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How to Attend a Conference

by on June 2, 2019

This May I attended the 2019 Annual Florida Library Association (FLA) Conference as a participant, volunteer, and presenter.  I wanted to talk about how valuable attending professional conferences can be and how to maximize your time at a conference, but then I could not stop thinking about barriers to professional conferences that many librarians face.  I belong to a large library system that can afford to have a reference librarian be out of the building for a week.  This system is able to have an institutional membership to FLA, which allots them a certain number of free passes to the event.  I had meal per diems based on federal guidelines.  I was even able to have my library system pay for my hotel and mileage if I agreed to carpool and share a room.  The whole conference cost $812.32, not including the membership fees that did come out of my own pocket.  So yes, attending professional conferences is an excellent way to meet your peers, learn new techniques, and network, and these are all wonderful reasons to attend.  The question is not really should you attend (of course you should!) but how?

My first piece of advice is to start as a student.  Once you have committed to a particular field and are attending school for your masters, join a professional organization.  Many professional organizations have national leadership, such as the American Library Association (ALA), as well as state level representation; I live in Florida, so the FLA.  Florida has a sliding scale range based on salary, which makes it more affordable, but even the lowest cost of $44.00 is still more expensive than the student rate of $25.00.  ALA also offers better rates for students than professionals.  A first year member pays $72.00, but a student pays $38.00.  Not all state associations are less expensive than the national one.  When I lived in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Library Association (PaLA) also offered a sliding scale range based on salary as well as a student rate, and the lowest possible plan is $30.00; however most library salaries would place the fee at closer to $90.00 and a student plan, for full-time students only, at $30.00.  Part-time students would not be eligible for the $30.00 rate and would have to pay based on their salary.  Full-time students will have to weigh whether having access to local opportunities outweighs the benefits of a national membership at the cost of $8.00 more dollars.  Outside of lower fee rates, being a student gives access to additional grants, typically offered through academic institutions, as well as providing time to be able to attend.  Joining a professional organization provides access to grants, mentorship, and training opportunities.  Join early!

My second piece of advice is to take advantage of any financial opportunity.  In 2002, I applied for a The Kozloff Research Award at Bloomsburg University to fund travel to do original research in Baltimore and then present my findings.  I was awarded $500.00.  In 2016, I applied for a grant through the Pennsylvania State Library to attend the ALA national convention in Orlando, FL.  I received 1,200.00 dollars.  Neither grant covered all of my expenses, but it certainly made it possible for me to attend.  Do not let a fear of paperwork or being rejected stop you from applying.  Institutions are looking to give this money away.  One grant opportunity that I applied for did not have enough applicants, so we all received an additional $1,000.00 for our projects as well as 3D printers.  Many institutions, government entities, and professional associations offer grants specifically for travel.  ALA offers many grants through its divisions; this list is in no way exhaustive, but YALSA, PLA, and AASL all offer travel grants.  College Scholarships offer a grant specifically for travel to do studies or attend conferences.  Less common, but definitely worth investigating, is seeing if the conference will provide registration to the event, particularly if it is the day of your presentation, meals, or room space.  Many conventions also offer benefits to volunteers.  Look into these options as a way to fund your way as well as incentivize your employer.  Never be afraid to take advantage of these opportunities.

The ability to take time off work to attend a professional conference is harder to give advice on.  Some employers will not support attending a conference, but many organizations provide a list of reasons to attend, such as the ALA Making Your Case.  Making the case to attend a full conference may be difficult, but it is also possible to attend a conference for just one day, especially if the conference is not far away.  Another option is to attend a local one-day conference, even if it is not library specific.  I have attended local one-day events that focused on ACE Scores, a Cost of Poverty workshop, and a Nonprofit Leadership Series.  All of these events provided valuable skills, opportunities to network, and new ways to look at problems. 

My final piece of advice for librarians looking to overcome barriers is to reach out and ask.  Ask a more experienced coworker.  Ask one of your professors, even if you have graduated.  Reach out to the organization whose conference you want to attend and find out how they can help you.  Many associations offer a mentoring program, join it and ask your mentor.  Reach out to your state library or a district consultant and see what advice they can give.  There may be opportunities that they are aware of not mentioned here.