Beyond Conference Survival: How to Make Positive Connections to People You Don’t Know (ALA 2013 Takeaways)

Some business cards from partners at ALA. Maybe I need to do a post on ORGANIZING contacts soon?

Two facts about ALA (true of most large librarian conferences):

(1) It is an introvert’s nightmare.

(2) It is an amazing opportunity for librarians and authors to connect.

This post is about finding ways to get around point #1 so that you can get to point #2.

My first impressions of ALA 2013 involved the enormous crush of bodies, sensory overload (books! books! free books! authors! books!), and a sudden sense of smallness. If anybody here would care about my work as a writer for teens, how was I going to find them in this enormous place? Why would they listen to me? My gut was telling me to meet with my editor as planned and then get the hell out of that nightmare.

But my gut doesn’t get to make the plans. Whatever the discomfort, it’d be a shame to miss out on the chance to forge connections with book people who share your interests and concerns. Here are a few tips for shifting yourself from conference survival mode into conscientious networking.

Set priorities 

Perhaps the first thing you need to do when walking into ALA is to decide how much of what you are going to do. How much time do you want to spend in formal presentations? in networking sessions? strolling the exhibition hall? While librarians should load up on great things to use with students and patrons, we author types should remember that we aren’t here for the free books and bling. (A possible exception is gathering giveaway material if you keep a blog, but I’d say this isn’t your most strategic use of time.) Authors, you are at a conference to increase your visibility and to connect with the readers who will put your books into the hands of more readers.

Find your people

Once you set your priorities, you are going to be looking for sessions that fit your interests. In my case, I wanted to meet teen librarians (school and public), advocates for underserved groups, and other writers interested in brining more Latin@ experiences into kidlit. So I went to events like:

Attracting Reluctant Male Readers

Latino Books for Youth: an Honest Conversation

Crossing Over: Teen Books for Everyone!

Diversity and Outreach Fair

YALSA Happy Hour

It helps to research events and make a tentative schedule in advance, but be flexible and follow opportunities. For example, in chatting with a librarian before the “Attracting Reluctant Male Readers” session, I found out that The Knife and the Butterfly is very popular with librarians serving teens in detention centers. I then went back and changed my schedule to attend a discussion session on services for youth in custody, which turned out to be a great opportunity to learn about how I could connect and serve these readers more.

Personally, I find informal settings to be the most productive for networking. These include poster presentation spaces, smaller sessions with audience participation, and networking/social events like happy hours. 

Talk to people you don’t know

Too many of us view networking as something along the lines of, “How fast can I get my card in their hands and launch into why I am/my library is/my books are awesome?” I’ve tried that approach–and sometimes fall into it when I am very nervous–but for the most part, here are some tips for·conscientious networking.

(1) Be personable. No one ever believes me when I tell them I’m shy, but it’s true. (I talk about how I learned to fake myself out of shyness here.) I have to make it my job to be friendly to people on the escalator, on the bus, in the food court, waiting for a session to start. For casual interactions, notice who is moving in the same direction. You are walking together, so why not say hi? There is plenty of common ground for any attendee at a large conference: handling the loads of free stuff, the trade offs of cute shoes versus comfy ones, the confusing conference hall layout. 

(2) Show interest. ALA badges have a lot of information on them, so you have something that can guide you to ask the other person about their work. Show interest in what they do, ask them what they think of the conference, share stories of positive experiences. 

(3) Seek common ground. Rather than thinking about an “in” for talking about your “thing,” try to really attend to what authentically links your interests. For example, if I meet a community college librarian, I’m not going to be trying to pitch my awesome school visits, but we might have a conversation about the importance of pleasure reading to increasing students’ literacy, and then I might suggest my YA titles as a possible addition to a collection.

(4) To business card or not? I always worry about being pushy with a business card, but if you have found some common ground, it’s fine to offer a card or ask your colleague for his or hers (which almost invariably leads to a reciprocal request). If you feel the conversation is really just a polite one that doesn’t have much genuine interest on either side, it’s okay to skip the business card.

At the end of the day, networking is most valuable when we are open to the skills and strengths of the people we are talking to. The more genuine your interest in their experience, the more potentially productive the relationship.

Want more? I’ll be at the Indiana Library Federation conference in Indianapolis co-presenting with librarian Julia Reynolds on author-librarian collaborations. Hope to see you there! If you have questions or suggestions, leave a comment or holler at me via my contact page.


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