Paying your way through conference season

Angela J.A. Kent, Head Editor, INALJ-Virtual Work

Paying your way through conference season

AngelaKentMany information professionals and students, myself included, are currently gearing up to attend some of the industry’s largest annual library conferences. While there’s been no shortage of articles on conferences, there is one aspect that I thought was worth adding my two cents.

Let’s talk money.

A significant obstacle to attending conferences can be funding. Regardless of whether this your first conference or your fiftieth, it can all come down to money. How will you cover registration? What about meals? If it’s out of town, how will you cover travel and lodging?

I cannot say I’m an expert at getting funding – although I aspire to be one! – but I have had success in securing conference funding as a student, paraprofessional, and professional staff member. In fact, I will be attending the upcoming Special Libraries Association (SLA) annual conference with the financial support of not one, not two, but three supporters.

Finding conference funding as a student is similar to finding scholarships. There’s lots of money out there and you just have to invest the little bit of time and effort it takes to apply. It’s fair to say that there can be plenty of groups looking to sponsor students, with sometimes very few students willing to pull together an application package.

Conference funding for students can come from the conference host, the local chapters and divisions, the conference sponsors (i.e. vendors), and from your school (e.g. university-wide funding, graduate student association, library school or department funding).

There’s also a huge non-monetary advantages in attending conferences as a student. It can be easier to schedule the time to go (a challenge for full-time employees), you can attend any and all sessions that are purely of interest or curiosity to you, and, to top it all off, professional members love talking to and recruiting students. Attending as a stipend or award recipient not only means helping with your bottom line, but gaining recognition at the conference and keeping that distinguishment for a long time afterwards.

This is the time when your work (library or non-library) and professional associations can work hand in hand.

If you’re lucky enough to be working in a library or information setting, some employers are able to extend conference funding to their paraprofessional staff. You should frame your interest in attending the conference as an opportunity to learn more about the profession and a way for your employer to invest in their current employees and potentially future professional staff. You may not receive the full benefits of your professional staff co-workers, but you should let your boss know you’re interested in attending.

At one job, all staff were invited to attend a local conference because our library was given a group entry pass — you just had to make sure your boss knew you were interested in attending. Another job allowed paraprofessional staff to attend one day of the conference. At another, they were willing to offer administrative leave. Regardless of what your job is able to cover, showing your interest and initiative in being involved in the profession is a positive employee attribute.

If your workplace cannot support your conference attendance or can only cover some of your expenses, turn to your local and national professional associations. Many of the library and information professional associations have specific funds set aside for paraprofessionals. Local chapters will usually fund members – regardless of professional status – to attend conferences as well. Use your membership benefits in every way shape and form!

For my upcoming conference trip I was able to secure three sponsors. However, when I booked my tickets and reserved my hotel, I had none. This was in part because I was graduating from library school (and would no longer be eligible for student stipends), I was leaving my current paraprofessional position (without another job lined up) because I was relocating (away from the local chapter that knew me and had sponsored me in the past). So, if you’re keeping count, I didn’t have funding resources available to me as a student, an employee, or through my local chapter.

The first funding opportunity came through the host association, SLA. As a true testament to volunteer leadership, I was notified by the host that I would be receiving an award. As an award winner, SLA would cover my registration fee — not a small amount as a non-student! Many conferences will cover all expenses for their award recipients and presenters. While others may cover some expenses (e.g., registration). If the conference is large and international in size, they may only set aside money for presenters and provide funding through competitive stipends. Actively participating in the conference is one way to increase your pool of funds and build your professional portfolio.

The second funding opportunity came through my new, local SLA chapter. Before I had even moved to my new location, I added the local chapter listserv to my news feeds and began following the events they were working on and identifying the leaders within the region. When a message calling for volunteers was posted, I quickly responded and – just as quickly – was put to work! I now sit on the executive board and am working on preparing a number of chapter events. As a new, but active member, the executive board accepted my application for funding and was excited to have me representing their chapter at the annual conference. It’s worth noting that my travel award only required that I was a member of the local chapter.

The third funding opportunity came soon after I was promoted to a full-time, professional librarian staff position. Not only were my new employers excited to have me in this new position, but they were quite interested in supporting my trip. It probably did not hurt that I had secured outside funding and that they would only need to support partial funding from their limited pool of conference funds. While it certainly helped that I had a manager and director that were willing to support my travel request, I did the heavy lifting of crafting and framing my reasons for attending, while also going through numerous iterations of paperwork for human resources and accounting. It was well worth the effort! Not only do I have additional funding to help me with my expenses, but my employer has a tangible example of how I am involved in our profession in a meaningful way.

The most important part of receiving conference funding is to give back. Always provide a formal thank-you to your sponsors and supply a summary about how your attendance enhanced your career development. In the past, I’ve prepared blog posts, formal travel reports, as well as participated in post-conference presentations. These are all great ways to summarize your experience and share your insights with colleagues who could not attend the conference.

Plan on remaining involved with the organization, division, or chapter sponsor by volunteering for a leadership position, writing articles, or participating in future award juries.

Conference funding is a one-time, short term reward; but the experience you get out of going to the conference and the recognition as an award or stipend recipient can have a lasting impact on your career.

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