Presenting at conferences: putting yourself out there in library school.

As most of us reading Hack Library School know, or at least have heard, the MLIS is a “minimum qualification” for actual employment as a big L academic librarian. Some of the ways we are frequently told to beef up our resumes and CVs is through work, internships, scholarship, and conference presentations.

I know for me the idea of presenting my research or experiences at a conference full of experienced professionals, who, “OMG they have been doing this for years and why in the world would they ever care about what I have to say,” has been highly intimidating. In the coming months, I have the great privilege of both attending and presenting at a few local conferences. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what it took for me to transition from “wow, so intimidated” to “cool, let’s do this!” and I thought I would share them here.

1. Do your research.

For as many assignments as I can in my coursework, I have focused on local institutions in my research. This has been hugely valuable when I attend conferences or networking events. Being able to say something like, “I was reading in your library’s strategic plan…what do you think?” may be one of the world’s greatest icebreakers at these kinds of things. 

If you’re attending a smaller conference at a local academic library, it can’t hurt to learn a bit about the host library, as most of the staff will likely be in attendance. Likewise, learn what you can about other surrounding libraries, as this world is small and many librarians within commuting distance will likely attend. This kind of research can only come in handy once you actually hit the job market as well. 

 2. Seek out an ally.

Almost everyone I have ever spoken to has been willing and eager to chat with me as a newbie/wannabe professional librarian. The inherent kindness of library folk makes it easy to find people to help you navigate your first conference. Seek out those who work at institutions that inspire you and don’t be afraid to ask questions. One of the most meaningful connections I made early on in my library student journey was with a local librarian. She needed a ride back to her place of work, which just happened to be in my neighborhood. As an introvert, I at first hesitated to offer, as conferences can be exhausting enough. But running into her at a later conference opened a ton of doors for me, and helped me feel at home in this new world. 

Networking without connection is rightfully panned, but if you take the time to get to know people on a more meaningful level, you will be surprised by the richness of your connections! 

3. Work in groups.

Have you worked on a collaborative project in class, at work, or in an internship experience? Ask your colleagues if they would like to present with you! We’re all, generally, running the same race and a conference presentation would look great on anyone’s CV. While group work can come with its own challenges, having a team back you up can make all the difference, especially if it’s a team you like! 

Often, your work may even translate in multiple contexts. For a collaborative project I worked on this year in my day job, our team will be presenting at both a local library conference and one focused on academic writing centers. I’m super excited to present and talk about our collaboration from multiple perspectives. I’m sure seeing how things work outside of library land certainly can’t hurt!

4. Start with a poster.

Posters are also an easy low stakes way to get your voice out there, meet some (kind!) people, and, of course, add another all-important line to your CV. When presenting a poster you have the opportunity to speak with people in small groups or one-on-one, and in doing so, you will inevitably make connections and develop more confidence in your ability to “contribute” to the broader scholarly conversation.  A colleague I highly respect reminded me, “only a few people will stop by and read your content and speak with you. You may end up briefly talking to twenty to thirty people, it’s just not that big of a deal.” That was exactly what I needed to hear to actually submit my first poster proposal. While it often feels like every move is all important, the stakes are not that high if nervousness impacts your performance as a budding scholar. 

5. Remember: library people are kind!

My final and most important thought is to remember: library people are kind! Truly (aside from the rock climbing gym), I have never moved in spaces where people are so genuinely kind and helpful. Library folk of all stripes you encounter at these conferences have been in your shoes and understand what it is to be new to the profession. People are people, and even potential future employers (well, any worth working for) will understand that nerves are real and that we’re all relatively new at this. 

Take chances, it will be OK. Worst case scenario: you can still add that line to your CV, even if you completely bomb your presentation!

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