Surviving Your First ALA National Conference

Since ALA 2011 is coming up with in the next two weeks, I thought this would be the best time to give out some tips that might help some of the first timers out there feeling like I did when I attended my first conference last year. I looked to veteran conference goers for advice but most had the same things to say that a national conference was nothing you could describe. Which is all well and true but does nothing to lessen anxiety. So here are my top 10 tips:

1. Keep it together: I suggest you devote one folder to all things Conference related. From the time you’ve signed up to the time you leave the conference you are going to be given a lot of paper work. If you keep it all together in one folder and make sure you bring that folder with you, you will always have whatever document you need. A lot of exhibitors will send you emails for discounts and freebies as soon as you register and through out the conference. I scored a lot of great items this way. You’ll need to keep up with it all. Also choose a great bag, something that’s going to carry a lot of things but will stay comfortable to carry throughout the day, ladies skip the cute tiny purses and go for a large tote. Unisex messenger bags are great for both genders, and there are tons that look professional on the market now.

2. Print is not dead: When you check in you will be given another boat load of papers and documents. One of them will be a thick program that has all the updated conference related information. In case there’s been a change in sessions, schedules, planned meetings, etc it will be in there. Likewise each day there will be a number of people standing in the main conference area handing out newspaper like items, they are called Cognotes; day-to-day changes, news, happenings and such will be printed here. It’s free and valuable. Room changes happen hourly, this will be a life savior you never want to be without. And if you do miss the volunteers don’t worry they usually have them in stacks at the information desk and in paper vendors where ever sessions are happening. Coupons for discounts for local restaurants can be found in both of these items, a great way to partake of the local cuisine on a budget.

3. Buddy Up: This is a two-part tip. First for safety reasons, buddy up. Tis the world we live in. If you can attend your conference with someone else I would do so. I was lucky enough to go with 13 other people but I’ve had friends who went with significant others or coworkers. It helps if you both have similar interests. If you are traveling alone be aware of your surroundings and never put yourself in unnecessary danger. Once you leave the conference events take off your badge, it’s a signal that you aren’t a local and thus a possible mark. Make sure someone knows where you are at all times, be it a family member back home (when you call home for a chat let them know you are heading out to visit X place.) or a buddy you met at the conference. Which leads into the second part, make friends. The one thing I was told over and over was to network, network, network. The stranger sitting beside you at that one session obviously shares at least one interest as you. Don’t be afraid to talk up. Offer your thoughts on the subject. I always got a lot of warm wishes when I let people know I was a first timer. People offered tips on sessions to catch and events to attend.I met other first timers and had some of the best conversations and side adventures because of me just saying “Hello my name is…”

Welcome to ALA 2010

4. Flexibility is preferred: Like I said before room changes happen, sessions are interchanged, cancellations occur and flexibility is the name of the game. If you are a smart little cookie (or related to me) you’ve been on the ALA website since day one, planning out your whole conference schedule. You know where you are going to eat breakfast, where you will be at every minute of the day and over the moon excited about it all. And then you head to your first session only to find out that it’s been canceled, but then you get your hands on a Cognote paper and scramble across the street to another awesome session which gets out early and you think great you have time to pursue the exhibit floor. After which you make it to your second session which turns out to be on something other than what you thought. It’s going to happen, it happened to me. Session descriptions aren’t always clear and concise and titles can be misleading. You have to learn to be flexible about what you are going to accomplish and what you are not. I didn’t make it to all the sessions I wanted and at least two turn out to be a bust. However because I had my handy-dandy program and cognotes I was able to find new sessions that ended up being a blast. Now this might be a contentious point for some people but I didn’t feel bad when a session ended up being on something that I wasn’t actually interested in and I ended up leaving early. The reason being that these sessions will get crowed fast and often times people are forced to sit on the floor or stand. So by me giving up my seat to someone who was actually interested I didn’t feel embarrassed. Not one session I attended had a small attendance.

