How to Go to a Conference

As a librarian, you should go to a conference every year or so. It’s like spending Easter with your family. You may not totally get the point or really want to go and it’s okay to skip it every once in a while. But you get to eat a lot, take a break from your regular work, and in the end, you’re generally left feeling like you’re glad you went. It’s just plain good to do.

How to choose a conference

If it’s your first time going to a conference, it’s practical to start with the standard conference in your region (ie. the British Columbia Library Association conference, if you’re in British Columbia), or a conference that’s subject-specific to your library (ie. the Canadian Association of Law Libraries conference, if you work at a law library). Conferences can be really hit-or-miss and picking one that’s well-established will show you what a good conference should look like.

Ask your co-workers which conferences they’ve attended. If your organization has sent staff to a conference previously, they’ll be more likely to send you to that same conference.

Think beyond libraries, as well. If you’re a law librarian, go to something like the Law via the Internet conference, or go to the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries no matter what your subject area is (I haven’t been to either of these!). A quick Google search will show you a slice of what’s out there.

How to pitch your workplace

Ask your boss in-person. If it’s the standard conference in your region or subject-area then it’s a no brainer and you won’t have to create much of a case for going.

Otherwise, before asking, look through the conference programme (if the programme’s not out yet, it’s too early to ask!). Pick out a few sessions that look highly relevant to your work and become familiar with the conference theme. I really wanted to go to a law conference in Australia a few years ago but looking through the sessions, I realized it didn’t have enough of value to justify going.

If you’ve never been to a conference before, that’s all the more reason to go! It’s an important part of professional development that any decent workplace will want to support.

Once your workplace has sent you on a conference, wait until your co-workers have had the opportunity to go before you ask again.

If you’re a student

Registration fees are generally cheaper and funding is often available specifically for students. Ask your program coordinator, check out the conference site, or talk with the affiliated association to find out more.

Like any travel, an out-of-town conference ends up costing quite a bit. Unless you already want to travel to a specific region, I would stick with local conferences, as a student.

If your workplace asks you to go to a conference

Just as anytime your boss asks you to do something – you’d have to have a really good reason to say “no.”

How to get funding

Your workplace may not be able to commit to an exact funding amount right away, but they should be able to give you a general idea. And definitely be clear about who’s paying for what before you go.

Often, you’ll have to front money yourself and then be reimbursed. Keep receipts for absolutely everything! And while it’s expected that you’ll socially drink, don’t submit a receipt for dinner with five drinks on it. Common sense!

If you’re in Kazakhstan, KEEP EVERY SCRAP OF PAPER. Even if it doesn’t seem important, it probably is. Seriously, tossing a boarding pass stub might mean a $2000 mistake.

Check around for external funding. For example, one year, I was fortunate enough to receive the Peter Bark Bursary, through the Vancouver Association of Law Libraries, to help go to CALL

How to choose sessions

Most of the research that librarians do is along the lines of, “We interviewed 5 people and here are all the vague and polite things they had to say on this topic,” which is why I was never interested in pursuing a PhD in this field. This feels like a horrible thing to say but please prove me wrong and send me some actually interesting library research.

I think librarianship is a very practical profession and for that reason, I like attending the super practical sessions best. For example, a former classmate of mine did a really great session: Enhancing Library Services with User Behaviour Data. And when I went to the CALL conference, a librarian discussed how to find translations of Quebec court cases, which I then turned into a post for my organization’s site because it was so helpful for our day-to-day work!

Don’t feel obligated to attend a session every hour of the day. I would say attend at least half a day’s worth of sessions/events and attend all the keynote sessions. It’s expected that you’ll take some time to yourself, especially if you get to travel to a different city.

Remember to take notes during sessions! It’s expected that you’ll report back on the conference either in the form of an intranet post, a presentation for your co-workers, an article for your organization’s website, etc.

How to network/make a good impression

Don’t think of it like networking. There will be a lot of social events and all you have to do is attend a good number of them. You’re not expected to go if any of the events charge extra fees. Most will be free and will offer food, which is a good incentive.

The most important thing is to know your workplace before you go. People will ask you questions out of curiousity and I’ll never forget how embarrassed I felt when another librarian asked if our libraries had print copies of British legislation and I stammered that I knew we had “the old stuff” but wasn’t so sure how current it was.

Make sure you check out the vendor booths, if only to say hi. Even if there’s no way your workplace will ever subscribe to that product – it’s good to know what’s out there and it’s also polite – both because many vendors are also sponsors of the conference, and I imagine it’s probably boring to have to stand around a booth all day. They also often have free swag, so hit that up.

Be aware of who is sponsoring the conference. Once, someone I had just met asked how I liked the lunch that day and I cracked a joke about the food. I was surprised when the friend I was with, who is normally so wry, was so polite! And then I realized that the woman who asked was part of the organization that had sponsored the lunch. Sigh.

I am actually very shy in professional situations and it was a bit hard for me to warm up during the first conference I attended (another argument for attending a local conference, either some of your co-workers or librarian friends will be there). Inadvertently, my biggest advantage was being really tall and then wearing a pair of loud heels that everyone liked. Though it sounds akin to the advice given out by a dating coach, they were the perfect icebreaker!


I did not wear these rainboots during the conference in Malaysia.


Should I Go to School to be a Librarian?

I decided to go to library school because the best job I could get with an undergraduate degree in Classics was at a beer & wine store. It was pretty good, as far as retail/service jobs go, but I have terrible teeth and needed a future secured with dental benefits.

