By Stephanie Freas
This year's ALA Annual held a few firsts for me--my first librarian conference, my first attempt at professional networking, my first time conversing with actual professionals in the field rather than my classmates, and my first glance into the regular discussions and questions that librarians are having. To battle the anxiety that comes with such a large-scale event, I wanted to be fully prepared for the days ahead. While they say that you can never be prepared enough, I attended Twitter chats, read librarian blogs, signed up for a mentor from NMRT's Mentor program, and consulted faculty members and fellow students for other resources and advice. I should also mention that my investment in preparing for and attending the conference had a second goal: as the current co-president of our student chapter of ALA, I wanted to be a helpful conference guide for other students.
My first method of preparation for ALA was attending the NMRT Twitter chat, which I learned about from the NMRT listserv. Before ALA, I barely used Twitter, but I quickly realized that it is a valuable resource for conference planning and attendance. I was excited by the participation of librarians from around the country. There were consistent questions about how to meet new people, manage time, prioritize sessions, and what to bring. I even asked a question about specific advice for student attendees. I found that others asked questions I contemplated, and advice-givers mentioned things--like conference badges--that I had not heard of previously. Participation in the #nmrtchat was the most beneficial aspect of preparing, because it already had me networking.
The Internet is chocked full of information from librarians and other professional conference-goers who blog about their experiences and give free, helpful advice. For instance, I follow Free Range Librarian and Librarian by Day, who have archives of great information about what to bring and do, which surprisingly, never seems enough. And, because librarians are helpful people by nature, the comments in each piece offer additional recommendations, like being mindful of how many badges you adorn--go for above the waist--and trying something unexpected and new, like attending a discussion session of a group you are not a member of. My metadata professor at the University of Pittsburgh recommended that I try LITA 101, since I am interested in new library technologies, and I was introduced to unique discussion and interest groups there.
Finally, I am glad I utilized the extensive resources that ALA and NMRT provide. I signed up for the NMRT Mentoring Program and received an email a few weeks before the conference from my new mentor. She emailed me with potential times to meet, must-haves for the conference (business cards!), and the importance of attending at least a few social events. Finally, she sent me attachments from ACRL about Conference 101 for new attendees. There was no shortage of these types of handouts on the ALA site and Internet, which gave advice about safety (don't wear your badge outside the conference), transportation (use the free shuttles if you can), and networking recommendations (spend less time on your phone and more on the people sitting beside you).
With this information, I thought I was more than ready for ALA Annual. And, in most ways, I was. I used the tips to bring extra bags for free swag, check Twitter for any conference updates, and take some "me" time to do tourist activities and relax. I also learned to hack the Conference Scheduler by overbooking each hour with at least one or two extra sessions. This was particularly handy in the final hours of each day when I decided on my next session by its distance rather than title. I also realized that by randomly checking the Scheduler throughout the day, previous session topics would spark new interest in later ones. Further, preparing for the conference by chatting about it with other students and professionals helped me get into the mindset of being at ALA. Although it was not face-to-face, I was networking with people online and getting my name, thoughts, and questions out there. I started getting nervous and excited to play the match game between Twitter profile pictures and real-life faces.
However, there were certain things that no words from a conference veteran could prepare me for. When I read that you need comfortable--and I mean comfortable--walking shoes, that is not something to be taken lightly. I had a floor plan of the conference center printed and ready, but I did not grasp the actual size of the area. With that, no one fully explained the greatness that is the exhibit hall. I wish I would have realized the actual size, the variety of vendors there (librarian clothing vendors?) and the endless freebies available. Further, I learned after a few sessions that you cannot expect every presenter to be a great speaker, so you should be ready to deal with difficult presentations, or sit close enough to the door to find another one quickly. Perhaps these ordeals cannot be taught, but instead must be learned from experience.
Thorough preparation for a conference of this magnitude is a must; there is nothing more frustrating than finding out about amazing opportunities too late and feeling as though you have missed out. Although I could not have been prepared enough for the minor details of conference logistics like time spent traveling, I knew I had a solid foundation. This helped me delve straight into programs and events on day one instead of trying to get into the conference atmosphere, and I was grateful I could dedicate my time at ALA Annual to attending sessions, meeting people, perusing the exhibit hall, and enjoying the city. If my words here have not illustrated it yet, I cannot say enough that preparing for a conference like ALA requires research, utilizing the endless resources online, and consulting a few veterans and maybe another new attendee or two. I look forward to the future, when I can offer my own advice to eager new conference goers.
See Stephanie's online portfolio here.