A Whole New World! Experiencing library conferences as a student and professional

By Amber Wilson Castor

“What a difference perspective and purpose can make!” I reached this conclusion as I sat in my office reviewing my notes from the first library conference I attended as a professional. When I departed for the Arkansas Library Association’s annual meeting I didn’t anticipate this conference being that different from the numerous others I had attended as a library student. Having gone to four previous conferences, I was familiar with the routine conference activities - exploring the exhibits hall and listening to speakers; I even felt confident enough to consider myself a seasoned veteran! As it turns out, this conference was very different from my past conference visits. Since I was now a professional my time was more focused on activities related to my position whereas my conference visits as a library student weren’t focused on any particular area and/or issue. I feel that this sense of direction made this conference a much more rewarding one than previous ones I have attended.

As a library professional, I have a specific role (instructional services librarian) within my institution (a medium sized public university). Like any job, mine has certain goals and objectives. I knew what was expected of me and I knew what I had to
do to be successful. This knowledge allowed me to determine what aspects of the conference would be most beneficial to my position and as such I planned my time around these events. As a student, I had a general idea of what area(s) I was interested in working in but I didn’t want to limit myself. Keeping my options opened allowed me to be exposed to many different areas of librarianship - the only drawback was my lack of in-depth knowledge about any of the areas I encountered. I attended many different sessions, thinking the more exposure I had to different areas, the more “well-rounded” I would appear to potential employers. One problem with this approach soon became apparent; I was interested in many different sessions, some often taking place at the same time. I tried to hop from one session to another -- sitting through a portion, grabbing a handout, and rushing off to another. I knew this was common for many conference attendees but I wasn’t getting much out of any of the presentations I attended!

Having a professional position allowed me to focus on sessions that were most related to my job duties (instruction, information literacy, reference, and technology). I was definitely more comfortable with this approach; not only knowing where I would be at any given time, but also allowing me to better structure my free time. Knowing my open time(s) would automatically make it easier to attend sessions on topics I was interested in learning more about since my choices would be limited to the time(s) I was free. I always try to attend sessions about things I am not familiar with because this is a great opportunity to be exposed to ideas and concepts that I can take back and share with my colleagues. During the transition from student to professional this was one thing that remained constant; my desire to continue learning new things!

When I attended conferences as a student, the people I knew there were other students and I usually only felt comfortable talking to them. I am not the only person that faces this problem: the thought of trying to walk up to a stranger and introduce myself or to gracefully try to join a conversation was very intimidating. Getting to know people on my own was not an easy thing to do, but my colleagues helped to guide me through the process of meeting people and networking while at conferences; whether it was just a simple introduction to someone or making sure that I had someone to eat dinner with they were invaluable in making me feel at ease. They were great at helping me to put names with faces and match people with the institutions or
organizations to which they belong. Feeling comfortable “in my skin” made for a more relaxed and welcoming atmosphere than I experienced as a student. I sought out people who shared the same functional area and participated in conversations with colleagues who shared the same interests; as a student I tried to meet as many people as I could, but had a hard time establishing solid networks and getting to know people. In addition I can spend more time networking instead of trying to make myself known to potential employers.

Visiting the exhibit hall as a professional was another part of attending conferences that changed drastically. As a student I would visit as many different booths as possible, browsing like a teenager at the mall and taking advantage of the freebies almost every vendor was giving out. I also liked talking to them about all the types of new products available to libraries and librarians. In my current job I don’t have a lot of involvement with acquisitions and collection development so I let them know up front that I am just browsing – that way they didn’t spend too much time with me when they could be talking with someone who has direct involvement in purchasing decisions. They usually smiled and nodded politely, while quickly moving on to someone else. The exhibits hall was no longer a place to get tote bags, pens, buttons, and bookmarks, but a marketplace where libraries and vendors connected and librarians tried to learn about resources that would best serve their patrons. Don’t get me wrong, I still got my share of freebies, but I didn’t try and get everything free I could. This allowed me to spend less time in the exhibits area and more time on activities that would benefit me professionally.

Whether a librarian attends a conference as a student or a professional some goals will always remain true: learning new concepts, meeting new people, and gaining exposure to new things. Each person attending a conference will come bringing their own perspectives and with their own goals because everyone is at different stages in their careers. There are many benefits of attending conferences and I would encourage everyone to attend whenever possibly, no matter what stage of the “librarian life cycle” they may find themselves in. I look forward to enjoying many more conferences, where I can continue to grow and develop as a professional, as well as getting the opportunity to meet NMRT members!