What I Do When I Do Conferences

I started off writing about the latest couple of conferences I’ve been to and then realised what I could really do with writing about is why I do what I do when it comes to conferences. They’re the thing I think I write about the most on here, and although I try to write about not just what I saw but what I took from the overall experience, I don’t think I’ve written about why I go to them, which might be useful to people who are starting out or thinking about things they can do for professional development. (I’m now experiencing déjà vu so maybe I have written something similar before…consider this a refresher.) This post is also a contribution to a Blog Challenge I’m taking part in as part of a facebook study group I’m in, I’m writing with not just libraryandinformationscience-folk in mind.

What conferences?

Library-land is not short of conferences, and there’s a lot of variety in terms of content and topic. Over the last six years (since starting a graduate traineeship) I’ve been to quite a few local and national ones, and handful of international ones, with focuses on different things, but mostly librarianship, public libraries, academic libraries and information literacy. I’m now in the third and final year (argh) of my doctorate, and at the moment am analysing my data and writing research findings. My choice of conferences has been dictated by their relevance to my research and how useful I think I can be by presenting at them.

I’m presenting at quite a few conferences this season. I’ve already done iFutures 2014 in Sheffield, then IFLA Limerick, then next week I’ve got ISIC: The Information Behaviour Conference in Leeds where I’m taking part in a doctoral workshop, and then in October I’m presenting at the European Conference on Information Literacy (ECIL) 2014 in Dubrovnik. For each of these I’m presenting something slightly different for different audiences and focuses, which necessitates reworking and sometimes starting from scratch with what I’m doing. So…the amount of analysis I hoped I’d get done this summer isn’t really happening, but I’m hoping that by ‘promoting’ my work and getting to know people I’m contributing to my development in other (equally?) valuable ways. Although I make the most of online networks (okay, twitter), there’s a lot to be said for meeting people in person. And I think maybe even some people aren’t on twitter?!

Whyfor all the conferences?

Kind of by accident. I probably wouldn’t recommend this many events in short succession to someone in my position! Over the spring, I thought it would be a good idea to send out some conference paper proposals so that I could present my initial findings and discuss how I think the methodology and various methods I’ve used could be really useful in my field and beyond. It turns out my topic is more relevant and interesting to conferences than I was expecting (this year’s sexy words in LIS are social justice, citizenship and democracy – jackpot), so I’ve been accepted for more than I anticipated. The calls for papers all went out at a similar time and had similar turnover times so I found out about them all at once (otherwise I’d not have put myself forward for so many!) I also didn’t realise how much time each of the events, even local ones, would eat my writing and analysis time. I’m considering this a learning curve, and I hope others may benefit too! Pick a couple you really want and go for them, maybe. Or pick a couple more and then say no to the ones you think are the least valuable to you?

All the money

I’m very fortunate that my ESRC funding also provides me with an amount of money per year that allows me to attend conferences and receive training of relevance to my PhD, which is what I draw on for a lot of the events I attend. However, before I started the doctorate, I used to get into conferences through:

  • Offering my services (administrative stuff, mic-running, helping on the registration desk, publicity, live-tweeting, writing a conference report) in exchange for a free place. Nobody has ever been rude to me for asking, and I can’t remember a time when I’ve actually been turned down.
  • Applying for bursaries and other funding. I still do apply for funding, because my ESRC money doesn’t stretch that far. This year I won a grant from cilip to attend the IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Lyon. There are grants out there for LIS conferences, and where it isn’t immediately obvious it’s also worth contacting the organisers to ask if there is anywhere to apply for funding or a free place, and where there isn’t, to ask them if they’d set something up.
  • I’ve also got into conferences by asking sponsors if they have a place going spare, because sometimes only one of their representatives can go but they might have two places as part of their sponsorship arrangements.

Some conferences (few and far between mind) are free. The Library CampRadical Librarians Collective and Mashlib events, for example, run on the principle of free attendance, and the ‘unconference’ format of them is a breath of fresh air. The format exists beyond LIS, too – the Scottish Comics Unconference in Glasgow in February 2015, for example!

