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!

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

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Christmas in KZ (sort of)

I always follow Tina Fey’s rule: “say yes and you’ll figure it out afterwards.” This explains a lot of how I ended up in Kazakhstan. So when The Billfold asked contributors to write about what they were doing for Christmas this year, I immediately volunteered.

The end result was a personal essay written from an inner place of great kindness and love and a geographical place that evokes a lot of reflection on “what is life?”

Denmark and Sweden were oh-so-lovely! I ate lots of great things, saw people I love, and drank in the scenery. The weirdest thing I noticed: it was the first time since moving to KZ that I had gone to someone’s house that wasn’t provided to them fully furnished. As a result, I bought a number of household things. And cheese. You can’t get good cheese here.

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I ate lots of fish.

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Made some flettede stjerner.

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Went for a run around Växjö Lake.

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Saw nice scenery.

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Ate my all time pastry fav: frøsnappers.

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And cried while eating a hot dog on the way home.

It is Christmas Day today, here in KZ, and in a strange turn of events, I am actually leaving for the airport to fly to Malaysia. My workplace came into some extra cash at the last minute and decided to send some of us to a conference in a nice sunny place – a great Christmas miracle, as one of my co-workers and fellow Malaysia-goers aptly put it.

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Watching the Malaysia No Reservations episode and drinking champagne with said co-worker. It was boring, but who cares*!

At first, I was reluctant. Pretty much every flight coming into Astana from Europe is a red eye and I’d gone into work an hour after coming back to KZ from Denmark. I was so tired that I entered the wrong PIN 3 times that morning and locked my bank card. And that evening I leaned over a candle and my dry-as-kindling hair caught on fire**. But then I remembered the rule of yes and recognized it for the thoughtful gift that it is and happily accepted.

So I will be spending the rest of this Christmas day in Almaty, walking around and eating honey cake and then hopping on a very long plane ride to a warmer locale.

Happy holidays!

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Here is a cat I was looking after for one of the professors. Now someone else has to look after her! She is so soft.

 

*The Uzbekistan episode of No Reservations is so similar to life in Kazakhstan! I highly recommend.

**My hair looks okay.

How to Travel Alone As a Woman

Recently, the sexist behaviour I’ve experienced and witnessed since living in Kazakhstan was bumming me out. But when I broke this experience down into individual instances I realized it shares an uncomfortable similarity to my daily life in Canada.

The striking difference is that sexism is simply more obvious here in Kazakhstan. It’s harder to expose in Canada and other western countries, which in its own way, is more frustrating. Trying to explain or discuss subtle acts of gendered disrespect is often met with the deflating response that you’re overreacting. The video has its flaws but Hollaback’s street harassment PSA illustrates the type of behaviour I’m referencing and how difficult it can be to make others aware of the damage it inflicts.

While this was on the forefront of my thoughts, I began researching for a two-month cycling trip I’ll be embarking on next spring. I will likely be on my own and I realize that as a woman, a trip like this comes with risks and so I’m gathering all the information I can that will be helpful in this respect.  In my research, I came across a publication produced by the Canadian government:Her Own Way – A Woman’s Safe Travel Guide. The following is a list of direct excerpts.

  • Women travel for countless reasons, whether to discover new frontiers, pursue business opportunities, or simply to rest and relax – not unlike men.
  • Among women’s greatest risks are the dangers and disappointments of international cyber-dating.
  • The fact that activities, such as wearing a bikini or having premarital sex, are legal in Canada doesn’t mean they’ll be so in a foreign country.
  • Always ask to see the room before taking it…. Are there holes in the door or walls that could be used by peeping Toms?
  • Remember that camping solo… could be an invitation to danger.
  • carry a photo of your husband (or an imaginary one)
  • Understand that businessmen in certain societies may think it’s okay to flirt with or proposition you. A firm “no” is appropriate.
  • When in doubt, wait for the man to initiate handshaking.
  • Never quit your job, give up your home, or sell all your belongings in the hope of a union that may never happen or that you may later regret.

If anyone from Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development reads this, I am volunteering to edit the content. And I’ll do a great job! As a professional librarian and writer, I frequently write and edit informative content, including government guides. I will also do it for free. Because any opportunity to adjust passively dehumanizing information, especially coming from such a high-level, is well worth my time and effort.

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How to Go to Almaty (and Avoid Arrest)

Almaty is the biggest city in Kazakhstan and was the capital up until 1997, when that title was bestowed on Astana. It’s an older city with lots character, cafes, parks, and mountains, and milder weather due to its location in the south. From Astana, you can take a 20-hour or 12-hour overnight train ride and easily spend a week exploring the city and surroundings. If you splurge on the 1.5 hour flight ($200-350 depending how far in advance you book), it makes for a good weekend trip.

