Conference How To for Noobs

By Amanda Youngbar

After navigating my way to the correct hotel and room for the New Members Round Table (NMRT) Conference 101 session, I walked up to a table with 3 or so people and asked, Is there anyone sitting here? A fellow conference attendee at the table invited me to sit and then commented that I was following one of the tips on the NMRT ALA 2012 Annual Conference Tips sheet : Never sit alone. Don't text; talk to people. That was one networking takeaway from NMRTs Conference 101, but it wasnt the only one.


Making connections is important. It can shrink what could be an overwhelming amorphous mass of nameless faces to group of friendly faces. As Keith Fiels, ALA Executive Director commented, ALA is not 60,000 people, but the dozen people you meet.

I jumped in. I went to the Library Instruction Round Table lunch and met a bunch of instruction librarians. I met the Librarian of Doom and gave her a sound bite. I went to the Emerging Leaders poster presentation and met some folks who put together the blog Chasing Reference and who are looking for guest bloggers. Networking introduces you, not just to people, but also to opportunities.

You don't have to look far to network. During the session, there was a bingo networking game. Many people got up, moved around. The room was buzzing. At my table, we pooled our human resources together and found matches for the bingo squares. Two ladies from my table won the iTunes gift card prize. The moral of the story: To network, you need not look any further than your right, left, and across the table. You don't have to look high and low to find other professionals; you simply have to take the time to introduce yourself, chat a bit, and hand over your card. Don't have business cards? You can print your own or have custom cards printed—its (a lot) less expensive than you may think—from a vendor like MOO or Zazzle.


ALA gets it real strength from its members, Molly Raphael, ALA President, reminded us. If members didn't volunteer to plan and organize events, librarians wouldnt have the opportunity to share their knowledge and strengthen our community. Need a little inspiration? Molly Raphael suggested checking out ALAs Empowering Diverse Voices, a series of two-minute videos in which a variety of ALA members share how they got their start in the organization.

Unsure of what steps to take to actually get involved? Keith Fiels shared his three step process for getting involved:

  1. Show up.
  2. Offer to do something.
  3. Actually do it.

I followed this three step process myself. First, I showed up virtually to the NMRT listserv and noticed a call for reports on ALA Annual. Second, I offered to write-up a program. And third, I actually wrote up the piece you are reading now. I did it and you can too. Librarians give back. Were stewards, said Steve Matthews, of the ALA Conference Committee. We are a service-oriented profession and we devote our lives to that service because we value it. Opportunities abound. Keep an eye out and an ear open: attend committee meetings, monitor listservs, and fill out electronic volunteer forms. Volunteering is work, but it is also a reward. Its another way to meet people and make connections. As Molly Raphael said, You will get more from volunteering than you will give.


Linda Crook, NMRT President, summed up the exhibits nicely, [its] like a carnival for librarians! Vendors for books, vendors for library furniture, vendors for databases. Vendors have games for you to play like a trivia game for a chance to win a t-shirt and drawings for more expensive items like iPads. They have free stuff to give you just for showing up: candy, posters, books, mugs, water bottles, calendars, pens, pads, and so on. Grab some swag. You know youre always looking for a pen back home. Swipe a book (and maybe get it signed too) to read on the plane ride or to unwind with at the end of the night. There are impromptu demonstrations and vendors are more than happy to walk you through their products, especially their new features. You might even spot a robot that will heckle you or get your photo taken with a pirate at the L. Ron Hubbard exhibit. Remember, the vendors and exhibitors are ALA members, and important ones, as they underwrite conference expenses. Say hi and chat with the vendors: You may not be making purchasing decisions, but knowing what products are available is another way to stay abreast of developments in the field. The exhibit hall is for business, but its mostly fun and games.

Vendors are also happy to wine and dine you. Gale Cenage Learning provided a champagne and hors doeuvres snack in the hall. EBSCO sponsored some lunches. I had dinner at Mortons Steakhouse on a vendors dime and attended a Mango Languages (complete trivia and open-bar) party at 300 Anaheim, a bowling alley, in the Gardenwalk. Conferences can be expensive; a free meal doesnt hurt and can be a fun way to learn more about a product.

Planning Your Visit

Theres no dearth of choices for things to do at Annual. If youre like me you'll find five things that look amazing and all happen at the same time. You cant do everything; you do have to pick and choose. But its probably a good idea to pick a couple things for each time slot. That way if a session is not to your taste, or a longer walk away than you imagined, you have another option. The panelists encouraged attendees to leave programs in which they were uninterested and join others. But Alice Knapp, of the Exhibits Round Table, advised, Know your escape route. If you think you may end up leaving a program, you probably shouldnt sit in the front row.

Whats the best way to schedule your visit? I would suggest using ALA Connects Conference Scheduler. I had to add the location to my appointments, but this made it easy for me to create a customized, easy-to-reference schedule. Annual also has a mobile app that allows you to search for specific programs or vendors or to browse events beginning in the next hour, if youd rather fly by the seat of your pants. Worried about your mobile connectivity? Theres still another option: the conference program. The program is a rather hefty tome to be toting about, especially if you wish to swipe vendor swag and are carrying a tablet or laptop. With that in mind, Linda Crook advised, Find your day. Rip your pages out. I also found it helpful to carry a list of ALA acronyms and a map of the hotels for ready reference.

There were also a couple more practical tips. Wear comfortable shoes: conferences require a lot of walking. Wear a sweater: the AC will be in full-force inside the convention center and hotels. Follow these two pieces of advice! If your feet are in pain, you may unintentionally grimace at the folks with whom you are trying to network. And if you are busy shivering, you are spending less attention on whatever session or meeting is currently at hand.

Virtual Participation

You may be thinking, I would love to attend a conference, but I don't have the means. What options are there for me? In, July, ALA holds a Virtual Conference. This option is much more affordable at $69. Additionally, the next ALA Annual should be available digitally for attendees (included in the price) and for those who could not attend in person (at another price).

Conferences are wonderful times for people in the profession to come together, but it is not the only way to be active in ALA. Much committee work does not require attendance at conferences and you do not need to attend a committee meeting in person to volunteer. If you are looking to be involved, but make less of a commitment, there are a variety of listservs through ALA that you can join for lively discussions of current concerns and trends in libraryland. Another option would be ALA Connect. This is an ALA social networking site where members can create a user profile and join formal committees, if they are a member, or discussion groups for dialogue about a variety of interests in the library community. Steve Matthews really encouraged us to feel free to comment in these groups. He mentioned one discussion group page that, while it had over 600 views, had only 9 comments. Speak up and share. ALA is the community you create and is only as vibrant and active as its members.

Final Thoughts

If youre looking for a job, as many new members are, don't forget to visit the ALA Placement Center. They offer career counseling, resume critiques, and an open house of employers at Annual, but the JobLIST is available year-round. This website provides not only job announcements, but also an array of Career Development Resources to assist in your job search. Avail yourself of the resources in place.

Keith Fiels joked, If you don't have three ideas to bring back to your library, youre spending too much time in the bar. Network, volunteer, learn things, but don't forget to have fun! And when you come back home from the conference, share what you have learned with your colleagues and co-workers. No matter how great the ideas you learned, theyre only useful if you share them and put them into practice.