Organising conferences

It can be good for your CV to get involved in organising conferences and events, and the unconference is one way of doing that, either by getting some people together and setting it up yourself, or getting involved with an existing group or event. (I’d be happy to give pointers if anyone from any field is interested.)

It’s not just for your CV, obviously – one of the most valuable aspects is being able to bring together people who are interested in the same things, often across different areas. I heard about the Youth Activism and Resistance Conference in Leicester through a friend on facebook who was looking for people to present and take part in a panel discussion. Meeting people from areas like political science and gender studies was really valuable and it meant as well as getting loads of ideas I might not otherwise have come across, I could share my perspectives and research with people who wouldn’t have imagined librarians are relevant to their kind of work. That conference is also a good example of organising conferences – the organisers (who are PhD students) were pleased and surprised that their funding body (the ESRC) was willing to give them money to cover costs for food and venue hire (out of term-time university lecture theatres are much cheaper) and offer travel bursaries to attendees. It’s always worth a punt! The ESRC are hot on making their researchers employable just now, and the skills you can develop and demonstrate through organising events are one of the areas they want to support.

How to do conferences

My top tips for how to do conferences when you get there:

1. If I learnt anything from being away at conferences for ten days straight it’s this: take time off. Don’t feel guilty, wherever or whoever has paid for you to go, to not be at the conference all the time. It’s better to duck out of a morning or afternoon to wind down a bit, than to go to a session you’re not interested in and can’t concentrate on anyway. I have a really hard time with being constantly ‘on’ when I’m away, even when I’m not in the conference venue itself. Removing myself from the outside world to slop around a hotel room in my PJs is pretty much the only way I can not feel like I’m at risk of doing or saying something awful or ridiculous, for at least a few hours.

2. Get chatting to people. Don’t be intimidated by who they potentially might be. Ignore the thing I just said about being worried about embarrassing myself – I also think it’s really valuable to just be yourself. I found myself chatting to someone super-duper important and hadn’t got a clue who they were until I googled them later. If I’d have known, I wouldn’t have had half as valuable a conversation with them. Also I figure if they’re offended by my lack of hero worship they’re probably not worth it (happily this person was utterly lovely).

3. Find a conference buddy (or two). Last year I went to CoLIS 8 and hit it off with a couple of PhD students. One (from North America) has since been to stay at my house in Glasgow when they came to the UK to teach in London and we’re co-writing a paper together, and I’m planning a possible conference with another one and our topics are sufficiently relevant to each other that he’s a very valuable sounding board for theoretical stuff. Last week at IFLA I met up with that conference buddy and another friend, and then met their friends, and my international conference buddy network is building! For me it makes finding places, eating out and complaining about awful sessions much more do-able when you’re not alone.

4. Tweet. I like to tweet from conferences as well as make paper notes because I know I have followers who do appreciate it (honest, they tell me so). I use the official conference hashtag where possible (unless it’s too long and therefore I object…) so that people who follow me who really don’t care and don’t want flooding, can mute it. I also let people know when normal service will resume so they can mute me in general and then unmute me when the torrent is over! Following the hashtag also means I can find people on twitter who are at the conference, or interested in things that I am (and, in some cases, have a bit of a vent with people through a back-channel). When I tweet, I try (but I’m sure I don’t always manage) to obviously adequately represent what’s being said to minimise misunderstandings for people who aren’t there so don’t have the context, and only tweet things that actually mean something. By that I don’t just mean make the sentence make sense, but also only tweet things that aren’t blindingly obvious, buzzwords or contentless truisms. I’ve started taking photos of slides to add interest for people following at home, and to minimise misunderstandings (although people still do willingly misinterpret visualisations of concepts even when the full paper is made available, so…)

5. Take notes and place bookmarks. I’ve only just got back from IFLA but things are already fading into the background. I made sure to write down key points that were being raised, favourite tweets with links to things I want to think about or read more about later, make nots about authors I need to read more of and so on. It’s probably a bit of a no-brainer last recommendation, but I think it’s worth saying: you might think you’ll remember that important thing but you probably won’t, if you’re anything like me.


What to pack?

