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Career Strategies for Librarians
A New Librarian’s First Conference: or, What I Learned on Navy Pier
by Jennifer Kelley

I graduated this past May and started my first professional job (as Resident Librarian at the College of
DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois) in August.  As a Resident Librarian I am encouraged to meddle in
everyone’s business—I track down library faculty and pepper them with questions, I follow library staff
around and take notes, I sit in on instruction sessions and try not to get in the way.  My meddlesome
behavior isn’t limited to those in my library, or even my college; I also get to poke around at the statewide
and national levels.  I am greatly encouraged to attend conferences, seminars, webinars, workshops,
and classes.  I have money, a flexible schedule, and very nurturing administrators to help me get out of
the office and into conference centers nationwide.  

Of course, to a brand-new librarian (or “baby” librarian, a term I learned at a conference recently), all of
these opportunities, and the reality of acting on them, are just a tiny bit overwhelming.  In my previous
position, I was a circulation assistant at the Newberry Library in Chicago and was frankly thrilled when
our department had a staff meeting at the Original Pancake House.  I have had very mild notions of
professional development, you see.  So it took a little cajoling from my associate dean and my
coworkers to realize that it’s good, fun, and right to go to conferences.

With this in mind, I set out this October to attend my very first professional conference ever: the Illinois
Library Association 2006 Annual Conference.

Lesson 1:  Think locally, act locally

My associate dean and other library faculty members recommended ILA as my first conference for
several reasons.  

1) It was cheap.  As I live in Chicago, my total travel expenses for the conference ran to $4.00 a day.  I
spent three times that amount each day on Starbucks lattes, but no matter.  All in all it was cheaper than
flying, driving, or Amtraking my way to another state.

2) It was small.  I don’t know this—I’m taking other people’s word for it.  This was the largest collection of
librarians in one room I had ever seen in my life.  They weren’t scary or intimidating (c’mon, we’re
librarians!  We’re wildly approachable!), but there were plenty of them and they all seemed to know what
they were doing (in stark contrast to me…).

3) It got me out of everyone’s hair for a couple days.  Okay, so I’m not sure this was an ulterior motive, but
it had to have been a relief for everyone not to have to have me calling, emailing, and showing up at their
office doors with questions they’re all pretty sure they had answered before.

So, you see, ILA was my conference with training wheels.

Lesson 2: Don’t put on your badge until you get to the convention center (unless you want to serve as a
guide for newbies)

Although I’d been living in Chicago for six years, I’d only been to Navy Pier twice.  The first time I was still
a tourist, in town looking for a place to live.  The second time I was working at a bicycle convention.  
Since then I’d tried to avoid the place the same way I stay the heck away from Michigan Avenue between
Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.  So technically, for all the preparation I did, I might as well have been
trying to find my way to a convention center in a strange town. So, the morning of the first day of the
conference, printed maps, directions, train and bus schedules in hand, I made it to the bus stop where (I
hoped) I could catch a bus that would take me to Navy Pier.  What to do from there was still a mystery.  
Luckily, I spotted another librarian.   

How did I know that I’d spotted a librarian?  Oh, please.  He was an older gentleman sporting sensible
shoes and a Chicago Public Library hat, carrying a book bag, and wearing his ILA conference badge.  He
seemed awfully confused when I approached him and said, “So… heading to ILA?”, but we struck up a
conversation and I was able to follow him onto the correct bus and through the maze of Navy Pier where,
after about a half-hour walk, we found ILA.

Lesson 3:  Get your coffee early and bring a snack

The ILA schedule allowed for all sorts of breaks:  “coffee break with the exhibitors!”, “light refreshments
will be served!”, “box lunches for all!”  While I was actually quite impressed with the box lunch, “light
refreshments” apparently meant cookies the size of salad plates.  That’s it.  Napkins were included, but
it was up to us to forage for milk or coffee.  And if I remember correctly, coffee wasn’t served until 11 a.m.,
which is an awfully long time to wait for coffee—free or not—when you’re cold and a little sleepy from
getting up at the crack of dawn to make sure you don’t miss all ten buses that could take you to the
convention center.  Even though the conference schedule was packed full of informative sessions,
workshops, and roundtables, there seemed to be a fair amount of time to go find myself a cup of coffee.   

