Friday, July 3, 2009

Advice to Students Attending Conference

Although I’m not attending the American Library Association (ALA) conference this year (I’ve done Chicago in the summer—too hot!), I have gone to many national conferences in my 30+ years as a librarian and so have lots of advice for first-timers who have never experienced ALA before:

1. ALA’s annual conference is ENORMOUS! Not only are there meetings and exhibits in the convention center—which, in Chicago, is miles away from anything else—there are also meetings and events in the various conference hotels, restaurants, and local venues (e.g., the Art Institute and Navy Pier). Therefore, you should plan ahead by carefully reviewing the online conference program before even boarding your plane. As you’ll see, there are hundreds of programs offered over the course of four days and many of them conflict with each other. Choose the ones that interest you the most and then plan how best to get there. If two (or more!) good programs are scheduled at the same time, there’s no penalty for leaving one early so you can attend others. However, if you think you are going to leave early, then it’s best to sit toward the back of the room so as not to disrupt the proceedings when you sneak out.

2. Shuttles (i.e., the infamous “Gale buses”) transport attendees for free to and from the various conference sites. But be prepared to stand on long lines of librarians waiting for the buses to arrive. Also, if you’re not staying at one of the official conference hotels, then you’ll need to find the closest one to you if you want to catch a free ride to the convention center, etc. Conference hotels should all have big signs in the lobby describing shuttle times and locations.

3. Plan to spend at least half-a-day (or more!) at the exhibits as this is where you’ll see all the new library products (e.g., technology, furniture, services, etc.) that vendors have been waiting to rollout. This is also where you can grab lots of freebies, like books, bags (canvas are the best!), posters, magnets, etc. If you go hog-wild, there should be a special post office set-up inside the convention center where you can mail all your precious SWAG back home. And, oh yeah, be sure to wear comfortable shoes as there are miles and miles of aisles to walk before you see the end of all the exhibits.

4. Which brings me to: What to wear at conference. You’ll want to dress comfortably but professionally, because you never know where you might meet your next job prospect. So women: a dress or skirt (or nice pants) and blouse; be sure to pack a sweater as conference rooms are always freezing! Men: slacks and shirt, no tie necessary unless you’re actually interviewing for a job at conference. Save jeans, t-shirts and shorts for after-hours events and/or sightseeing after the conference. Shoes should be comfortable.

5. If you don’t already have some, then make business cards to take along and distribute when you meet someone you’d like to see again. As I said above, you never know where you might meet your next job prospect (or future colleague), so it’s always best to be prepared with business cards in hand. If you just graduated from library school, then list your name (followed by your degree, e.g., MLIS), phone number, e-address, and web site (if you have one that’s suitable). You could also list your areas of specialty, but only if you want to limit your possibilities.

6. Chicago is going to be rife with librarians, so take advantage and make new friends. Talk to the person next to you on the shuttle. Offer to share a table with someone waiting to eat lunch at the same restaurant. It’ll be pretty obvious who’s attending ALA from the bags they’re carrying and their general librarian “look.” Conference is no time to be shy.

7. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for free social events (e.g., the New Members Round Table’s Friday night “meet and greet”) and vendor parties. If you work in a library, you’ve probably already received invitations to various after-hours soirees. If you haven’t, then check with your coworkers to see if they’ve got invitations lying around they’re not going to use. Parties are a great place to meet new (and old) colleagues; plus the food is usually pretty darn good, too.

8. Have fun! This is the one time of the year when you’re surrounded by thousands of your peers, so relax and be yourself. Librarians are the warmest, most generous people on the planet. They’ll be very happy to see you and welcome you into the profession.

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