5. Inconvenience yourself: This tip is kind of putting the last two tips in one. Strike up a conversation with strangers. You have something in common, you love libraries. Whether they come from public, school media, academic, or special libraries you will find something to talk about. Since I was still in school when I went I asked them for advice about what I should do now and afterwards. We talked about their jobs and what they saw for the future. We talked about the last session we attended and sessions we were really looking forward to. We talked about the last book we read and the next movie we were going to see. I’m not an overly social person and people would say that’s a descriptive term of most library folks but none the less step outside of your comfort zone. If I can strike up a conversation with a virtual stranger so can you.

6. Identity is such a precious thing: When you register you are going to be given a badge. This little piece of paper on a string is a powerful thing it’s your ticket into sessions and the exhibit floor. It’s also your key to the shuttles. With your badge comes this little card with a chip. The card is used mainly on the exhibit floor, some vendors have this reader that automatically reads your card and enters your name into their database for future contact and some come with prizes and drawings. If you lose your badge or card head to the information desk and you can get a replacement. You also want to make sure you have a sufficient supply of business cards. People are going to expect you to have them and they are going to give you theirs. I got cards from people who lived all the way in California and from places I would love to work at, can we say Smithsonian. Make sure all your information is up to date and the cards look professional. You never know what will become of that five-minute shuttle ride. This advice goes for your CV and/or resume and a general cover letter, you never know (keep this all in your Conference folder).

7. Stage a sit in: Peacefully and amicable of course. If you are like me you are going to the conference to learn more about the many different committees and subgroups. Good news, many of these groups hold meetings that are open to the public. This is a great opportunity to see what some of the issues the group is dealing with and what their plans are for the upcoming year. You can also learn who some of the key players are for the group. Many will be electing new officers or doctrines. By staging a sit in you can get a chance to talk to some of the members as well as place your name on contact lists. Some groups offer up discounted memberships to students, and I’ve heard of one or two offering discounts for signing up at conference time (although I can’t personally attest to this).

8. Par down and Journal it: I took with me a spiral notebook and my iPod touch. I purposefully left my laptop at home. Why? Because I knew I would distract myself if I had my laptop. By paring down my electronics and gadgets I wasn’t tempted to skip a morning session and stare at my screen (Summer school had started the same time I was at the conference.) There is a computer lab station set up so that anyone who needs to check things online or print off things can do so. It’s free of charge. Granted it’s usually very busy, I was able to sign up for a computer and waited for less than 10 minutes before one came available. It was mid morning. My iPod touch allowed me to stay connected virtually with the conference and family and friends. I brought the notebook along so I could journal my experience. Which came in handy when I wanted to reflect on my first conference. A lot of things happened and I felt overwhelmed more often than not, having a place to write my immediate thoughts and reactions brought back a lot of memories when I was trying to recollect something days later. Now with the insurgence in tablets you could skip the notebook and iPod touch and bring a tablet along if you have a word processor app. Wireless internet is provided at the main conference center, free of charge. This also plays into the stuff you will need to carry all day and make more room for free stuff.

9. Just Breathe…Gonna be okay: Take the time to breathe. You will get caught up with the spirit of the conference and find yourself rushing to do this and that. You will probably forget to grab lunch so keep snacks handy. It’s going to be hot, so keep liquids nearby. ALA provides guided tours of the conference city (for a price) so if you can swing the cost, schedule in some time to go with them on a tour. Or do one by yourself, grab one of your new buddies and head out on a walking tour. The conferences are usually held in major cities with good public transits so take that into account. If you get overwhelmed find a place to sit and reflect on all that you’ve done so far. You don’t have to keep to anyone’s schedule but yours so take advantage. In between sessions one day I took the time to visit the local neighborhood surrounding the conference center. Best decision ever.

10. Have fun: At the end of the day yes this conference is a way to advance your career, learn about new trends in our field and network your butt off. But also this is a time to make connections with like-minded people, indulge in your interests and score tons of free swag. Most first timers are traveling to a different city so take the time to pay homage to the host city. There will be authors on the exhibit floor so take the time to say hello and thank them for giving us a reason to exist. Librarians know how to party and have a good time so if you can attend any of the social gatherings do so, you will not regret it.

So there it is, my list of tips to survive your first ALA conference. Any veterans want to chime in? I hope this help and Good Luck!

Wanna know more about my first conference check out these posts here:

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