Traveling While Broke: Library Conferences and Scholarships

by Aisha Conner-Gaten

Traveling While Broke: Library Conferences and Scholarships

Aisha Conner-Gaten is standing wearing a blue shirt and against a white background. She is holding a round red sign that says the words Ask a Librarian, the text is white.For librarians and information folks, conference attendance can provide essential opportunities for networking, professional development, and, of course, gainful employment. Unfortunately, those seeking new jobs or just better pay cannot often afford conference housing and air travel that accompany exorbitant registration fees. Some conferences totals top off in the hundreds after all the arrangements are made. How can we pay for this opportunity as broke information workers seeking jobs? One word: Scholarships! Conference vendors, hosts, organizations, and local community groups all provide scholarships for any number of reasons and very often, little is required to qualify. Here are some tips for successfully applying for conference scholarships:

1.  Know the Lingo

Many conferences offer scholarships to increase diversity or attract new information workers to their organizations. These scholarships may be presented in an obvious manner (scholarships here!) while others may use more cloaked language (digital conference fellow, who dat?). Either way, this is an opportunity to polish up your resume/CV and talk about your interests all in the name of free-ish money. Here are just a few sample calls for scholarships I have seen:

Note that many conferences have a scholarship fund, volunteer, or grant opportunity for those looking to attend. If you have a specific conference you are interested in, look for these calls as early as 6-12 months in advance. If there is nothing on the website, reach out to the coordinating committee and ask about opportunities to attend on the cheap. If contacting folks intimidates you, think of it as asking a colleague for more information or a helpful link. They want you to be there so it’s worth asking.

2.  Know the Requirements But Apply to Everything

Almost all travel scholarships have clearly outlined requirements for their scholarships and stipends. Scholarship committees count on you to self-identify whether you are eligible or not so don’t count yourself out. Is this a diversity scholarship? How does the call for applications define diversity? Is this for organization members only or can anyone apply? Does it require you to be a librarian or library staff? If you are ever unclear on scholarship requirements, contact the group or organizations for clarification.

3.  Line up References (with time to spare!)

As a former supervisor and broke librarian, I am well versed in recommendation and reference letters. For scholarships, it is hard to figure out who exactly can be a good reference for you. To determine who to ask, I generally look at two things: the conference mission, values, or goals and the scholarship details. What exactly are they looking for in a qualified candidate? Depending on these needs, I will choose one reference over another. For example, I applied for a leadership scholarship award. Who can talk about my leadership skills best, my old class professor who I met once or twice or the mentee I assisted for 2-3 years? If you don’t have multiple folks to ask, it is usually okay to ask colleagues and friends with whom you have a positive working relationship, in not specified in the call for applications. Just make sure they focus on your eligibility according that call for applications and not how great you are at friendship. Most importantly, allow at least 2-3 weeks AT LEAST for your reference to write your letter. No one works well when rushed or under time restraints. References and recommendations are favors and you want folks to help you without worrying about deadlines.

4.  Make Your Case

Talking about how amazing you are can be difficult for some people. We often feel like impostors boosting up small victories to sound more important than we are. However, in the world of scholarships and competition, this is perfectly normal. Be honest about your experiences but provide concrete examples of why you deserve the award. If the award focuses on new librarians, talk about your transition from school, from para-professionalism, or from another sector in clear, bold language. Some of these scholarships get hundreds of applicants. Readers of your narrative should know exactly why you applied and what you plan to contribute to the event from just a few lines. This is not the time to be humble.

5. Think Local!

While many of the big conferences (PLA, ALA, etc.) have scholarships to support folks seeking funding, smaller, local conferences offer much better odds for securing an award. Ask state conferences about scholarships first. Most organizations try to sponsor at least one librarian or para-professional per conference (see above for the ACRL example). If your current institution is a member of a consortium, check out their website for a consortium specific travel award (for example, Statewide California Electronic Library Consortium (SCELC) here in Cali has one!).

6.Follow the Rules

Nothing breaks a scholarship committee’s heart more than an excellent candidate that doesn’t provide the required materials for the scholarship. Make sure you understand what is being asked of you for the scholarship application and give yourself time to follow up. If they ask for a brief statement on why you deserve the scholarship, 3-4 pages is too much! Remember, the committee is going to read quite a few of these applications. Like a job application, you should be concise and mimic their language to make it as easy as possible for them to link you to their conference goals and mission. A memorable application is one that is short but sweet!

7.  Didn’t Get It? Apply Again Later!

Rejection discourages us all. When it comes to scholarships, many factors may inhibit a win. Sometimes it’s timing, a person on the selection committee, or the conference theme that may trip you up. Don’t let this get you down! Apply for all scholarships that you can. One of these days, with diligence, you are bound to win an award to go somewhere. You can always increase your chances by lining up top notch references (see number 3!) and having your information worker friends look over application materials and give feedback. You can do this!


For more information about conference scholarships, see this previous, related INALJ post.


BIO: Aisha Conner-Gaten is an intersectional librarian and tech enthusiast working in sunny Los Angeles. She specializes in instructional design, issues of equity and access in the library, and the role of librarians as social justice accomplices. Follow her ramblings on Twitter at @Aisha_CG.

Naomi House

Naomi House, MLIS, is the founder and publisher of the popular webzine and jobs list (formerly I Need a Library Job) and former CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) of, a crowdfunding platform focused on African patrimony, heritage and cultural projects. INALJ was founded in October 2010 with the assistance of her fellow Rutgers classmate, Elizabeth Leonard. Its social media presence has grown to include Facebook (retired in 2016), Twitter and a LinkedIn group, in addition to the interviews, articles and jobs found on INALJ. INALJ has had over 21 Million page hits and helped many, many thousands of librarians find employment! Through grassroots marketing, word of mouth and a real focus on exploring unconventional resources for job leads, INALJ grew from a subscription base of 20 friends to a website with over 500,000 visits in one month. Naomi believes that well-sourced quantity is quality in this narrow job market and INALJ reflects this with many new jobs published daily. She has also written for the 2011, 2012 and 2013 LexisNexis Government Info Pro and many other publications in the past decade. She presents whenever she can, including serving on three panels at the American Library Association's Annual Conference in Las Vegas; as breakout presenter at OCLC EMEA in Cape Town, South Africa; as a keynote speaker at the Virginia Library Association annual meeting; at the National Press Club in Washington DC; McGill University in Montreal, Canada; the University of the Emirates, Dubai, MLIS program and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Naomi was a Reference, Marketing and Acquisitions Librarian for a contractor at a federal library outside Washington, DC, and has been living and working in Budapest, Hungary and Western New York State. She spent years running her husband’s moving labor website, fixed and sold old houses and assisted her husband cooking delicious Pakistani food. She is preparing to re-enter the workforce and is job hunting. Her husband is now the co-editor of INALJ, a true support!  She has heard of spare time but hasn’t encountered it lately. She pronounces INALJ as eye-na-elle-jay. 


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