Overall, I had a great conference. I learned a lot, got to talk with interesting people, ate delicious food, and sparked my creativity by getting my brain out of the day-to-day routine of my job. I'm so glad that I went!
A few overall surprises/things I learned from PLA 2012:
The exhibit hall is so much more relevant when you're actually working in a library
When I went to ALA as a grad student, I enjoyed wandering the exhibit hall, but largely for the free stuff. Going to PLA as a working librarian, the exhibit hall was still a little bit about the free stuff (ARCs! Be still, my beating heart...). But I could also place the exhibitors in context of what I know about my job and my library, and what might be useful. I came back with a bunch of information about possible reference resources, as well as materials about upcoming graphic novels for my collection development. Instead of feeling at a loss in a sea of booths, I was able to selectively approach the ones that offered information or materials that were most relevant to me and my library.
Talking to strangers isn't so hard!
I am a bit shy and definitely an introvert, so I sometimes have difficulty striking up conversations with random people. At ALA Annual, I had ended up feeling a bit lonely because everyone seemed to know someone else and there weren't a lot of structured chances to meet and interact with new people. So I worried that at PLA I'd wind up eating alone and not really talking to anyone. That concern was part of why I made sure to take advantage of opportunities like the dinner on Wednesday night and lunch with New Hampshire librarians on Thursday. But even without those opportunities I think I would have done all right.
PLA, as it turns out, is a smaller and cozier conference, with a friendlier feeling, than ALA. I think that part of it has to do with the fact that any two people sitting next to each other in a session are likelier to have more things in common with each other than at ALA. There's a lot of common ground and many people are dealing with the same challenges/struggles/opportunities, which makes it easier to have a conversation. I ended up talking to lots of people before and after sessions, and had no trouble carrying on an interesting conversation at meals (though I did generally eat alone except for Wednesday dinner and Thursday lunch – but at that point meals became nice breaks where I could relax and didn't have to think!). I even quizzed a new library director on how to progress one's career to a directorship, totally out of the blue, and she very graciously offered her advice.
Not only did I have great conversations, but I semi-inadvertently ended up doing some professional networking as well. I even had one person tell me she really enjoyed talking to me and wanted to keep tabs on my career, which was quite flattering! I never thought that I would find it so easy to make these kinds of contacts in this way. Now I just have to figure out how this "maintaining your network over time" thing works...
Conferences take a lot out of you
I was amazed by how hard I crashed post-conference, and how quickly it happened. The train ride to the airport was about 30 minutes, and while I had felt peppy when I boarded, by the time we reached the airport I didn't want to get out of my seat. When I called my partner after getting through security and finding my gate, I found it difficult to keep my eyes open while talking to him on the phone! I napped lightly for about 30-45 minutes while waiting for the plane, revived a bit when I started talking to another librarian who was on my flight, but then went straight to bed as soon as I got home.
I had a day between coming home and getting back to work, and I thought that would be enough to rest. Boy, was I wrong. I was tired all week, and had some difficulty getting back into the swing of things because in between bouts of exhaustion I was still buzzing with thoughts from the conference.
The next time I do a major conference like this, I think I'll plan for a couple of days of vacation afterward so that I have some time to rest and fully absorb the new information to which I was exposed, before having to get back to work. I think I might also plan to spend some more time in the conference city, either before or after it ends. I felt a lot of pressure to see Philadelphia and didn't end up seeing much of the city at all, which probably contributed to my being so tired.
I feel very lucky to have been able to go to PLA. It seemed less common for a young/new librarian (vs. a management higher-up) to be sent by their library, and it was an incredibly valuable experience for me. Not only did I learn a lot, but I had wonderful opportunities to network within my field that would have been much harder to find outside of the conference. I came back with new ideas, information, and connections to benefit my library and my ability to do my current job, but also with ideas, information, and connections that will continue to help me throughout my career. It was a privilege to be sent to the conference, and I'm grateful to my employer for offering me that opportunity.
Not only did I learn a lot and talk with some really interesting people, I came away from PLA really feeling validated as a professional. There I was, a fairly young librarian with just a couple of years experience in the field, mingling with people who were mostly older, at much higher levels of their organizations, and in possession of much more professional experience than I have – and yet I was included in conversations, and treated as a valid contributor with useful things to say and share. In retrospect, I suppose I should have expected nothing less. But one of the more difficult elements of transitioning to the work world for me has been realizing that I can and should hold my own with people who are not necessarily of my age cohort or equivalent experience level. (In my own day-to-day work, for instance, it took a while to really click that even though I might be the youngest person and newest hire working on a Saturday, as the reference librarian I am nevertheless the person in charge and therefore need to make certain decisions myself.) It was so nice to be really treated as an equal at this conference, and I think that the experience will help me with my professional confidence in future. (It also speaks quite highly to the generosity, open-mindedness, and interest in sharing of my fellow professionals – bravo, public librarians!)