Conferences and the Benefit of “Unstructured Time”

I decided this week not to apply to attend one of my favorite conferences, the Access Services Conference. I attended in-person in 2017 and virtually in 2020, and I would recommend it to anyone who works in, or wants to work in, circulation/access services, stacks maintenance, ILL/document delivery, course reserves, or student worker management. It’s a good conference! However this year I already ‘attended’ (and by that I mean I received access to the archived presentations) the Northwest ILL Conference, and I haven’t had time to watch the recordings from that conference yet! So applying to attend a second seemed a little greedy (especially since #NWILL virtual attendance cost my employer all of $36, and two days of virtual attendance at the Access Services Conference would run them $200, and by them I mean me, at least until my reimbursement comes through, which is an aspect of academic library privilege I don’t have time to get into right now).

I do miss it, though. Some of my best library-related innovations (or even personal revelations) have come from sitting in a conference room and listening to a presentation of what other library professionals have been researching or doing in their libraries. It was at the 2019 CLA conference while attending a panel discussion called ‘To Fine or Not to Fine’ that I drew up the beginning of the roadmap that the department where I work used to go fine-free ourselves. (We were already considering this change before the conference, but the panel brought up a lot of useful notes and things to consider that we hadn’t fully thought through yet, and it gave us a good direction in which to orient ourselves.)

Not every session I’ve ever attended at a conference has been so productive, though. And honestly…sometimes that’s better? It seems counter-intuitive, but the more I look back on my notes from, say, that 2017 Access Services Conference, the more I realize that some of my best, most productive thinking time happened between sessions, or while waiting for a presentation to begin. What’s up with that?

The faculty librarians at the community college where I work (and maybe this is standard at other community colleges and universities as well, but I haven’t asked around enough to be sure) have in their contract that they are scheduled for thirty-seven hours per week to be physically present on campus (which could be spent staffing the reference desk, teaching an instructional session, working in their office, or attending an on-campus meeting), plus three hours a week of off-campus time. This is intended to be spent perhaps in committee meetings with non-campus groups (we have one librarian who is our liaison with the local district high school librarians’ group, for example) or doing other community work.

I didn’t really make the connection between that and my experiences at conferences (and more specifically, the down-time at conferences) until I read an article about journal clubs this week for the research writing class I’m taking. I hadn’t heard about journal clubs before, but they’re groups on campuses where faculty and librarians meet to discuss current research trends in librarianship, and assist each other with their personal research projects. Mostly, at least according to this article, librarians appreciate a chance to catch up on their reading, and talk through problems or issues they’re having with their own work. It sounded a lot like what I appreciate about going to conferences – I’m out of my usual work location and day-to-day routine, and have a chance to interact with other library professionals who have different experiences and perspectives than I do.

So how do we recreate this sort of experience as students, or without the ability or finances to attend an in-person conference? We shouldn’t have to get on an airplane to give ourselves an hour or two to let our minds wander and come at our projects or ideas from a different angle (although it’s nice work if you can get it!) I like some of the suggestions in this article about unstructured time, but really my big secret is keeping a pen and paper handy! It may be at a less opportune moment than at a conference or reading an article, but no one has to know you came up with a great idea while in the shower or driving to class.

Anyone else have a good experience at a conference, in-person or virtual? Or even tried a journal club? Let us know in the comments what works for you!

Lauren is a student in San José State University’s MLIS program and the associate editor of Hack Library School. She works with ILL and course reserves at a community college in Los Angeles and would like to work as an academic librarian after graduation (whenever that may be).

Photo by Product School on Unsplash

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