International conference? Don’t forget your adapter! Oh and currency! Planning on reading a lot of books? Yeah not likely. Take your laptop or tablet and load it up with journal articles or ebooks. And even then you’ll not read them. Don’t take a notepad and pens unless you’re working your way through a series of notepads; there will always, always be free stationery. Take something to do in your hotel room (for me that’s a series of a popular medical drama and a pile of knitting). Always pack a spare pair of pants. Always. Beyond that? Toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, hairbrush, shampoo, conditioner (probably don’t bother with shower gel, there’ll be some in the hotel room), enough outfits to wear if it’s a dry and medium-warm day, then an extra outfit in case of spillage, and something to wear if it’s ridiculously hot, and something to wear ontop of your normal outfit if it’s chilly. PJs. Ear plugs and an eye-cover thing if you sleep lightly, something to keep you warm, something to keep you dry. Smart shoes and comfy more casual shoes. Don’t forget your phone charger.

What to wear?!

I pretty much always wear what could loosely be classed as ‘smart-casual’, that horribly vague of terms. For me that’s pretty much whatever I’d wear to the office, minus what I’d stick ontop of it to make it ‘smart’ (i.e. obvious makeup, fancy scarf/shawl, some semblance of an updo). I currently feel like I inhabit a liminal space between graduate and adult – at 27 I feel like I’m wearing my mum’s work clothes if I try to wear a shift dress and jacket, but I’m not petite or young enough to pull off what might look quite smart/’edgy’. on someone else. My current conference wardrobe includes a trio of Get Cutie dresses, which work well for post-conference dinners because I can put on a shinier pair of shoes and a belt and whatnot and that’s me away. I wore an elephant-print a-line dress to a conference dinner and ceilidh and felt The Bomb and people didn’t notice I was wearing elephants and tweetybirds until they’d spent long enough talking to me to work out I was Quite A Serious Person. I’ve never got changed inbetween conference and conference dinner apart from one time when I was staying in the hotel where the conference was and where the dinner was being held, because I don’t often factor in time for going back and getting changed. Some people do, for example if they’ve been wearing a smart suit-dress during the day and then wear a fancy evening dress at dinner time, but I’ve never noticed it as being the majority of people and it’s definitely not something PhD students tend to do. The extent of my dressing up for dinner is a change of shoes and an extra coat of eyeliner and eyeshadow. It’s about how you feel most comfortable.

I have this dress. What I said about not dressing like a child? Erm, yeah.

For the more mature and less overwhelmingly twee dress-wearer, I’d recommend something along the lines of a nice knee-length Boden number or a smartish pair of trousers and a nice top or sweater. I often try on things in the shops to see if they suit me and I feel comfortable in them and then go find it on ebay or in charity shops (recent finds include some very nice Hobbs, Saltwater and People Tree things for much-reduced prices). Even though IFLA actually had a dress-code that was casual, there was a wide variety of levels of smart from jeans and t-shirts through to suits. I guess it depends on what you’re doing. When I present I like to wear something I know isn’t going to cause me a wardrobe malfunction and makes me feel nice. (For those in my department, you know how we turn up to iLab? Like that.)

Oh and layers. Layers are crucial. When I’m a bit nervous I get rosy-cheeked and too warm, so long-sleeved dresses and tops are a no-go. Short sleeved with a cardi on top, and then a scarf to wrap around myself when I accidentally get sat under an air-conditioning vent, are key. And a hat, or an umbrella, for the inevitable downpour between the conference and the dinner.

The Conference Dinner

It will probably involve three courses and enough wine to make you possibly feel slightly silly the next day, but then you’ll meet or email someone who was there a few weeks later and they’ll probably not remember anything you thought might be devastatingly embarrassing (or, they’ll forever be too polite to say anything to mortify you). It turns out academics and library-folk are most often very nice, and conference dinners often involve sitting on a table of mixed backgrounds and levels of experience, some who you know and some who you don’t. People just kind of sit themselves down anywhere (although there may be an unofficial ‘most important and serious people’ table which is quite noticeable if it does exist). Although potentially quite formal in terms of cutlery (outside to inside, outside to inside), conversation is quite relaxed. It’s a good chance to find out what interests people share, who knows who and how they do x, y and z, but this just kind of happens, rather than being a formal and serious thing.


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