Avoiding that “Conference Itch”

by Samantha Read, former Head Editor, INALJ New Brunswick 
previously published 6/10/14

Avoiding that “Conference Itch”

samanthareadWell, folks, we’re in full conference season now. A relative newbie to this scene (I just started in my position as Archives Advisor at CANB in February), I attended the CNSA conference the other week and will be at the APLA conference in Moncton. While two is likely a standard number, this year I chose to attend smaller, more local conferences rather than the national ones like CLA, ACA, or ARMA. While in this part of the woods some of the museum conferences have stood apart in that they are switching their conferences to the fall, all of the major ones listed above are offered in the spring.

Conferences are an excellent way to step away from your computer screens, to get out there and to see what colleagues in other jurisdictions have been up to over the past few years. No matter what your specific library field, you’ll likely hear about project/funding success stories as well as the challenges and opportunities that arise throughout them. Hopefully you’ll be inspired by the conferences you attend to introduce new programs and initiatives in your individual offices.

While the many benefits of conference attendance have been covered in other blog posts on this site, in this article I’ll teach you how to make the most of your experiences and how to keep your head above water, all the while avoiding that “conference itch,” or in other words, information overload or burn-out that may result from attending too many conference events in a compact conference season.

Set Goals. The conferences I am attending this year all focus on outreach and advocacy, two of the very important yet somewhat elusive activities behind library and archival work. Before attending these conferences, I am asking myself: what do I want to get out of my experiences at CNSA and APLA? Who do I want to make sure I meet and talk to? Perhaps your main goal in attending a conference is to expand your network and create job opportunities for yourself. For someone in a good position, you may be attending to increase your professional capacity. Maybe your goals are more general. It is easy to align your goals with conference themes, but in my case I’d like to go above and beyond learning about cool initiatives in outreach and advocacy. I’d like to learn to motivate and engage people to play a greater role in their professional archival and library councils/boards.

Get Involved. Conferences come about as a result of a joint effort between many different individuals and usually all of them work on a volunteer basis. Conference organizers have been working in some cases for more than a year to get the event off the ground. Most conference committees need volunteers for everything from working the registration desk to live-tweeting to moderating a session to clean-up duty. Contributing an hour or two as a conference volunteer is a great way to learn the nitty-gritty of event planning and coordination and you may even be eligible for reduced conference fees!

Ask Questions. Conference sessions usually attempt to present in-depth concepts and ideas in relatively compressed time slots. Since you will be attending sessions for several days in a row, it is easy to feel overwhelmed with such a deluge of information. One way to maintain an open attitude and to remain afloat during discussions is to share your viewpoint. Every session will usually end with a short question & answer period. If anything presented was challenging for you’re, or if you are sitting there with a great anecdote about from your own professional repertoire, share it with the audience. Conferences are meant to teach and engage participants, so make sure your learning experiences is an active one!

Switch it up. Conference organizers know the power of a good coffee/nutrition break. They allow time for ideas presented in the sessions to marinate in the attendee’s mind. During these breaks, I recommend stepping outside for some fresh air, or at least going into a different part of the conference venue. A change of scenery between sessions can do a lot of good.

Attend Social Events. Most conference schedules come with a banquet, or a wine and cheese session, or even a dance. Whether it’s a special alumni reception or an awards banquet, these are a great opportunity to really do that networking you had planned to do while setting your goals. People may have a more relaxed demeanour and be more open to talking to strangers during these events than, say, 5 minutes before the key note speakers address or directly following the AGM.

Finally, have fun with it all! Whether you are a seasoned conference-attendee or if it’s your first time at a national event, don’t take yourself too seriously. Allow the learning process to occur naturally, and everything will fall into place. You’ll come away from your conference with a fresh batch of ideas for the next training session you organize for your workplace, or you’ll meet people with whom you want to collaborate on an exciting new project.