As I was a recipient of a last-minute scholarship, I found out that I was attending the Colorado Association of Libraries Conference about a week before it started–that’s enough to make anyone panic a little, let alone a first-time conference attendee. “You don’t have business cards,” the high-pitched, high-strung voice of my anxiety squeaked. “What will you even wear? What if you get there and everything is a disaster? What if you make an idiot of yourself and literally every librarian in the state of Colorado is there to see it?” To assuage this voice, I only had a chance to quickly read through a few of the great advice articles on HLS about first conferences, mistakes to avoid, the benefits of local conferences, and networking for introverts. Then my time to prepare was up.
While I think a certain level of worry is actually helpful for fielding life’s stresses, in this case the tiny voice of anxiety turned out to be unnecessary: nothing about this conference was a disaster. I got to stay in a fancy hotel suite by myself for free. I got to know some of my coworkers and fellow DU students better. I realized that I was starting to recognize local professionals–people who are going to be my peers soon enough–from other events. I took more notes during conference sessions than I have all quarter in my library school classes. I tweeted my little heart out, and made some connections that way. It was an awesome weekend.
Though there have been a lot of articles here on HLS with really great advice about attending conferences, I have a couple pieces to add. First, apply for scholarships–apply for every single conference scholarship you can find. I applied for the CALCon scholarship on a whim after seeing it in my school’s listserv. I wrote the required essay, sent it off, and didn’t expect to ever hear about it again. These scholarships are essentially only available to you while you’re a student or early-career professional, so take advantage of them while you can. While what we’re learning in school is important, the actual stuff of the profession is happening at events like conferences. There are scholarships for ALA Annual in Orlando next summer, IFLA in Columbus, and PLA in Denver–and don’t forget about your local conferences too. Sarah Hume posted a great article this past summer about hacking your application. Don’t let this overwhelm you though – the one I submitted for only required a one page essay.
My second piece of advice is to attend sessions about things you don’t know anything about. This wasn’t difficult, as I felt that pretty much all of the sessions were at least a little bit beyond me. I attended a session on BIBFRAME knowing almost nothing about cataloging. While I felt like I barely understood it at the time, what I learned in that session set the stage for a paper I wrote a couple weeks later for one of my classes. On the other hand, I attended a session on services for patrons who are homeless, and while it was nice to be in dialogue with others who do similar work, I did not feel challenged or inspired by this session. It was a reflection of knowledge and experience that I already have.
In the end, it didn’t matter that I didn’t have business cards or that I didn’t feel prepared for my first conference. It mattered that I was there and open to learning. If you’ve already been to a conference, what was your first conference experience like? What conferences are you eyeballing for the next year? Also, please share any links you have for conference scholarships in the comments–the first step is knowing where to look.