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Everything I Need To Know About Conferences I Learned in Kindergarten

My very first ALA Conference was in 2009. I had been a librarian for a little over two years by then and all I really knew about ALA was that I would be surrounded by librarians and book enthusiasts for the next five days. Opening day I made my way over to experience the craziness that was the exhibit hall. The next thing I knew I was being pushed, pulled and handed books. Books were on the floor and on the counter for you to take. And before I knew it, I had a full tote bag, my head was spinning in circles, and I had missed the giveaway for Catching Fire which was the one giveaway my teens were begging me to attend.

Exhibit floors can be exhausting and overwhelming. Then stick all those people into a conference session after they've been walking everywhere carrying heavy books and swag around and partying a bit too late the night before, and you're bound to get a bit cranky. Trust me, I've been there! So what exactly does conference professionalism look like? Is there a code on how to act or what to do? Sometimes it feels that way. So instead of giving the age old advice you always hear about wearing comfy shoes, dress for both heat and cool rooms, carry tote bags, I'm hoping I can share some insights on how to survive a conference and be professional (and not ending up as one of the people everyone is talking about in a bad way).

-Be Nice. This is probably the number one conference survival skill and it's sad that it has to even be mentioned. But there's something about exhibit floors, author signings, and book giveaways that make people go crazy and forget all manners. Just remember the skills you learned in Kindergarten-take turns, don't push or shove, stand in line and no cutting. If everyone would just walk the exhibit floor nicely and slowly without acting like it was a Black Friday sale, that would be wonderful! Just remember to be calm and be nice.

-Engage Conferences are a great place to meet people and network, network, network! One of my favorite things about ALA is that you can be standing in line and make a new friend! Don't be shy (and I know this can be hard) but this is a place you can talk about books, libraries, reading, and geek out. But....

-Don't Be An Annoying Time Hog. There is nothing worse than wanting to talk to someone and having the person in front of them be a time hog. You know what I'm talking about. They want to gush about everything (or maybe complain, because let's face, there are those people too) Yes, it's fun to talk to the publisher reps, authors, bloggers and librarians. But there is a time and place for extended conversations. If you want to talk longer, attend a blogger meet up, like the one Stacked Books and YA Highway are hosting at ALA Annual. This is a more casual setting and this is the place to have long discussions about why you need to watch Friday Night Lights. The exhibit floor is just too busy and too crowded for time hogs.

-Just Because It's Free Doesn't Mean You Need It. I know, it's hard to resist. Swag everywhere! ARCs everywhere! Author signings everywhere! It's book lover heaven! But you know what happens? You find yourself in 2012, still giving away books you picked up (or even got signed) at that first ALA you went to in 2009. Three years later and you still haven't read that book, the teens are over it and guess what-if you really want to read it, you can check it out from the library. Just Monday I took a box of books to my mom to donate to local group homes and juvenile courts because the books had sat on my shelf for three years without being touched. I didn't need them.

It seems like a few years ago no one but those in the book world knew about BEA or ALA or what an ARC was. And now it seems like everyone knows. We live in a society that likes instant gratification. So very often events like BEA and ALA turn into grabbing, shoving, pushing horribleness because I want this book now and I can't wait to have it and I must have five copies so I can do a giveaway and oh, look over there at that stack of free books and I must have them all!!! It's what ends up giving bloggers a bad name. Just look at the blogs and Twitter feeds after a conference and you'll see how there is a group that will ruin it for everyone else.

So what can you do? Remember some simple things:

-You are not owed anything. Sure you might be a librarian, blogger, teacher, avid reader. But the publishers do not owe you anything because of that.
-Don't take everything. Trust me-you don't need it.
-Don't take more than one.
-Don't shove, push, grab. You'll get a copy eventually and if you don't? Oh well, life will go on.
-Don't approach a publisher with a laundry list of books you want. I personally think it's tacky. It makes it appear as though I am of such importance that they must bestow these items upon me. Instead, I like taking the approach of explaining to the publisher reps that I work as a youth services manager with ages birth-18 and could they tell me about some of their upcoming titles I should know about. What would they suggest for tweens who like mysteries? What about storytimes? If they offer me a copy to take, I'll take it only if I really want it. If they don't-no worries, I can check it out from the library or buy a copy later. I don't need everything.

