Why go to a conference?

WHY GO TO A CONFERENCE?

Conferences are like holidays in this respect – that they are exciting in prospect and exhausting in reality.  When the announcement is made, I am all enthusiasm and really want to go; as the day draws closer, I start to wonder if I can spare the time and find the energy; and I leave the house with marked reluctance and a lot of moaning. Once there, of course it’s an absolute blast; by the time I come home I am utterly knackered; and for a week afterwards I bore everyone rigid by telling them how wonderful it was and how they ought to have been there too. Then it all quietens down until the next event is announced.

Conferences are unlike holidays in that it is entirely possible – indeed, it’s what usually happens – that you never see any more of the glorious countryside or historic town in which you are staying than you glimpse in the taxi ride to and from the railway station. You will probably never set foot outside the grounds of the university or hotel during the whole period of the conference.  To that extent it is more like being inside a particularly liberal open prison.

I am told that in prison you learn much more to benefit you in the future from your fellow prisoners than during the course of organised education and training. That’s true of conferences too. If it has been well-planned, the programme should offer topics ranging from those with which you are already familiar enough to have an opinion and to be able to discuss them with a degree of confidence, to those which are completely new to you.  You will take lots of notes and make lots of good resolutions to follow up on references and contacts later.  Sometimes you will hear someone say that there is no point in going to a conference in person when all the papers and presentations will be published afterwards but, useful though this is if you really do not have the time or the opportunity to attend, it misses the point. The most valuable thing is the opportunity to talk to your colleagues, people who share the same interests, challenges and problems as you do. It is the breaks between the papers and the presentations where you will learn the most. It is also in those breaks where you will have the opportunity to contribute something yourself. While it is great to learn from other people, it is enormously cheering to find that you might sometimes be able to say something to help them in return. 

The library community, even in these straitened times when we all have too much work and too little time, is hugely generous and cooperative. Social media facilitate this, certainly, but do not yet match the simple pleasure and satisfaction of finding the brightest and best of your colleagues all together in the same room at the same time. And that is why you go (and should continue to go) to conferences.

Contributed by: Heather Jardine

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