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Career Strategies for Librarians
Tips and Tricks for Conference Attendance
by Tanzi Merritt

Attending conferences is a great way for information professionals to learn about new technologies,
network with other librarians, and stay up-to-date on issues facing the profession. Conferences can also
be a great deal of fun. Attending your first conference, however, especially if it’s a large national
conference like one hosted by the American Library Association or the Special Libraries Association, can
be a daunting prospect. There are many things to think about when planning to attend a conference –
what you’ll need to carry, what to wear, how to afford conferences as a student or on a new librarian’s
salary. Collected here are some tips and tricks from a number of librarians that can help you get
prepared for your first conference, whether it is a smaller regional or state conference or a large national
conference.

How to make a conference affordable

Conferences, especially national conferences, can be expensive for those of us who are students or just
starting out in the profession. It goes without saying that if your institution provides assistance with
conference and travel expenses you should take advantage of it! But if you are like me and work for an
institution that does not provide assistance for conference attendance, there are a number other ways to
help decrease what you will spend out of your own pocket. First, look for grants and scholarships or work
programs that will provide free or reduced conference registration fees. Check around! You may find that
there is money available from local and state associations, your graduate program, and there are grants
available from the various divisions, round tables, and special interest groups of the national
organizations. I received a grant from ALA’s New Members Round Table and 3M for the 2002 annual
conference in Atlanta. This grant provided for my flight, a five-night stay in my chosen hotel, conference
registration fees, and a small stipend to help defray other costs, such as food. This is only one of two
grants that NMRT provides each year for annual conference attendance, and these are only two of the
many grants available for members of particular associations or divisions or individuals working in
certain areas of librarianship. Apply for everything that you are eligible for!  

Of course, we can’t all get a grant every year or for every conference, so we have to look for other ways to
reduce expenses. Transportation and lodging are two of the big expenses that you incur when attending
conferences, but there are tons of ways to reduce what you’ll spend. As far as transportation, if you feel
you are close enough to the conference location to drive, carpool with colleagues or look for librarians in
your area that might want to help share this expense. If you know that you have to fly, shop around for a
good price. Check discount sites like Priceline, and look at the fares offered directly by the carriers. Many
times those will be cheaper than using a travel agency or the conference’s travel services. It’s also a
good idea to investigate prices with budget carriers such as JetBlue, Southwest, or Frontier. Teri Switzer,
Assistant Director of HR and Budget at the University of Colorado in Denver, once took a Greyhound bus
to a conference. She said of the experience, “It was fun, I met interesting people, and saved a bundle.”  

When you go to the large national conferences you’ll find shuttle services from the convention center to
the conference hotels. If you are staying in a hotel that is not on the shuttle line, stay where you can walk
to one of the conference hotels and pick up the shuttle, or use public transportation to get to the
convention center.  

Lodging is another area that can be expensive but where you can save money in any number of ways.
Sharing a room is the most obvious way to save money if you stay in a hotel. As with airfare, check
around for better prices and discounts on hotels. Don’t assume that the conference rate is going to be
the best. (I booked a room at the conference rate and when my reservation was later lost I was able to
reserve the same type of room for $30 less per night. A mistake definitely worked in my favor, and I
learned a lesson about checking for specials and discounts at multiple times.) If you are a member of
an organization like AAA, check there for discounts, and don’t forget about discounts that you might be
able to get because of membership in professional organizations or other organizations like alumni
associations.  

Many of the large conference cities are home to hostels where you can get private rooms with shared
kitchen and bath facilities, or you can share space in a common room for even less. If you’re attending
an ALA conference there will be dorm housing that is substantially cheaper than a hotel that you can
book through ALA’s travel services. For state and regional conferences there may be similar options.
The Kentucky Library Association often has meetings at the state parks where the rates are cheaper
than in nearby hotels.  

Food is another expense where you can sometimes save money. Carry your own snacks and drinks and
don’t purchase food in the convention center, where it is often a lot more expensive. Find a hotel with
kitchen facilities where you can prepare your own meals. Receptions and happy hours or cocktail parties
are also good ways to score some free food. Vendors always sponsor great breakfasts, lunches, and
dinners, although these are often by invitation only. A great way to get invitations is by talking to vendors
in the exhibit halls. As Teri Switzer says, “Visit the exhibits booths for more info on exhibitor events AND
when you register, don’t “opt out” of having your name sent to exhibitors. Yes, you’ll get a slew of
postcards promoting different products, but you may also get invitations to attend breakfast/lunch/social
hours.”  

Entertainment, if you have time for it, can be expensive, especially in larger cities. Most of us are likely to
want to do a little sightseeing, eat dinner at a local restaurant, or spend the evening somewhere other
than our rooms on nights when we don’t already have plans. Again, look for discount coupons to
attractions at your hotel or through AAA, and check the exhibit hall for opportunities for free entertainment.
In Atlanta I ran across a booth where free tickets to a movie were being given away. We were all
transported to the theater by bus and had a great night watching a movie that had not yet been released
to the public.

