By Stephanie Reinhardt
I'll admit I'm a bit of a conference junkie. Now that I'm studying for my MLIS at the University of Pittsburgh, I was anxious to start getting involved in library conferences. Conferences are a chance to learn new things, to hear about opportunities for yourself and your library, to have your enthusiasm revived by speakers and entertainers, and to exchange ideas about the best practices.
For students, ALA Midwinter offered a wide variety of opportunities to get involved. The experience for a student in professional organizations can sometimes feel isolated - we might have a membership in ALA and NMRT but aren't really sure what that means or how to interact with the group. I'd been lucky enough to volunteer at my state library association conference and wanted to try the same thing for Midwinter. It was the best decision I made about the conference.
I was placed in the Networking Uncommons, a space for informal presentations, relaxing between sessions, and recharging your batteries (literally - most of the tables had power strips). I got to spend half of each day there, generally watching over the technology and offering help and information when needed. Like a lunch interview, it was much more relaxed than other settings and allowed for interactions that couldn't have happened elsewhere. I met a number of people who were just curious about the space or who saw the student status on my badge.
What stood out for me at Midwinter was the willingness of people to just talk. People from every level of the profession were willing to share job hunting tips, management secrets, or even where to get the best cocktail at the numerous happy hours every night. I found people to talk to in the Uncommons, the ALA Store, the Google Glass test sessions, and the exhibit hall. In short, most everyone was willing to take a moment to connect. Even if you couldn't find someone in person, social media picked up the slack with the alamw14 hashtag across Twitter, Tumblr, and other sites.
That connection, for me, is the value of a conference like ALA Midwinter. A conference of this size can look big and overwhelming and distant to students, but it actually can be a place to make the library world much smaller. It can be a way to find out how to be part of the library community.
To that end, I can't pass over the efforts of the NMRT to get people involved, particularly the brand new New Professionals Section (NPS) of the Library Leadership and Management Association (LLAMA), a division of ALA. They've been testing the waters to see how to engage those of us who may not be in leadership positions yet but want to be, and at their meetings over the weekend, some pretty good ideas were put on the table. It was exciting to be part of that new direction for LLAMA. Another new direction was the first meeting of the Programming Librarian Interest Group (PLIG), where ideas for adult programming were shared.
For students, conferences can seem like an unnecessary expense, something for the distant future. For myself and my traveling companions from the University of Pittsburgh Student Chapter of ALA (SCALA), the opportunity was unique and engaging. We're a little more involved in the library world now, and that makes it so worth it.
Stephanie Reinhardt is an MLIS student at the University of Pittsburgh.