How to Hack Your Way Into Tech Conferences

Allison Jennings-Roche recently wrote about attending conferences outside of library land and I couldn’t agree more. In fact, just a few months ago, I was at a cross-disciplinary workshop facilitated by librarians from the University of Notre Dame in Palo Alto, CA that really opened up my eyes to this line of thinking.

Several attendees from the machine learning / artificial intelligence research world stressed that, since this area is progressing so quickly, the best thing to do is to look at the leaps and bounds being made in that field through its research rather than its commercial or online applications. The technology is really moving that quickly. Thus, the lag time in technology between research to mass adoption is the most exciting area for librarians to explore, in my humble opinion.

Getting There

However, tech conferences often have cost-prohibitive registration fees that are 2 or 3 times what you might see from a national library organization like ALA. Sure, there are travel grants and annual scholarships you can apply for, but these are limited resources that not everyone can access. This aside, the good news is that I’m here to tell you there’s a better way to access these conferences. Something I wish I had known about 10 years ago instead of 2 is that you can apply for a press pass. It’s that easy.

Say It With Me: You Are A Media Analyst

Here’s the catch, though. Getting a press pass doesn’t happen overnight; but they are usually free. Most of the conferences I’ve gotten into will ask for a writing sample or some media link before you get the keys to the castle. So, start doing that today. Better yet, have the draft written yesterday.

Personally, I found a low-circulation trade magazine in a field I was interested in: video games and arcades. They were looking for guest writers, so I applied and emphasized my outsider perspective might make for an interesting column. That’s how I attended AWE the first year.

Although we may not feel it day to day because we’re surrounded by like-minded people, your current (or future) position as a librarian is unique. Publishers will be interested. This is especially true for the tech world where things tend to happen in their own “reality bubble”. Direct experience with the public, especially if you’re in a situation with lots of folks who are new to computers, is like a master-class in user experience design. They don’t have the experience you have. Leverage that.

Lots of larger conferences will advertise a press pass discount or some sort of separate registration for media organizations. If they don’t, ask. This takes almost zero time to do and eventually it pays off. Keep in mind there might be a limited number of seats, so timing is important. I’ve also applied for the same conference multiple years in a row. Mark your calendar, sign up for the newsletter, start your web scraper. Eventually you’ll get into the front of the line.

With a press pass you can expect some perks, too: fast-track registration, quiet meeting areas, scheduled demo sessions instead of waiting in long lines, and hey, sometimes the coffee line in the press room is shorter, too. The list goes on.

Some Caveats

This is definitely a case where your mileage will vary. Living in an urban area definitely helps keep transportation costs down. Don’t let that get in the way, though. Depending on the conference and location, you might find that it’s a tax-deductible expense.

My best advice around this comes from a person I met years ago through a mentor circle with the New England Archivists professional group: if you can’t get your workplace to pay for it, and you really want to go, offer to pay out of pocket but ask to keep your vacation time. The rules around this are, of course, going to vary depending on what kind of library you’re coming from (we were both in academic libraries at the time) but it’s something to consider. Professional development is critical to librarianship and your employer knows this. To put it another way, the cards are in your favor.

Final Thoughts

However, there’s another catch. Thankfully, this one isn’t as big: attending a conference with a press pass means you should consider writing about your experience. It’s not required, but publishing something about your experiences may give others something to learn from and be inspired by. Don’t think of it as homework, but as planting two trees with one seed instead. Your resumé will thank you later!

Chris Markman is a Senior Librarian at the Palo Alto City Library in Palo Alto, CA. His current research projects include cybersecurity educationthe distributed web, and virtual reality. You can find him on Twitter @akamarkman.

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