Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Why conferences matter

Topher Lawton and Maurice Coleman
Topher Lawton & Maurice Coleman
I attended my first SLA conference in 1992 in San Francisco.  On the cross-country flight, I spotted a woman reading the conference program.  At baggage claim, I struck up a conversation with her (Kate) and that was the start of a long friendship!  In 2001, when I came to Syracuse University to teach on-campus classes, Kate - a librarian and an instructor  - was the person who gave me advice about how to handle a three-hour class.  It was exactly what I needed to learn at that moment!

For years, I would pack in as many conference sessions as possible.  They gave me content that was of value to me, my employer/consulting clients.  For a while, I even wrote a report of the SLA conferences that was published in Searcher magazine!  In hindsight, through, the sessions are a blur and what remains are contacts that I made, especially those that have had a bearing on my life and work.

On Friday, I asked in Twitter for people to share their best memory from a Computers In Libraries Conference.  Most of the memories shared were about meeting specific people.  Yes, we go to sessions and we learn from them, but the people provide access to relevant information after the conference is over (or even before the conference began).

While we can network (meet people) anywhere, why go to a conference to do it?  The conference provides context in terms of topics, industries, job focus, etc.  I know when I go to conference "X" what type of people are going to be there. That context frames my conversations and expectations.  Every session isn't just a topic, it is an opportunity to talk to other people who are interested in that topic!  So now I come home with notes on the topic and business cards (or Twitter names) of people who I can talk to about it.

All of those people that we interact with at a conference are a gateway into larger topic-focused networks.  For example, take Maurice. Several people in Twitter mentioned meeting Maurice Coleman as being their memorable  moment.  And...yes...Maurice is a memorable person...but also of interest about Maurice is that he can connect you to a network of library trainers and other people, who are passionate and vocal about what they do.  It is a group that will share what they know and do so joyfully.  What a great example of networking at its best!

As you head to your next conference, remember that you are entering a community of people that have a similar focus as you. Since you can never know everything about the topics of interest to you, take time to get know others at the conference. Talk about your points of view, problems, opportunities...even wild ideas.  Exchange contact information.  And then...follow-up...and look forward to the next time your paths cross.  (Heck, make sure your paths cross!) 

I tried to work the photo above into the text of this blog post and it didn't "flow".  So...here's the story about the photo.  Imagine being a grad student, writing a literature review, then meeting at the ALA Annual Conference one of the people that you cited.  Because Maurice knows me, he went to the SU booth in the exhibit hall, just to say "hi' to whomever was there.  Toph was smart enough to ask, "Who are you?" and the rest is history. I look forward to them crossing paths again at CIL in a few weeks.  I also look forward to introducing Maurice to 15+ additional LIS students that I know are attending the conference.  They all need to have him in their network.

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