-You Will Be Remembered. Okay, the exhibit floor and conference center is big yes, but after five days you end up seeing the same people over and over again. If you rush a booth and push people over to grab a book, you're going to walk by that booth numerous times over the next several days and guess what? The same reps will be working that booth-and they will remember you. If someone's rude to you in a session, chances are you'll run into them later during the conference. It's a small world and you can't avoid everyone. So remember that as you are making your way through the conference-you are noticed and people will remember you. Your bad behavior may end up costing you the things you want later in the conference.

So relax, have fun and enjoy yourself. Don't stress about conferences. And just remember those Kindergarten rules!


  1. I'm particularly feeling the ARC overdemand. I have a box of books left from ALA last year (I hope to be able to give them away as prizes this year but who knows) so no more. I have a couple titles I would really love to read this year but I am going to be very conservative about ARCs at annual this year. It costs money and time I don't have to lug them around. I'd rather be using that time in a smarter way at ALA.

    Excellent post! It truly does come down to those early, fundamental skills we learned way back in the day. Be nice, share, give thanks, etc.

  2. Great post! This will be my fourth year at BEA, and each year I learn a little more and I approach things a little differently. This year I am finally going with the tack of actually talking to all of my publishing rep contacts and I actually have several appointments set up! Yes, there are a few major titles that I'm hoping to snag, but I have also experienced taking home WAY TOO MANY books, so I will be cutting way back this year... :)

  3. "Be nice" and "You will be remembered" at the two biggies for me. Because guess who I remember? I remember those who were very nice and I remember those who were unable to be nice the most.

    Great reminders, Sarah!

  4. Not taking too much was helped for me by mailing my books home from BEA. Limiting my selection to one shipped box - or you can limit to your suitcase or whatever - helps prioritize what you take. Look for the conference experience, not just any free ARC. I like the signings the most because meeting the author - and even the waiting in line - makes the book mean a bit more to me.

  5. This is a great post! The best part of going to ALA for me is getting to meet wonderful people like you. I can't wait to see you SOON!!

  6. I'm finally getting to ALA this year, but only the exhibits (oh the budget woes). I'm actually feeling a bit terrified of the exhibit hall, though, after all the horror stories. I think I'll definitely be limiting what I take home, if I can even find my way around the hall :)

  7. I'm so happy you posted about this, Sarah. I saw most of this on the exhibit floor at NCTE and was disgusted. It's true about remembering people. I was with my friend Jillian, and we were remembered because we asked the reps the same types of questions you suggest. It was nice talking with them because we both discovered quite a few books we didn't know anything about. It pays to be nice and polite.

  8. Hey Sarah! I'm a little late chiming in here but, as you know, I'm grateful for this post on multiple levels: as a librarian and also as a former publishing rep.

    Pam's right - getting books signed is one of the best parts. First, you get to meet the author (you love it, the author loves it, and the publisher loves it - happiness for all). Second, a lot of times you get to know the people in line around you - good chance to network. Third, sometimes it gives you some much-needed rest time. Lastly, when I was in publishing and was "working the line", that's when I made some of my best connections with teachers and librarians..."working the line" was my favorite (I also took that opportunity to ask the librarians about the awesome books they were getting in other booths...since I couldn't escape from mine!). As an attendee, waiting in line could be your chance to bend the publishing rep's ear about upcoming books, etc.

    Melissa, my recommendation is Make A Plan! Check out all the author signings in the ALA schedule BEFORE the conference and plan which ones you want to go to. Also note that a lot of authors sign in multiple publishers' booths so, if you miss your fave author in one booth, you might be able to get a hold of them somewhere else. If you make a loose plan/schedule, it can help you stay sane. (Also note: there are often nooks and crannies on the exhibit floor to look out for. One year, one of the database vendors had a TWO-STORY booth. Hardly anyone was going up to the second story...but guess what was up there? FREE COFFEE!!!! And GOOD coffee!!! People in the know were sipping free java while everyone else waited in the Starbucks line that was 30 people long! So keep an eye out!)

    Lastly, this is in line with a lot of what you said, Sarah, but also remember that the authors are people too. I've seen some truly disrespectful, inconsiderate behavior toward authors, especially the very popular ones. We own and love their books so it's quite easy to feel an unconscious sense of ownership of them. But they are independent people and sometimes that needs to be reiterated, I think. (But don't be afraid to talk to them and approach them! Believe me, they really do like it and they really do want to talk to you!)

    Phew! Sorry for the long comment!!! So much to say about conferences...


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