Surviving and Thriving at Professional Conferences

Career Blog

Published: April 22, 2016 by Kate M. Spaulding

The annual conferences for ALA, SLA, and SAA are coming up soon. Are you going? Learn how to make the most of your conference experience.

The big one, ALA’s Annual Conference, is coming up in June, as is SLA’s, and SAA’s starts in July. So, hopefully, you’ve thought about attending a professional conference (I argue: you should!!). Please, let us know in the comments! Maybe you’ll even discover some fellow Spartans you can connect with.

If you’re anything like me, once the decision has been made, it’s time to start worrying about the event itself. What will you do? What will you wear? What’s the best use of your time? Well, Patty Wong, County Librarian/Chief Archivist for Yolo County Library and a faculty member here at the iSchool, addressed this very topic in an iSchool Colloquium.

“Surviving and Thriving at Professional Conferenc​es”

There is a ton of information in her presentation, and I would need to write a novella to cover it all, so I highly recommend you watch or listen to it. Pro tip: short on time? You can speed up YouTube videos! choices are in the Settings menu.

Ms. Wong’s presentation was specific to ALA’s annual conference, but just about everything she spoke about is transferrable to other conferences. She thinks that professional association conferences are super important for continuing education, connecting with other professionals, and engaging with the community. In fact, she argues that it’s actually a relatively low-cost way to learn about a lot of different things. She also thinks conferences might be especially important to students at an online school so that we actually get out in the world and meet people with common interests. Also of interest to students – conferences are a great way to learn about internships and job opportunities as well as a place for resources like the Job Placement Center.

Remember, there’s lots of help out there! Professional journals, e-lists, websites, and recommendations from colleagues and those in the field. At their conference, ALA even puts out a daily (physical!) newspaper (Cognotes).

Pre-Conference Prep

Starting about 12:00, Ms. Wong goes over some things to think about before you go. 

  • Dress – and shoes! Think about the weather and how you’re getting from place to place. Business casual is almost always appropriate. Ms. Wong covers it all – what image you want to convey, clothes to pack, why wear a watch(!), etc. 
  • Demeanor – Be open. You are there to learn and also to share your own accomplishments and ideas.
  • Business Cards – They’re a (cheap) physical way to share the experience and follow up with people afterwards. Look for examples at the 27:00 mark.
  • Personal Presentation – Prepare your elevator pitch.
  • Conference Buddy – It can be easier to be there as part of a team of 2 or more.

Getting There

  • Register! She has lots of suggestions here for ways to attend for a reduced price or for free. Look here too.
  • Attendance can be made possible by travel grants and institutional or other support. See Making Your Case to Attend.
  • Go to the conference website and explore. Everything is online and easy to use.

Con​ference Program

  • Look online, note the activates and events you want to attend, and make use of the scheduler. This preparation will make the conference feel less overwhelming once you get there.
  • Think about what you want to get out of your trip.
  • Consider how you can contribute to your learning and that of others.
  • There are all kinds of sessions (preconference, keynotes, receptions, exhibits, etc.), and Ms. Wong talks about the value of each of them.

What to Expect

She also explains what you can expect in terms of size, etiquette, and more, including

  • Keynotes, Meetings/Programs, & Trade Show 
  • Meals
  • Badges
  • Acronyms and how to decipher them

Professional Presence

At about 25:20, Ms. Wong talks about the delivery of business cards, communication, and social interactions. She really stresses that it’s important to be in the moment. Invest in yourself and really engage with what you are doing and who you are with. Try to meet someone new everyday.

Recommended Events, Check it Out, and Other Features
These slides were all specific to the 2015 ALA Annual Conference, but I encourage you to check it out anyway because many of the events she talks about repeat at every conference. Starts at 48:50.

Make The Most of Your Time


  • Only stay in a meeting if it is worth your time (consider exit-friendly seats if you think you’ll want to leave early) and take notes
  • Connect and meet people. Then, remember them (make a note on their business card to help) and follow up (within 2 weeks).
  • Keep track of your expenses. If you’re not getting reimbursed somehow, a lot of professional expenses can be tax deductible (up to what’s allowed).
  • Have fun!
  • Balance is important. Be sure to give yourself some downtime. And stay hydrated!

Phew! If you’re made it this far, give yourself a pat on the back. I know this is a lot of information, but I really, really encourage you to watch or listen to Patty Wong’s presentation (I like to multitask by listening to “extras” like this when I take my dog out).

More resources:

ALA Annual Conference 2016 
My argument for attending professional conferences 
iSchool student groups and student chapters of professional organizations 
Networking questions to ask at conferences 
Conference survival tips from Jill Klees 
How to Conference Like a Champ 
Walking the Exhibit Hall Like a Pro 
YALSA’s conference series 
Resources for ALAAC First Timers 
Conference Tips from INALJ (I Need a Library Job) 

I could go on, but I’m sure your eyes have glazed over by now. Are you planning on attending a conference? Let us know in the comments (and maybe you’ll find a Conference Buddy)!


Post new comment