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.