Thing 15 (Part Three): Attending seminars, conferences and other events

This is Part Three of Three. In Part One of this Thing I focused on attending, Part Two was about speaking and Part Three is organising.

I don’t have a lot of experience of organising events. I’ve done some behind the scenes work with planning and co-ordinating seminars, some internal advertising and facilitating (mic-running, handing out delegate bags, that kind of thing). When I worked for SINTO I did a bit of work helping to organise training days for library staff working in different sectors, such as disaster management (in case of flooding and fire), and legal resources for academic and public librarians. I ought to take the opportunity to plug a couple of events that SINTO are running in November and December that tie in with Thing 16‘s advocacy topic; Gaining support and influence: an introduction to advocacy for libraries and Measuring and communicating impact: advanced advocacy.

Some general thoughts I’ve picked up along the way are:

  • There needs to be a clear idea about who the event is geared towards and what they ought to be able to get out of attending;
  • The marketing of the event needs to be put in the places that those people are likely to see it;
  • It needs to be affordable for the people you want to attend;
  • There needs to be lots of prior notice about when the event is and any opportunities there might be for bursaries etc.

They’re all pretty obvious I guess!

On my Conference Wishlist are:

Thing 15 (Part Two): Attending seminars, conferences and other events

In Part One of this Thing I focused on attending. In Part Two I’m focusing on speaking.

I’ve been given the opportunity to speak at a few events (listed at the bottom here) – as you can see, there’s a real combination of public speaking at protests and campaign events like Read-Ins, panel discussions for the Office for National Statistics and Voice of the Listener and Viewer, AGMs, and guest lectures and workshops at universities. I’m by no means an expert and have a lot of learning to do, but I enjoy sharing what I’m doing, and can genuinely say it’s because I care about what I’m doing and think it’s something valuable. Hopefully others can learn from my experiences, use what I say as a starting point and do something themselves to contribute to protecting and promoting the library and information profession.

When I start my PhD I hope to present at conferences and discuss my research, because again, I’ll be researching something I genuinely care about and think has an important role to play in the future of public libraries and the democratic system. I’ve already written a paper proposal for the January 2012 BOBCATSSS conference in Amsterdam (deadline is 1st October so there’s still time for others to submit!) and hope the panel find my proposal interesting and relevant enough to accept it! I’ve also applied to speak at things like the CILIP Career Development Group New Professionals Conference (what a gobful!) and although my application was unsuccessful, I was happy that Voices for the Library were given the opportunity to share our activism experience and skills in a workshop at the event, which I think was ultimately a more effective format for the content. If the knowledge you have to share is interesting and relevant enough, I think there are often opportunities for you to get it out there another way. Which leads me to the metaphor of the door:

When one door closes another opens. Or, when one door opens, another opens!

Ned wrote a great post about presenting opportunities at library events and how to get them, so I won’t repeat what he said, but will echo one of his key points: If you get your name out there by responding to calls for papers, even if you’re not successful, people will be aware that you’re keen to present and have something to talk about. They may then recommend you to someone else or keep you in mind for another time.

Once you’ve spoken at a couple of things and not completely screwed up, word seems to get out that you might be suitable for other events. All of the speaking gigs I’ve done so far have been as a result of someone asking me if I’d do it, rather than the other way round. I guess that’s saved me the effort of applying, but it does mean I have to work out exactly what they want and what their event is about, and how my ‘area’ fits into that. The plus side of that, though, is that it’s helped me build interdisciplinary links that I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise, through people I’ve met at events and chatting to them afterwards about the relevance of the library and information profession to the different sectors we can be found it, and to wider society. It’s amazing what opportunities can crop up from talking to people – loads of people are interested in libraries, it turns out! For example, although I had to turn down the opportunity in the end because I just didn’t have the time to do all the background research for it, I was asked if I’d present a paper about the politics of library stock management for a Politics and International Studies conference on insurgency, development, and world order in the 21st century!

Presentation

I’ve recently adopted a standard kind of format for the presentations I give where slides are required. I try to avoid words where at all possible and just use images on slides as a memory aid for me, something to stick in the audience’s mind and keep them entertained! When I do use words I roughly stick by the advice in this post, though rules are there to be broken etc. I didn’t know there was a way to embed fonts in Powerpoint so I’ll most definitely be using that from now on! Previously I’ve converted Powerpoints into pdf and then uploaded them to Slideshare to try and get round the potential problem, or just stuck to a font I know is fairly universal. Boring fonts no more!