There was no way I was going to get a Masters in Classics, nor did I desire to spend my life in academia, but I still liked feeling a little bit academic (i.e. pretentious). By the great power of fate, the idea of an MLIS fell into my lap. I’m not even sure how I found out that there is a Masters of Library and Information Studies degree. I probably Googled, “grad school no subject requirements”.

The idea of being a librarian also interested me because I like working with people and I had enjoyed my time working at a used bookstore, which I thought would be similar (HAHA). Before starting the program, I was mostly clueless about what librarians actually do. Luckily, I ended up loving library work!

Here are some signs that library school may be for you:

  • You are really good at internet stalking your ex or your boyfriend/girlfriend’s exes.
  • You like doing lots of different tasks – all at once!
  • You have worked in customer service and enjoy all of the world’s highly colourful characters. Bonus points if you have experience working with people who have behavioural problems. My experiences with beer & wine store customers unexpectedly became very useful for reference work.
  • You pick up new subjects and new technology quickly.
  • You are good at writing and teaching.
  • You have no designs on becoming rich through your own merit, but would like to be paid decently.
  • You like cats and are a regular reader of Buzzfeed Animals/Zooborns.
  • You like books/reading. Just don’t write this as the reason you want to go to library school on your application. I get to read a lot at work, but I am usually skimming through something like the Conduct of Civil Litigation in British Columbia, not exactly my usual Victorian Gothic fare.

Don’t go to library school if:

  • You’re a weirdo dude who is doing it just to meet ladies. We all see through your ruse!

Without getting into the nitty gritty of what the program and work consists of, I will add that the best thing about going to library school was becoming part of the ever-wonderful library community. Both my social circle and my job are made so much better by the lovely and helpful librarians I know!

Here are some similar posts by other people:

Advice to Future Librarians Entering Grad School

So You Want to Become a Librarian/Archivist

Once you are in library school, check out Tips for Library School Students.

No cats today because I discovered what a stoat is:


Tips for Library School Students

Work Experience

Get as much work experience as you can! I would put ten more exclamation points if it would actually help emphasize how important this is. Everybody is graduating with the same degree and there are way more librarians than there are jobs and so work experience is the best way to make yourself stand out. There are generally a lot of good opportunities to get student librarian jobs during your MLIS. Even if cataloguing and digitizing a collection of croquet images doesn’t sound AMAZING* to you, go for it! You never know what skills you might pick up or realize you enjoy. All library work experience is good experience.

I learned more from my work experience during my MLIS than I did from the class work. The jobs I had solidified that I truly enjoy the work librarians do and helped me realize what sort of library work I wasn’t interested in, which is equally important. It totally astounds me when people graduate with an MLIS having no experience actually working in a library environment. How do you know you even like it?

Classes & Grades

Future employers will not care about your grades or which classes you took. This is true of my job hunting experience. I think I’ve only heard of it coming up once or twice among the librarians I know.

Asking Librarians Questions

When you contact a librarian to ask them questions about their work/workplace, think about what you’re asking. Have you looked for this information yourself, already? You are asking a busy working person for their time and they may be annoyed and wonder how you got into library school if you’ve asked them for something that is easily findable (ie. What is the library’s borrowing policy?). Ask a reasonable number (in most cases, no more than 5) of thoughtful questions that you cannot find the answer to yourself. Also, do not ask personal questions about topics such as salary and benefits. If you want to know that information, look at a job posting site. That said, librarians are generally very nice and happy to answer questions, we are in the business of helping people, after all.

Be Nice to Your Classmates

The librarian community is small and these will be your future coworkers and employers. If you are in library school, you are probably a nice person already, though.

On a social level, I met some of my closest gal pals in library school and still regularly hang out with my former classmates.

Conferences & Associations

I did not go to any conferences or join any associations during my MLIS and it did not affect me negatively during my job hunt. That is not to say that these don’t provide valuable experiences, I just wouldn’t worry about it too much or prioritize it over work experience. I know a couple of librarians who have gotten jobs from joining an association and getting to know professionals already working within that area. But I didn’t have a specific area of librarianship that I was interested in above all else. If you have a specific interest, it may be worth your while to look into events and opportunities to connect with that community.

As a professional, I now go to conferences and am a member of various associations relevant to my work.

Keep Busy With Other Skills

Library school students are busy. But keep other interests and pick up some other skills. There are a surprising number of skills that are applicable to library work. I wrote for a friend’s arts & culture magazine while I was in school, which led to eventually being the editor of the magazine’s website and to paid freelance writing gigs. In my current work, I write articles and information resources for our website, write scripts for video tutorials, and help my coworkers edit their resources.

Having non-library skills that are still relevant to libraries makes you stand out in the job hunt.

Job Hunting Post-Grad

This is hard for all professions right now. You may have to apply over 100 times before you get a job (apply for absolutely everything). It may take you a year or more to get a job as a librarian. You may have to move. You may have to consider working in an environment you never thought of or pictured yourself in before.

If you have a period of unemployment after graduating, keep busy with related work.

  • If it is library-related: Doesn’t matter if it’s paid or unpaid. I kept up my freelance writing gigs, which was nice because it was library-related and paid. But I also kept my volunteer job as an audio narrator at a library that served students, faculty, and staff with print disabilities. For two hours a week, I would record myself narrating a required text. It was interesting, relevant, and weirdly meditative. And it gave me a skill that comes very much in handy for my job now: recording my voice for video tutorials.

Be Up on Your Animal Memes

Don’t question me.


*It did sound amazing to me, and I did it for my entire degree.