Presenting at Conferences While in Library School

by Brianna Marshall

There have been some terrific posts about conferences on Hack Library School in the past: Chris recently wrote about unconferences and Joanna wrote a post earlier this year encouraging students to attend conferences as a library student. Today I want to take these posts a step further and encourage other future librarians and information professionals to not only attend but also present at conferences while in library school. I concluded my spring semester with a panel presentation at a state conference (Society of Indiana Archivists) and a poster presentation at a national conference (LOEX), where I had such great experiences that I want to encourage other library school students to take the plunge and do the same.

To reiterate some of the reasons Joanna mentioned in her post, attending conferences is a valuable part of your library school years because of the networking opportunities, educational takeaways, and considerably lower student registration costs. When you present at a conference you get all of the same benefits of attending while also gaining valuable experience for your resume/CV. After presenting at a conference, you will have documented evidence of contributing to the profession (a great way to prepare for those job postings that say “demonstrated commitment to professional development” preferred/required!). It also shows that you are comfortable with public speaking, which I guarantee will make you stand out on the job hunt.

There are multiple types of presentations at conferences (poster, panel, and paper) and conference sizes (local, regional, state, and national). They each have their own culture and provide different opportunities for student presenters. Poster presentations are usually the format students are encouraged to take up at larger conferences (a pretty low-pressure introduction to conference participation), whereas smaller conferences will likely accept paper sessions from students and working professionals.

So, why don’t all library school students present at conferences? I’ve determined a few main barriers to conference participation and thought I’d offer up my tips on overcoming them.

Presentation topic

Sometimes it feels as though coming up with a compelling topic for a presentation is an insurmountable goal… but you can do it! If you’re able to choose topics that are already part of your workload, presenting isn’t that much more work than what you’re doing anyway. You can double-up by presenting on topics you’ve researched as part of a class, or if relevant and okayed by your boss, at work. Drawing on an internship experience is another classic presentation topic. Take advantage of your fellow library students and propose a poster or panel session with them–it will be less pressure just on you (but like any group work just make sure you pick reliable peers to collaborate with).

Money

Ah, funding. Most library students are not rolling in the dough, so money is a serious consideration when it comes to attending/presenting at a conference. While student registration is considerably cheaper than normal registration, it can still be expensive. Sometimes there’s no way around this and it becomes a difficult choice to make, but I think with a little strategy you can find ways to lower your overall costs.

  • Start small: Regional and state conferences often have very affordable registration fees (in the $25-50 range) and occasionally these will be waived for presenters. These conferences may be within driving distance, so if you have a vehicle you can go there for the day without needing to get a hotel room.
  • Free money: Apply for any and all scholarships you can. This seems obvious but sometimes funding opportunities are not advertised as well as they could be, especially in the case of small conferences–which is ironically where you have the best odds of being granted the money. Don’t be afraid to contact the conference committee asking if there are any scholarships available to help students attend and present at the conference in question.
  • Band together: Actively seek out others in your program who want to carpool and/or split a hotel room. Not only is it incredibly nice to have a support system when you’re experiencing impostor syndrome, this can really break the cost down into a manageable figure.

Lack of planning

Often, calls for proposals are advertised anywhere between 3-12 months in advance of the conference with deadlines well before the conference itself. This requires prospective presenters to not only know about the conference in question but also come up with an idea for their presentation.

Because the timelines vary from conference to conference, there is no other way to prepare than: go forth and do your research, future librarians! I recommend utilizing an electronic list service and maintaining a list specifically for upcoming conferences that you are interested in presenting at. For instance, I currently have most of the 2013 large and mid-size conferences I’m scoping out on my own list. Because I am often adding new conferences and deleting ones I’ve reconsidered, the list stays fresh in my mind. I’ll know to start looking for calls for proposals for the 2013 group starting this fall. All it really takes to stay on top of conferences is diligence and some Google search skills!

Scheduling

If you can afford the registration, saw the call for proposals, and had a presentation topic accepted, first of all, congrats! There’s still managing your schedule to contend with, though. We’re all juggling classes, jobs, and internships, so sometimes the thought of adding a conference to the mix can be (if you’re at all like me) almost hyperventilation-inducing. However, the nice thing about conferences is that you will find out whether your proposal has been accepted months in advance, so you should be able to make any necessary arrangements by then. It can be tricky, but I firmly believe conferences are worth prioritizing and squeezing into an already tight schedule.

An additional note: merely proposing a presentation topic and having it accepted doesn’t mean you are instantly committed to presenting. If something has come up between the time you submitted your proposal and the time you find out it has been accepted, you are perfectly free to decline. A conference committee member will likely ask you for a confirmation and if you say yes it’s only then that you are committed to presenting–so it’s always worth it to at least propose a topic!

Nerves

I saved this barrier for last because I think it’s the most serious adversary library school students have in presenting at conferences. Let’s just get it out there: public speaking is uncomfortable. Wondering if your proposed topic–even if it has already been accepted for the conference!–will be relevant and interesting to your audience: also uncomfortable. Putting yourself out there in a community of librarians you very much admire and want to be respected by: you guessed it, SUPER uncomfortable.

Maybe there’s a percentage of library school students that are not uncomfortable to some degree with these aspects, but I’m not one of them. My solution is just to do it anyway, and so can you! You definitely don’t have to feel every second like you’re a superstar. In fact, a lot of the time you will probably by plagued by self-doubt (I am!) and that’s okay. You can do this. Read this article. Prepare well, enjoy yourself, and be proud that you’re challenging yourself. Keep in mind that the librarians I’ve met at conferences seem to truly enjoy hearing what library students have to say, so believe in yourself because you likely have many valuable contributions to make to the field!

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