In light of the upcoming law library conference season (notably including the Canadian Association of Law Libraries conference–CALL 2011–next week), I am taking the liberty of sharing a few reasons why I see conferences as essential to law library staff.
If you have a law library, sending at least one library staff member to a professional conference each year is worth more than the equivalent dollar cost of books.
Let me repeat that in another way: you will get more value from conferences than books.
Radical, I know, and my legal publishing friends are perhaps going to hate me for saying this. Please allow me to explain.
6 reasons why in-person conference attendance is essential for your law library staff:
- Building a network - A big strength of law library technicians and librarians is their professional network. In times when you do not have certain resources on hand, or the know-how for a particular task, the library staff member's network is an essential resource. Think about how many times your organization, after cutting back on a resource, looks to just borrow it in. This is largely impossible unless your library staff member has already built a relationship with the lender. This is sometimes enabled by membership in an association, but if you are looking for something at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, only those who care about the borrower are going to help out in a pinch. And by far the best way to build and develop that network and those relationships is in person. A conference facilitates this networking.
- Access to the legal publishing industry - It is the one time of year library staff have direct access to the publishing industry's senior management. And they are all in one place. Particularly at the CALL conference, presidents of the Canadian legal publishing companies are typically present because this is a key target market. As such, library staff get the first look at new developments, often launched at the conference. It is also an essential time for building positive relationships with the publishing representatives and having your needs heard.
- Developing new or existing skills – by participating on committees, speaking at the conference, or helping to run aspects of the organization such as by sitting on the executive board of an association or being a conference planner, participants learn new skills and develop existing ones. I certainly improved my management skills over time by working on CALL conference planning committees and sitting on the Board. Knowing how to present ideas in front of a group is also an increasingly important skill. One can, of course, participate in committees from a distance, but the real work of committees and special interest groups often takes place at an association's annual conference.
- Transfer of tacit knowledge from colleagues – the knowledge that can be written down and passed along through an article or blog post is called "explicit knowledge". Knowledge stuck inside someone's head, passed along best by doing something alongside someone else or comparing notes, is called "tacit knowledge". It is much easier to gain this tacit knowledge by being there in person. A lot of learning takes place at conference lunches and social events, when law librarians and technicians seek each other out for advice. Unless you have a very large library staff or they already have a large network, they could be working in a vacuum without getting a "leg up" from the learnings of others.
- Learning the latest trends and techniques – in addition to hearing what is new from the legal publishers, and learning new thinking informally from colleagues, the professional development program at a conference is specifically designed for more formal learning about what is new, how people are handling specific challenges, and where the industry is heading. It would be great if these programs were livestreamed and recorded for posting to the web. Some are. But we are still a long way from having access to all this content on demand via the web. It will get there, but in the meantime attending in person is really the way to go.
- Meeting future staff members - the best way to hire a valuable new employee is to already be familiar with the person and perhaps even have already worked with him or her. Meeting new faces at conferences, working with them on committees are ways to establish a working relationship and sense of teamwork before you have even hired the person in question.
So often decisions about whether library staff should attend a conference is based solely on the program. But as you can see, the program as just one element in benefits from attending a conference.
I get tired of hearing that conference attendance is a "perk". It is absolutely not. When I have attended the CALL conference through the years, it is always an intense few days, seeing me connecting, sharing and learning from 7:30 am often until midnight. There is little down time for leisure activity as we try to pack as much as humanly possible in a few short days.
Today as a consultant, I invest twice as much now in conference attendance as I did in my role as a library manager: I not only pay for my attendance, but also I give up time on client projects (and therefore income) to attend. And still I see it as essential. It is too bad there cannot be a CALL conference in everyone's home city every year. But, the reality is that for learning opportunities specifically suited to law library staff, one must typically travel to attend the key conferences, be it CALL or one of the others: American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), Special Libraries Association (SLA), Internet Librarian, Computers in Libraries, KMWorld, or any of at least a dozen others.
If you do not have library staff attending at least one conference each year, think to yourself: will your organization fall behind? Don't you want to give your staff as much advantage as possible to excel?