at minimum, two other librarians in the division. Noted expected dates of availability and scheduled times to follow up if necessary.
•   Typed up notes from vendor demonstrations I participated in on Thursday.
•   Meeting before lunch to talk about how our budget plan is being implemented and plan for future communications, purchases, reporting, etc.
•   Lunch at a restaurant with librarians from a part of the UNT library world that I don’t typically work closely with: new connections, yay!.
•   Meeting after lunch to coordinate a comprehensive evaluation of one of our largest electronic resources, one that we rely on heavily in our day-to-day collection management tasks.
•   Weekly Friday activity of going through my task list in Outlook to make sure I didn’t miss anything, finishing up tasks as possible and marking them complete, changing dates or adding reminders to upcoming tasks as needed.

Obviously, there are many, many details that I did not mention about these days – phone calls, conversations, emails, the unceasing attempt to keep the massive amount of electronic resource information and data organized in a useful fashion, etc. But you get the idea. A day in the life of an Electronic Resources Librarian is a bit unpredictable. Even more interesting is the fact that no two ERLs seem to have the same job descriptions but that may be a topic for another post.