A First-Timer’s Guide to Conferences by an SLA-er

By Ashley Candreva, Library Graduate Assistant

Attending the Special Libraries Association’s 2016 national conference in Philadelphia is a very interesting process for an attendee still working on his or her MLIS. More often than not, one doesn’t know anyone else in attendance and comes to the conference alone. I was excited to attend my first conference, nervous about networking events, interested in the sessions I was planning on attending, and a little uncertain about how the whole process worked.

As an undergraduate I studied archaeology, classics, and maybe most importantly anthropology, where we learned about the liminal period and the term liminality. The liminal period is the in-between, where a person or group of people moves from one distinct position, rank, class, or status to another. Halfway through completing my master’s degree and a graduate assistant/paraprofessional working as both an archivist and reference librarian in the St. John’s University libraries, I truly am in a two year liminal period. Attending SLA during this period of liminality means feeling like I belong as a special librarian but with a sense of being an underqualified student without the connections to other SLA members others may have.

Beginning with the keynote opener Erika Andersson, many of my concerns about attending SLA as the lone SJU representative were alleviated. She talked about perspective and being a fair witness, by which she means viewing yourself fairly, whether it be in positive, negative, or neutral light. I felt this set the tone for how I approached the conference. Her talk forced me to stop overthinking my singularity and acknowledge that there were plenty of other attendees at the conference that were likely alone as well. She challenged us to have endless curiosity and be engaged at work by seeking out subject areas we were interested in.

I took that advice by indulging my interests in museum libraries, archives, cultural history, and preservation, and tailoring my SLA itinerary to include sessions related to these topics. Some of these sessions included “Digital copyright: what you need to know as information professionals” presented by Jill Hurst-Wahl, Christopher Kenneally, Emily Lanza, & Hannah Rubin, “What good is a museum library in the 21st century?” presented by Dorothy Barr and Marleene Boyd, “Adventures in archives” presented by HCI-PSAR, (Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories), “Thinking digitally: tips and advice from archives specialists” by NARA representatives Ted Hull, Denise Henderson, Meg Phillips, and “The link found elsewhere: archival information in forensic engineering and historical preservation” presented by James Spivey.

These sessions were engaging and relevant to my future as a special librarian or archivist, especially the session led by HCI-PSAR titled “Adventures in archives.” As I listened to their presentation I was extremely interested in their process of surveying and organizing these small repositories because it was similar to a project I worked on with a fellow St. John’s student during the Spring 2016 semester. My colleague and I were volunteer archivists for local historical society on Long Island called the Bellmore Historical Association (BHA), where we helped two reference librarians at the Bellmore Memorial Library establish their archive for the BHA. I provided the librarians with some reference materials about small archives and archives best practices, including a website with a webpage titled “Resources for Small Archives” from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. As I sat listening to Mr. McCarthy and the other representatives from HCI-PSAR, I realized that this resource was a direct result of this project. During the questions and answers portion I made this known to the presenters, who were thrilled, and asked them about their experiences working with archives best practices and non-archivists in these small repositories. After the presentation I had an opportunity to speak further with Mr. McCarthy and the other presenters about my experiences using their resource and discussing the challenges that archivists can face in a special library setting.

This connection I discovered between myself and the HCI-PSAR team is a prime example of what the experience of attending a national conference can be. It enables you to meet others in the field who have had similar jobs and faced similar challenges to yours, and can lead to meeting other professionals whose work you know of or have used in your own professional life as a special librarian. It was a great networking opportunity but also a satisfying moment where instead of feeling out of place in my liminality I felt as if I truly belonged at SLA and was a special librarian.

The most rewarding parts of SLA apart from what I learned in the sessions were the networking opportunities, such as the First-Timers meet & greet or the East Coast Chapters’ reception. These are events designed specifically for people to connect and allow an opportunity to meet others, which was particularly valuable for a first time attendee who was the only representative from her organization. Events like these are designed to help foster real life connections and make the SLA national conference not only about special libraries and the issues facing libraries and librarians, but also about the librarians themselves. As I begin my career I’m slowly realizing just how much time and effort is devoted to professional development, which includes not only continuing education but also cultivating relationships with other professionals in the field. Conferences and conventions such as the SLA national conference are invaluable in helping young librarians, archivists, digital asset managers and other information professionals establish themselves and begin their careers feeling supported and included. Having attended SLA 2016, I feel like my liminal period is coming to an end and my career as a LIS professional is truly beginning.

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