Some (Un)solicited Advice from a (Former) New Conference Attendee

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by Marty Witt, Law Library Fellow at the University of Denver

Originally published in the Colorado Association of Law Libraries' Scuttle Newsletter, Volume 20, Issue 3, Summer 2010

Now that I am a veteran with one entire AALL conference under my belt, I guess I am qualified to offer some advice to those who come after me. OK, perhaps not, but nevertheless here are some of my initial thoughts about how a new attendee should approach his or her first conference. If you read on, just remember to take it all with a grain of salt. Without any further ado, here are seven tips I would suggest for new conference attendees.

  1. Attend CONELL (Conference of Newer Law Librarians). There is a separate registration fee involved, but it really is a great way to start off the conference if you’re unsure about what to expect. In the morning this year, there was a series of speakers, the chance to sit in a small group and talk with an outgoing or incoming AALL board member, a speed-networking session, and a marketplace session where attendees can talk to representatives from the different special interest sections, caucuses, or local chapters. In the afternoon, following the provided lunch, there was a tour highlighting surrounding points of interest, which provides a fantastic opportunity to talk informally with your peers in the profession. The tour is also a great way to see some of the beautiful natural or historic attractions in or around the host city. As part of this year’s tour, we went to Red Rocks and Buffalo Bill’s grave, which was great fun for locals and for those visiting Denver.

    Go on a CONELL Dutch Treat dinner the night before CONELL. More informal than the conference itself, or even CONELL, the Dutch Treat dinners are a great way to meet other first-time attendees so that there are some familiar faces in the crowd the following day at CONELL. There are usually a variety of choices – both in terms of cost and cuisine – so you can almost definitely find something that suits you.

  2. Plan your activities – and be prepared to adjust your plans on the fly. General program information and scheduling is available online prior to the conference, so you can gather quite a bit of information in advance concerning what you want to attend. Once at the conference, however, you shouldn’t feel that you are bound to the activities you selected initially. You may be talking to someone the first night and learn about something that isn’t on your schedule, or find out from a speaker’s co-worker that the program isn’t as in-depth as you thought it was. Feel free to deviate from your plans.

  3. Break your exhibit hall time into a series of smaller visits. Visiting multiple times for shorter periods of time, rather than trying to see every vendor and exhibit in one shot, can help in at least a couple of ways. First, as you are moving through the exhibit hall, you’re bound to collect swag along the way. Some of what you pick up will be light and easy to carry, but some things will be considerably more cumbersome to carry around for extended periods of time. Collecting pens from vendors, for example, won’t really weigh you down. Pick up a picnic blanket from one vendor, a world atlas from another, and a legal treatise from a third and suddenly you don’t want to be carrying around everything at once. Also, at least with some of the larger vendors, what is being given away can change from hour-to-hour or day-to-day, so if you go back at different times you may end up with a variety of swag.

    One good way of going about it is to break up the exhibit hall into thirds or quarters and – on each visit – to stop by each of the large vendors and one of the areas. That way you can leave anything heavy or cumbersome in your hotel room or wherever you are staying between return trips to the exhibit hall. Second, swinging by at multiple times can really increase your odds of speaking to someone directly as opposed to just collecting literature. This is less of an issue with vendors, because they are staffed more or less continuously, but the attending library organizations are often staffed by volunteers who are also there to take part in the conference and attend programs, so they may not always have someone sitting at the table. If you stop by the table at different times on different days, you can make it much more likely that you have the opportunity to speak to someone.

  4. If you’re interested, attend. This one may seem obvious, but from my own experience I can say that new attendees may have some trepidation about going to something that is titled as – for example – a committee meeting, when he or she may not even be entirely clear on what the committee does. Based on my limited experience, though, the committee meetings were all open to the public and those on the committee were open to suggestions and ideas from those who were just sitting in. Attending committee meetings in an area of interest is also an excellent way to begin to get involved as a volunteer.

  5. Don’t feel that you have to attend something every single session. With programs, meetings, and social activities for 12+ hours daily, it is easy for new attendees to feel overwhelmed. Attend the lectures and talks that seem most interesting to you, but also take some time to just wander around the exhibit hall or get out of the convention area and enjoy a meal with some of the new colleagues you’ve met. Talking informally with people you’ve just met – whether over lunch, on a walk through the host city, catching a ballgame, or relaxing over a drink or two in the evening – is a great way to get to know someone better than you would be able to just sitting with them at a program. It also allows you to make more of a lasting impression on them. Especially with the newly-developed AALL2go, you can often have access to program recordings and/or handouts even if you missed attending the presentation in person. If you don’t feel like exploring the host city and prefer to stay close to the conference, check to see whether anyone has set up a hospitality suite. In Denver, the Fastcase hospitality suite was a great place to spend time between programs, with friendly people, the World Cup being shown on TV, and card and Scrabble games going on as well. I also enjoyed starting my morning with breakfast in the Fastcase suite because I got to hear what different people were planning for that day and it gave me some insight into programming options that I might have otherwise overlooked. Plus the view was awesome.

  6. Bring business cards. As technology marches on, many contest entries require scanning on badges now instead of putting cards into fishbowls, but there are still a few fishbowls to be found in the exhibit hall. More importantly, however, exchanging business cards can help make a connection with someone you’ve just met and make it far easier to follow-up with those you’ve met once the conference ends. Another tip I picked up – alas not until near the end of the conference – was that your name badge can double as a handy business card holder, so there is really no reason not to have one available.

  7. If you’re job-hunting, visit the placement office. At the AALL conference, the AALL Career Center sets up a physical placement office on-site. There, attendees can browse postings from AALLnet, print resumes, and leave them in designated folders for each hiring organization. If you indicate that you are a conference attendee and leave contact information, you may get a call and the opportunity to interview for a position later that day or later during the conference. Also, there are some additional job opportunities posted on a bulletin board in the placement office that are not available online.
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