One last expense that many of us are beginning to have during conferences is childcare. Check with
your organization about childcare options if you have to take your children to the conference. ALA will
reimburse attendees a small amount for childcare expenses, and other regional or state organizations
might do the same, or might even provide on-site childcare at smaller conferences.  

What to wear

All of us want to make a good impression at the conference, but large conferences also require a lot of
walking, and you’ll often find yourself sitting in meeting rooms in hotels with widely varying degrees of
temperatures. Nanette Wargo recommends comfortable shoes, and says, “I cannot stress this enough.
You’ll be doing tons and tons of walking, and if you don’t wear comfortable shoes you’ll be limping by
your second day.” As far as clothing, it’s important to wear layers or to carry a light sweater or jacket.
Sarah Andrews, Library Assistant at the University of Iowa, says, “Conference rooms can be very
crowded and hot or over air-conditioned.” In order to be comfortable it’s important to be able to adjust for
extremes in heat and cold, and being able to remove and add clothing will make the difference between
enjoying a conference program and being miserable throughout one. This is great advice for those who
are going to Orlando this year, where it will likely be very warm outside and extra-cool inside in many of
the meeting rooms.  

What to carry  

It’s essential to have some sort of bag to hold items that you need for meetings and programs as well
as items that you pick up I the exhibit hall. I personally prefer a backpack so that I can carry it on my back
and possibly pick up an extra tote bag or two if there are a lot of great giveaways. For meetings it’s a
good idea to have a pen and some paper. I also like to take some manila folders so that as I attend
programs I can label and separate information that I am given and have everything ready to file when I
get back home. Another item that you should always have is an umbrella, and it’s never a bad idea to
have a bottle of water and a snack, just in case. Last but not least, make sure that you have business
cards. Heather Cannon, Acting Serials and Electronic Collections Librarian at the Loyola University
Health Sciences Library, says, “They get exchanged all over the place and are used for a lot of the raffle
drawings.” Even if you are a student, not currently employed, or aren’t provided by cards at your current
job, make some of your own. You’ll be happy to have them.  

This is a good time to mention that at large national conferences you will definitely have the opportunity
to pick up all sorts of free items. There will be books, posters, pens, marketing materials for items that
you might be interested in purchasing, and many other items. You’ll be able to load up on lots of things,
but carrying these items all day can be a real chore, and getting them packed and back home can also
be difficult. Take advantage of mailing services if available. At ALA’s annual conference there will be a
post office set up in the exhibit hall where you can purchase boxes, pack up the items that you pick up,
and have them mailed back to your home or library. This is a great way to get all this stuff back to your
institution.  

Planning your days

Even at smaller conferences there will often be more sessions available than you can possibly attend,
and at large conferences you have to take into account the time it takes to get from one conference hotel
to another on the conference shuttle. It’s a good idea to choose the sessions that you want to attend and
plan your days ahead of time. Heather Cannon, after attending ALA, now always carries a small planner
with her to conferences. She recommends the planner so that, when you get the official, and sometimes
very large, conference program and choose the sessions that you would like to attend, you can “…copy
the information you need into a separate notebook or planner…it’s much easier to find that information
later than it would be looking through the HUGE official book.” As far as choosing the sessions that you
want to attend, Christina Williams recommends that you “…find out about the session ahead of time so
you don’t waste time in a session that isn’t what you thought it would be,” while Katherine Green, Acting
Automation and Acquisitions Librarian at the University of Kansas School of Law’s Wheat Law Library
says, “Try a session out of your main interests – you might get a different perspective on what you do.”
Teresa Copeland, Information Services Librarian for the Yuma County Library District, agrees, saying,
“Don’t go to sessions about things you already know a lot about, even if they are of great interest to you –
you’ll end up bored.”  

One of the best pieces of advice that I got before attending my first ALA conference was to leave a
session if it wasn’t turning out to be of interest. If you’re not getting something out of it, move on to
something else that might be more interesting, even if the session has already started. Don’t feel bad
about leaving early or coming in late. When sessions are scattered so far around a city it’s inevitable that
you will arrive at something late, or want to leave something early in order to get somewhere else.  

One last tips for first-timers

If you’ve never attended an ALA conference before, I highly recommend the New Members Round Table’
s Conference Orientation, held on the first morning of the conference. At the orientation you’ll get more
tips on navigating the conference, information on local attractions, and can meet others who may also be
attending their first conference. Check out the New Members Round Table’s web site prior to any ALA
conference also, as much of the information presented at the orientation will be available on the site as
well.  

Whether you are attending a small local or regional conference, or attending a large national conference,
make the most of the time! Network, learn, make friends, and get out and explore the area! You’ll be
happy that you did!

About the Author:

Tanzi Merritt is the Senior Reference Librarian at the Kentucky Virtual Library. She wishes to thank all the
librarians that sent it their favorite conference tips and tricks for this article.  

Article published March 2004

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.