Stephen Abram posted his a recent Information Outlook column titled Getting the Most out of Your Conference Experience and it made me reflect a bit on the value of conferences and the advice that I often also give first-time conference attendees. Great article BTW with lots of great tips.
It took me two major conferences before I figured out the secret to making at a conference like ALA truly valuable. The real value in attending isn’t found anywhere within the program guide itself; the real value is found by closing the guide, looking around and saying hello to the person sitting next to you.
Last fall when I took two former colleagues to their first Internet Librarian conference (and also first library conference of any kind) I jokingly told them I would only expect one thing from them when they returned … “a pile of at least a dozen business cards or list of names” of colleagues in other libraries that they talked to. In a big way I was serious. I wanted them to know that I expected them to use their first conference experience for more than gathering information ... I expected them to also make connections.
The truth is most of the program stuff that you find at conferences, you can actually read about in trade journals or online. Sure it’s valuable to get it all in one place and hear from the source in person. But if that’s all you do when you go to a conference is sit silently and listen to programs -- Seriously, that's what nearly 90% of newby attendees do. I've watched them. -- then you’re missing out on the most important reason for attending - people. Making connections, comparing stories, and learning about different library approaches to solving familiar problems is definitely the biggest return on your travel value and attendance. It’s these type of conference take-a-ways that will serve you and your library best whenever you need a different library’s perspective on a policy change, a new program idea or just an outside colleague to bounce idea off of. And it’s also these type of take-a-ways that make the next conference even more valuable then before, because now you have the opportunity to reconnect with an old acquaintance.
If you’re not getting much out of the conferences that you attend (or sending a staff member off to their first conference as well) I might suggest the 12 business card challenge. It will change your/their whole conference experience... for the better! :)