ASSOCIATES (vol. 8 no. 1, July 2001) -

There Are More to Conferences
Than Just the Sessions


Julia D. Ree
Library Assistant
University of California, Riverside

When you have attended as many conferences as I have, whether it's on a local, statewide, or national level, you come to realize that the things you learn don't always occur during the scheduled sessions and often you have to make an effort to discover the total conference experience.

I began attending conferences in 1989. I was a newbie ... I had no idea what to expect and what to do. I was sent to the California Library Association Annual Conference, held that year in Oakland, California. If I had limited myself to only those sessions aimed specifically at Support Staff, I would have been finished with the conference in just a couple of hours. Even though there were the exhibits to see and a couple of programs to sit in on, attending that first conference was about getting the "feel" of things. That's why my division head, Frank D'Andraia supported so many of us to attend. He wanted to expose us to the whole experience. Little did I realize that what I saw and did that first year was hardly the whole journey.

Since then, I've attended local workshops and other statewide conferences, but I make the commitment to attend the annual conferences put on by the Council on Library/Media Technicians (COLT). This is where I really learned the art of conference attending. It's from these conferences that I've learned to take risks, break out of my shell, and do new things.

If you've never attended a conference, or if you are a little apprehensive about going to a conference, let me tell you, this is something you should experience! People will tell you that going to a conference will offer you the opportunity to learn new things. Conferences will help you see the bigger picture. Conferences will help you to recharge those mental, physical, and emotional batteries, and by bringing back information that you've learned you will also be helping others recharge their batteries. It's important to get excited again about what you do for a living. Conferences can help you do that. But more than learning things at the individual sessions, going to conference is about meeting new people, going to new cities, and learning things outside of the sessions. It's about realizing what you are capable of doing and knowing that your time is being well spent, from the moment you wake up to the time you hit the pillow at night.

Meeting New People

Once you have made the commitment to attend a conference, plan on meeting and getting to know at least one new person. This is very hard. It is perhaps the most difficult thing to talk to someone new. But you owe it to yourself to meet new people. This opens up a whole world of possibilities. You may meet someone who does the same kind of job that you do. If you work in a Circulation Department back home, wouldn't it be great if you could meet another Circ person? If you were a Cataloger, wouldn't you love to meet another person who works in that same area of expertise? Perhaps you would like to find out more about what other people experience in their work environment.

The only way that you will be able to do that is to meet new people. These new people may become new friends. The friends that you make at conference will last you your whole career. You will seek these people out the next time and bring other, new people, into your ever-growing circle, year after year. Trying this increases your chances that someone else may also want to meet new people and explore the area. You will find that having someone to hang around with makes the conference a more pleasant experience.

Another "must" is to have at least one late night gabfest. Perhaps it's a by-product of attending conferences, but every conference I've attended also had at least one long discussion of the day's events, usually held in someone's hotel room, but as often as not, held in the hotel bar, to discuss what happened that day. By being involved in these, you will treat yourself to the experience of other perspectives, which may stimulate your own ideas. Sometimes the discussions get heated, but that's just the passion of our commitment to our careers and the excitement of ideas forming and flowing. You can feel your batteries recharging.

New Cities, New Experiences

Going to conference usually means that you are going to a new city, or going to a city you haven't been to in a while. You owe it to yourself to do a bit of exploring. Try to make time to see the city you are conferencing in. Give yourself time before or after the actual days of the conference to take a tour, or if the conference planners have been thoughtful, take advantage of the tours they have arranged for you. You will no doubt get a history lesson, a geography lesson, and a cultural lesson, all wrapped up in one big adventure.

I arrived in town for this year's COLT conference a day early to participate, among other things, in a ritual that is attracting more people every year: the annual trek to a local Greek Restaurant. It has become one of those "things to do" with Julie... seek out "her people" and enjoy good food. This year's Greek Restaurant turned out to be only a few blocks from our hotel. Our group expanded to include 8, which was a record. These people can count on joining in on another expedition to a Greek Restaurant next year in Atlanta.

COLT offered two tours while in San Francisco ... a Chinatown Walking Tour with dinner, and a Tour of the Muir Woods, Sausalito, and the San Francisco Bay (Cruise). Both were informative and exciting in their own ways. Each tour gave even old timers to the Bay Area (like me) a chance to see something new, with people I don't normally hang around with.

Each new city has the potential to offer a lot. If you are truly adventurous, try out the transportation system. You never know where you might end up. Whether you decide to try dinner across town with some of those newly found friends, or exploring the city via a tour, these are life experiences that are part of the conference experience.

Got to get those Freebies!

Attending the exhibits (for me, it's usually the American Library Association's) is a must. You can find out about the latest technologies. Don't be afraid to test new products. You may not have the authority to make the kinds of decisions that will buy that product, but you will have had the opportunity for a hands-on demonstration that others did not get the chance to have and who knows? You might someday be able to tell the powers-that-be about this great product that you had the chance to try out at conference!

This is also the place where some great freebies can be had. Vendors are trying to do more than sell you their product. They are trying to sell their name. They may try this by having a splashy presentation. They may try to get you to put your business card into a drawing for a splendid prize, but they are also hoping that you will remember their name when it comes time to try a new product. What better way to remember a vendor then by seeing that vendor's name every time you drink from that coffee cup or write with that pen?

I attended the ALA Exhibits this past June and because of time constraints, had only the one day to see the entire exhibit hall. For a first timer, that can be daunting. The size of the exhibit hall is overwhelming. But after a few years, you temper the urge to pick every button, pencil, poster, and pad of paper that the vendors have to offer. You learn to become selective, if only to save your arms during the long walk around the exhibit hall, as well as trying to pack all that stuff into your luggage. So, if you are going to see an exhibit hall for the first time, go nuts. But remember you will have to do something with all that loot, once you leave the hall.

Conferences can offer you the educational opportunities that little else can, but you have to be willing to take advantage of the situation. In order to enjoy a more enriching conference experience, you need to meet someone new, explore the surrounding area, and see beyond the sessions to take in all of the educational possibilities. The bottom line is, be willing to accept what is offered to you. It is better to say YES, than say; gee I'm tired, I'd rather go to my room. The only way to experience a conference is to be willing to experience it completely.

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