Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Getting the Most out of Conferences

I didn't really ease in to the conference scene. The very first professional conference that I attended was a national conference that took place on the opposite end of the country, during which I completed a joint presentation with two experienced librarians. It was a completely new experience and, looking back, I don't think that I really knew what to expect.

So, what would I recommend to someone attending their first conference?

Look at the conference schedule before leaving. Identify any sessions that you absolutely need to attend due to professional or personal commitments. This should include, at the very least, your own presentations and the meetings of the committees, round tables, and interest groups of which you are a member. After that, identify sessions that are relevant to your current work or special interests, as well as your future goals. These are sessions that you're not obligated to attend, but that excite you and that would benefit you. If you hope to eventually join a particular committee, their meeting would also fall under this category (if it is open to non-members). Finally, identify the gaps in your schedule and select a session to fill each one.

With that being said, prepare to be flexible. Have a plan, but don't let it rule you. If you run in to an old friend, take a break to go for coffee. If a former boss invites you to dinner, go. If you're exhausted and simply need a break, take it. I've never regretted saying yes to one of these spontaneous outings, and in some cases they have turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of the week.

Network, network, network. This can be difficult, but be willing to push yourself out of your comfort zone. If you know someone else at the conference, ask them to introduce you to someone (their boss, friends, colleagues with similar interests, etc.). Sit next to someone who is alone at a session, and introduce yourself before it begins. I've actually managed to meet people face-to-face because we had previously "met" by following each other on Twitter. You can learn a lot from these connections, especially early in your career, so don't let fear get the best of you!

Take notes. Some organizations and presenters make slides available after the conference, and some provide handouts containing all of the important information, so use your judgment about how much you need to write down to revisit the subject later. Don't rely on your memory, because you will have a lot of information coming your way throughout the week. At the very least, I recommend taking a minute or two after each session to reflect on the experience and jot down a few sentences. What were your main takeaways? Was there anything that you would like to try in your own library? Was the session particularly good or bad, and why?

Use social media. I personally think that one of the best uses of Twitter occurs during professional conferences. More and more conferences are promoting official hashtags, making it easy to share ideas and see what others are saying about the conference. Using Twitter at conferences has filled me in on sessions I couldn't attend, introduced me to others at the conference, and even helped me find great local restaurants through others' recommendations. Additionally, Twitter can benefit people who could not attend the conference by sharing the knowledge gained throughout the week in the form of real time updates.

Plan ahead when packing. Pack professional, weather-appropriate clothing for the conference, as well as something more casual for traveling. Bring comfy shoes, because you will be in them all day (depending on your conference location, you may also be walking some distance in the city for meal breaks). Bring Ibuprofen or Tylenol just in case. I also suggest bringing something to snack on -- I usually bring along a box of Nature Valley granola bars to hold me over in case I need to have a later lunch or dinner.

Explore the area. When I go to a conference, I usually try to do at least one tourist-y thing. The first conference that I attended was in California, and the Local Arrangements Committee had actually planned a few optional tours to take place the day before the conference began. I had never been out west and I had never seen the ocean before, so I went on a whale watching tour in Monterey Bay, and it was an amazing experience. I haven't traveled a lot, and conferences, in addition to helping me grow as a professional, allow me to see and experience more of the country. We go to conferences to learn and make connections, but it's also important to take some time to have fun and gain new experiences.

Do you have any other conference suggestions? Leave them in the comments!

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