Caitlin Birch is a second-year graduate student at Simmons College pursuing an MSLIS with a concentration in Archives Management and an MA in History. She occasionally tweets at @preserCAITion.
When I first volunteered to write a review of the New England Archivists Fall Meeting (held Nov. 2-3 at Simmons College in Boston), I had every intention of summing up the four sessions I attended, communicating what I learned from fellow conference goers about the sessions I couldn’t attend, and perhaps recreating the morning coffee spread (in the caffeine department, NEA delivered!). While all of those — OK, two of those — would be valuable uses of this blog space, it occurred to me during my brainstorming that I might have something better to offer.
This year’s NEA Fall Meeting was my first professional conference. Many of you have attended conferences before — I imagine some of you have attended quite a few — but I know there are those of you out there who, like me just a month ago, are still waiting to take the plunge and enter the conference world. SNAP, by its very nature, is a great place for us to share a whole host of professional firsts, and I’m happy to share this first in my career — what I gained, how I’m applying it, and why I’d recommend the experience to SNAPpers everywhere — with all of you.
First: If you’re anything like me, you might be envisioning your first conference with cautious excitement, half-enthused by the knowledge, networking and free food that awaits, half-convinced your shaky first step into the professional conference arena will send you sprawling. I can gladly report that my very first session at NEA was far from terrifying. It was, conveniently enough, “How to Talk to Strangers,” featuring Karen Adler Abramson, Beth Carroll-Horrocks and Laina Lomina, and we not only learned how to talk to strangers, we did a fair share of stranger talking before session’s end. A good chunk of the session was dedicated to discussion amongst the audience, with beginning professionals positing questions about networking strategies, and more seasoned archivists sharing their experiences and advice. It was such a welcoming, productive atmosphere, and I learned right away that conferences are not nearly as intimidating as I had imagined.
Second: Participation is everything at conferences. Especially as a first-time attendee, the temptation to sit back, soak it all in, and will yourself into invisibility is definitely present, but it really is true that the more you put into the conference, the more you will get out of it. For me, this meant that I needed to find a way to engage with the sessions and the community as a whole, and I accomplished that with my good friend, social media. I live-tweeted all four sessions I attended, and by the end of the day, my humble 140-character insights had reached a wider audience through retweets (some from SNAP!), I had conversed and forged professional bonds with fellow archivists (both within and outside the conference), and I had preserved the most important bits of my newly acquired knowledge in a series of easily accessible notes, without ever putting pen to paper. Live-tweeting, of course, isn’t the only way to go, but I would encourage all first-time conference attendees to dive in and get involved in the manner best suited to you.
Third, and finally: I found it very worthwhile to reflect on what I’d like to do differently in the days after the conference. It’s pretty easy to criticize yourself for the things you didn’t do — I should have struck up more conversations with unfamiliar faces, I should have asked better questions in sessions, I should have remembered that lunch was provided before I purchased an overpriced panini — but it’s a lot harder to give yourself credit for the things you did do and morph any regrets into goals for your next conference. And that’s the key here: you’re more than likely going to have a next conference! I am already looking forward to the NEA Spring Meeting (March 21-23, 2013 at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.) and thinking about how I can do more, give more and get more from a conference now that I have my first one behind me. Take time for reflection after Conference Number One, and realize that this is the beginning of a very exciting part of your professional development. For me, the NEA Fall Meeting was a great induction into the conference world, and I look forward to meeting many of you SNAPpers at conferences on the horizon.