Wow.

Whoever designed Navy Pier decided that people in conferences either really don’t need food and
beverages or really need the exercise, because by the time I got my coffee and returned to the
conference hall, I had had an aerobic workout, lost five pounds, and it was dinnertime.  Luckily I had
packed an apple and a granola bar in my own book bag so didn’t have to steal food from the well-fed
human resources managers who were also having a convention at Navy Pier.

Lesson 4:  Don’t take a copy of every handout

Even though a lot of sessions ran out of pamphlets, brochures, buttons, folders, pens, and clicky things
(what are those things anyway? The things that just make a loud clicky noise? If anyone has a use for
them, let me know—I’ll send you mine), I still ended up with a sack full of brightly colored stuff (for which
many trees died) that I picked up and walked off with for the simple reason that it was free.  It all came
back to my office with me, where the majority of it is still in a pile on my desk just in case.  Just in case
what?  Just in case I want to look at the map of the vendor stalls again?  Just in case I can’t remember
the name of that library with the really cool website—or was it a really cool policy?—and was that on the
green sheet, or was it yellow?   

Toward the end of the conference, I was just taking notes on the backs of other handouts and leaving the
new stuff for the people who had bigger book bags than I did.  I imagine there must be some conference
scrapbooking going on.

Lesson 5:  Talk to everyone who doesn’t run away from you

Everything I learned at ILA I learned from a librarian in a pink sweater.  Okay, that’s not entirely true, but I
did have some great conversations with people who weren’t giving presentations and weren’t sitting at
roundtables.  If you’re a librarian, if you know a librarian, if you’ve ever been in a room with a librarian, you
know that librarians love information and they love to share information, so chatting with the librarian next
to you before the panel discussion starts might be even more informative than the event you’re waiting
for.   

I’m actually a really shy person, so it’s hard for me to start up conversations.  Luckily, lots of other people
aren’t shy.  Most of the conversations I had with strangers started with me saying something like, “Oh,
sorry, let me take that enormous pile of papers, buttons, folders, pens, and clicky things off of that seat
so you can sit down and make room for your own enormous pile of papers, buttons, folders, pens, and
clicky things.”  Then we laughed about the clicky things, and the next thing I knew I’d learned something
about collection development.  So easy!

Lesson 6:  Turn your experience into an article and publish it somewhere

Before I even filled out the registration materials for ILA, I scoured LIS resources for information about
going to conferences.  I posted a question on the NEWLIB-L listserv.  I asked the librarians that I work
with (of course).  Because, really, what’s the point of being a librarian if you can’t thoroughly research
something before you do it?  Mostly, however, I went out on this furious “seek and conquer” campaign for
information because I was scared.  I was so worried that, I don’t know, I’d do all the wrong things at the
conference: I’d dress down when everyone dressed up, I’d be early when absolutely everyone knows to
be fashionably late, I’d wear grey when everyone knows that you never wear grey to a conference, I’d
accidentally insult the keynote speaker somehow without ever actually knowing it and everyone would
hate me.  So, yes, I imagined that my first professional library conference would be a lot like a high
school party.  Is that weird?

I guess my point, or my hope anyway, is that I can’t possibly be the only “baby” librarian out there who
has no idea what’s going on and is frantically looking for facts and experiences to help her or him not
freak out about stuff that’s actually quite fun and easy.  So when you do something for the first time as a
librarian, tell everyone about it.  Make a big deal, wave some flags, shoot off some fireworks, and get
everyone’s attention, because you figured it out -- and that’s awesome.

About the Author:

Jennifer Kelley lives in Chicago and is Resident Librarian at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn,
Illinois.  She graduated with her MLS from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign’s LEEP
program in May 2006.  Jenn also has an MFA in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst
and is looking forward to her next library conference, which will undoubtedly involve traveling.

Article published Jan 2007

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