A conference guide for the socially awkward librarian

Who would want to be Spiderman?

The lycra-clad fool is always chucking himself around the city without consulting Google maps, his mask makes it difficult to speak intelligibly, he wears red and blue which is combination that suits nobody and (we’re all thinking it) he probably has a nasty case of thrush.

No, it’s much better to be Peter Parker. He’s quiet and unassuming and that’s no bad thing. He is also intelligent and well spoken, has a fancy newspaper job and an enduring love of science.

A month ago, the thought of attending my first library conference absolutely terrified me. I had been keen to attend a professional conference for a long time to expand my horizons, meet people from all over the world and hear passionate experts speak about exciting library things. But once I won the bursary I had so coveted, I couldn’t help but focus on the negative; two days spent with complete strangers, travelling alone across London and then dreaded networking – what was I thinking?

Shy Daisy by Tim & Selena Middleton is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Shy Daisy by Tim & Selena Middleton is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There is definitely a cliché that library people are a quiet and unassuming lot but just looking around my class at university, I can see a wide mix of people across the introvert and extrovert scale. I am writing this for those of us on the introvert end of things, whose native language is a mix of squeaks and whispers, who quakes at the thought of asking a question in a room full of strangers, who is sick of feeling like they need to change and become a super confident Spiderman – when all we really need is to accept and embrace our inner Peter Parker and have a great time!

Before:

Conferences are expensive – the tickets, travel and accommodation all add up to make them unfeasible for the average student or new professional. Luckily, most conferences offer bursaries themselves or a national/regional group might have a similar opportunity. Much like those times when you reach for the unlabelled tin can at the back of the cupboard and get peaches rather than corned beef, I saw a bursary offered by CILIP North West for the Internet Librarian International conference, threw caution to the wind and applied.

this ol' can by Waferboard is licensed under CC BY 2.0

this ol’ can by Waferboard is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It also helps to follow lots of library people and associations on Twitter and sign up to newsletters. Try following your local branch of CILIP and reading the newsletters from your special interest groups – I’ve seen quite a few opportunities this way.

It can be difficult to write those dreaded application statements but I would recommend looking through the conference website and programme, perhaps reading up on the speakers you like the sound of and then thinking how their expertise or ideas would help you with your course or career. Be sure to mention what you have been up to at work, what areas of libraries you are interested in and whether or not you have received any funding or awards before.

If you feel like you have done nothing or been nowhere then, unless you are made of stone and stuck on a plinth somewhere, focus on something you have read/heard/seen recently that made you excited or annoyed and how this relates to the conference theme or speakers. Come on, librarians love a good moan.

During:

I’m not going to tell you to be brave, talk to everyone and be the life and soul of the party because, let’s face it, that sounds utterly awful.* This is about getting the most out of your first conference – remember there will be plenty more in your future and these will be when you can dazzle everyone with your witty metadata anecdotes – but for now feel free to lurk in corners like a library boggart and follow these tips for maximising your experience without that crippling social anxiety.

  • Twitter is your friend. If you’re not on it, sign up right this second. I mean it – open another tab, log in and don’t continue reading until you’ve joined the club…
  • …Ah welcome back new/old Twitter user. There is almost a second conference happening online, parallel to the real thing. I found that it was a brilliant way to network without having to speak to real human beings and allowed me to really engage with all the presentations. I also met a few people online that I then felt able to approach, and it is really easy to break the ice when you have already tweeted something risqué about your over-enjoyment of a presenter’s bow tie. Leave the media grandstanding to Spiderman and be yourself.
  • In almost every presentation that I attended, I had a burning question that I never asked. Everyone else’s just seemed so much more thought out and I didn’t want to be shown up as a silly new professional. This is ok; you don’t have to ask questions like a Paxman maniac! You can approach the speaker afterwards, at another time during the conference – or just drop them an email or tweet. This is still networking and you can do it in your hotel room wearing your super cool Harry Potter pyjamas (thanks mum).
  • During lunch times and breaks I found it hard to constantly stand on my own and felt like I really should be ‘making the most’ of my experience and speak to all the lovely strangers. However, this is obviously mortally terrifying and whilst I did say hi to a few people that I had spoken to on Twitter or who were behind me in the cheesecake queue, I think that the pressure to Network turned me into a dribbling wreck. If this sounds familiar, I would advise sitting in the empty auditoriums. You can charge your phone/computer/brain, check your email and share an empathetic glace with quite a few fellow shy librarians. **
  • Prepare to be excited! The little synopses in the programme never do justice to the actual presentation. Sometimes I had no idea what any of the words meant (I don’t think we had got to that module in class) and felt I couldn’t keep up – but I still got an insight into the varied roles librarians have and the different possibilities for my future. I would advise writing down as much as possible, as I have been constantly checking my notes for that amazing new app or innovative project. Think Peter Parker, inquisitive and observational rather than Spiderman, who probably doesn’t even have a pocket to put his notebook in.

After:

Congratulations you survived!

<Obligatory one-minute dance party>

I was so exhausted after the conference but I had a few hours to kill around London and if you have the chance, I would really recommend booking a later train so you can unwind and explore the area. The conference I attended was spent entirely in windowless rooms and so I really appreciated wandering aimlessly outside and taking some touristy photos.

I would recommend some sort of cathartic activity after your experience. I wrote an article for my local CILIP newsletter – you could write a blog post, spend a few minutes chatting to your colleagues/classmates or just run a bubble bath and kick back with your notes (might have to laminate them though…)

Upon reflection, those two days were emotionally intense and I felt completely wiped out from constantly thinking, writing, tweeting and squealing with excitement at new ideas and free flapjacks. But I came away with content for at least two blog posts, an idea for my coursework and loads of exciting new people to follow on Twitter.

I’m not one to get obsessed with things – the boy band infatuation totally passed me by and I could give or take most crazes be they Twilight, crochet or tennis – but I am gripped with conference fever and can’t wait for the next opportunity. So if you haven’t had chance to apply for funding, feel like you would be overwhelmed or pressurised to network like a mad Michael Flatley then I would really urge you to go for it anyway.

You don’t have to Face Your Fear or develop some sort of superhero mask of confidence bullshit. Next time I have set myself the goal of asking one question and joining one group for lunch; small steps but we have an entire career ahead of us and, unlike Peter Parker or Spiderman, there is no enraged Green Goblin or crazy mutant acting as our mortal enemy (at least I hope so).

*Unless you actually like that kind of thing you crazy kook

** You can also play my totally serious and professional conference bingo game. Points if you see or hear any of the following…

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