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Uzbek pottery

I’ve been in Astana for about three months now and was feeling a bit antsy to get away but a trip to Almaty seemed a bit expensive, considering that I could only go for two days. But the steppe currently looks and feels like an apocalyptic arctic backdrop and so I went ahead and bought a ticket and booked a tour guide for Saturday to go into Alatau – Eliy National Park to see some greenery and land elevation.

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Our guide, Marat, picked Sophie and I up at 10am with a plan to hike up to Big Almaty Lake and hit Sunkar Falcon Farm on the way back. We rented an apartment and there were no coffee shops nearby so we asked to stop at a cafe on the way. He always drinks coffee at home and he also explained that cafes are constantly opening and shutting down and so this proved difficult. The first place didn’t have any coffee ready yet and the second place had coffee and to-go cups but no lids. Marat kindly waited to begin the drive until we had half-finished our cups since the hour-long way to the Park is very bumpy. It was the first of many times that he demonstrated his capacity for patience that day.

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Locals are allowed to drive right up to the Lake but foreigners must stop at a makeshift guarding point and hike up. I asked why but asking “why” in KZ is often the equivalent of asking a rhetorical question. I could tell the hike was a bit strenuous for Marat and I admired his tactic of stopping every so often to tell us some history or a story, while we all caught our breath. His favourite descriptor was “Stalin-style” and his stories ranged from telling us about the inspiration behind A Clockwork Orange, to why Kazakhs hate walking, to all of the people he knows who have been accidentally killed by guns (2). Somehow, this didn’t come off as dark, at the time.

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The lake was completely breathtaking, a perfect saturated blue. Formed from a glacier, it’s a protected source of drinking water. Visitors cannot walk along the edge of the lake, which accounts for its pristine condition. Foreigners and locals alike have to hike/drive above and walk down aways. Marat mentioned something about a big rock and stayed up top, letting Sophie and I on our own. I walked halfway down the muddy side and sat for a bit. Another tourist came up from the lakeside and seeing that she managed to make it up without slipping on the wet ground, I headed down. Sophie followed and we took some photos.

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Kind of worth it.

We were about to go back when a policeman with a huge gun approached us. He spoke no English but told us we had to follow him and said something about being arrested and made handcuff motions and talked about fines and generally looked very stern and unimpressed. I then realized Marat meant we weren’t supposed to go past the big rock by the lake because it’s an unmarked border. Uncertain of where we were heading, we were eventually passed off to a friendlier, gunless policeman. I motioned to make a phone call and explained the situation to Marat who said he’d come meet us by the lake.

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Marat and the friendly policeman

The friendly policeman also spoke absolutely no English but was very interested in speaking with Sophie and me. We chatted a bit but I mostly had to answer, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” He then said, “you are very beautiful,” and I said, “thank you” and he laughed so hard that out of my limited Russian, I can clearly understand when someone is giving me a compliment. He also said Sophie was very beautiful and asked if we had husbands and then I began using a trick I picked up from a friend here – when Russian-speakers are getting too flirtatious, don’t let on that you know what they’re saying. So when he tried to to link arms and said we should fly to Canada together, I exclaimed, “I don’t know!” and traipsed quickly ahead.

Marat met us with the stern policeman and told us to keep smiling and all would be well. That was easy because I had been giggling the entire time. The other tourists took photos of us as we walked to headquarters, which was a small white shack similar to the kind you see in nature documentaries that feature photographers who stake out for years for the perfect snow leopard shot. It was a giant kitchen/garbage can. Marat talked our way out of arrests and fines and into simply writing statements. I was given a blank piece of paper and a pen. With no instructions, I began by writing the date in the top right corner. The policemen didn’t like that and so they turned the paper over and made me start again.

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Directly in front of me on the table, there was a container of dish detergent labelled, “BARF.” I clearly have poor common sense but even I knew it would be entirely inappropriate to laugh out loud. I have never bit my cheek so hard.

After our statements were signed we were on our way. Except Marat had forgotten his walking poles at the top of the lake so he ran up the long distance ahead to get them. I tried to offer to go instead since I felt terrible but he insisted we go ahead. By this time, I really had to pee and generally have no problem going outdoors (bicycle travelling makes you comfortable) but I didn’t want to risk another brush with the law.

A long time passed and Marat eventually caught up with us, breathless. He made us lunch in a sunny spot and we rested for a while. Sausage, cheese, Mr. Noodles: it was as if I’d placed advanced requests for the meal. The manager of the falcon farm notified him that the daily show time was changed last minute from 3:00 to 5:00, so we had a lot of time to kill. We told him we were okay not seeing the show but he wouldn’t hear of it.

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The falcon farm was terrifying and sad and beautiful and I felt conflicted the entire time.

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The birds are trained to hunt and sold. But who buys them?

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Marat walked around a bit, told me all he knew about the animals and then waited in the car while the show took place. We drove back and just before dropping us off he accidentally backed into a children’s playground.

As someone who works in a customer service position, I often wonder how other people feel when providing a service. There was no speculation in this instance.

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Picture of a jerk