Thing 15 (Part One): Attending seminars, conferences and other events

Attending

I can only second what Katie wrote about the whys of attending events. Deepening your knowledge of a specific area, becoming aware of areas and issues you never knew existed, meeting people who care about the things you’re interested in and know more about the things you want to know more about – it’s all really valuable if you genuinely want to do more in the area that the event is covering. However…I’d strongly recommend against attending something just because you feel like you ought to and not because you care. For a start, you’re not going to get anything out of it, so it’s a waste of your own time and/or money. Second, if an event’s booked up you’re taking the space of someone who might actually get something out of attending. Third, you’re totally going to bum everyone out if you can’t be enthusiastic about your time there. I say this because I’m aware that some people think that attending conferences and events is supposedly really important but they don’t quite get why, so go along anyway. In a slight contradiction of what I’ve just said – that’s ok, as long as you go with a sense of curiosity and an open mind, talk to people, learn stuff – and actually do something with what you’ve learned and the conversations you’ve had. I say this as the attendee of a fair amount of conferences and the recipient of a fair number of bursaries – I try to deserve the opportunities I’m given and really don’t like it when I know someone’s applied for and been granted funding to go to something, and done bugger all with that opportunity that others (me!) would give their right arm for. I’m fully aware that this sounds resentful and mean, but seriously, it ain’t on, you know? Yes, getting a conference bursary means you can put it on your cv and that you can probably write a good begging letter – but that’s not the point of the events or the spirit in which the awards are…awarded.

Money-wise…

It goes without saying that attending conferences can be a costly business. I’m pretty much perpetually skint. But I’ve never let that stop me! As I say, I’m fortunate enough to have been given free places at a fair few events. Actually…I’m not sure I’ve ever paid to go to anything. Jammy. Here are some handy hints I’ve picked up along the way:

  • Look for any bursaries available that are advertised by the conference organisers. For example, BIALL offer bursaries to library school students for the BIALL Annual Conference.
  • If you can’t find a way of getting funding directly from the conference organisers, you might be able to get funding indirectly. Have a look on the CILIP website and see if there are any funding opportunities from special interest groups. For example, the Health Libraries Group offered bursaries for Umbrella 2011. Regional groups might have something on offer, too.
  • If you’ve exhausted these options, it’s not necessarily game over. If there’s no mention of bursary opportunities, you could ask the organiser if they’d consider starting one. I did this for the Edge conference and bagsied myself a free place that way. Nothing’s ever truly free, of course – but the cost of writing a blog post summarising the event, or submitting an article to a professional magazine isn’t expensive – and then the event has benefited you twofold, with something else to put on your cv or mention in job applications.
  • Failing that, beg a sponsor! Write them an email explaining why you want to go, why you’re so interested and what they’ll get out of sponsoring you to go. It’s good publicity for them when you write one of those aforementioned summaries or articles and thank them for their kindness. Or perhaps you could spend some time working on their stall – it gives you a different insight into things, you meet different people and they get the benefit of the occasional loo break and some time to see the events themselves or have a meeting with potential clients etc.
  • Or, ask the organisers if you can help out. I did this for the New Professionals Conference last year with some other MA students, which helped the organisers and gave us the opportunity to attend something valuable that we otherwise might not have been able to.
  • If at first you don’t succeed… there are a couple of international conferences that I’m absolutely desperate to go to, and have applied for a couple of times. I’m not giving in! I know of a few people who’ve been successful on their second or third attempt – and if you’re committed enough to apply year after year, surely that’s a sign that you deserve the place, eh?
  • Find the free events! They do exist and even though they don’t come with a hefty price-tag, they can be just as valuable. Things like Members’ Days and AGMs are worth attending, for more reasons than just the interesting content, too.

Money doesn't grow on trees, etc.

Making the most

Again, what Katie said. Talk to people! I’ve never found it difficult to talk to strangers so I was at an advantage when I started attending conferences, and now it’s rare that there’s absolutely nobody I know at an event that I go to so it’s not an issue…we’re an incestuous bunch, us library and info peeps.

I’d definitely recommend writing about your experiences, either on a personal blog or asking if a professional magazine/journal would like a submission. I have to admit, I do find reading huge long blog posts about events quite dull, but understand they can be a valuable exercise for the person who’s attended, and some people do like to read about things in great detail. My approach tends to be thematic – as Katie recommended, taking in the big picture of the sessions attended and the theme of the overall event, and applying it. You won’t remember every little detail of the event afterwards, but if you’ve thought about and applied the themes, more will stick with you, which is ultimately what it’s about. You need to be able to say “yes, this is why going to this thing was valuable to me”. Similarly with contributing to discussions and asking speakers questions – actively engaging with the event rather than being a passive recipient helps you get a lot more out of it and makes it far more enjoyable for those contributing to and organising it.