Conferencing, Or, Every Fish Has a Job

Everywhere I go, there’s an aquarium. When I took the library tour while I was attending the law rare book school at Yale, there was an aquarium in the library book stacks. And when I went to the AALL annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland and decided to have dinner at one of the suggested eateries, Luna del Sea Steak & Seafood Bistro had an aquarium. What are the chances of seeing aquaria in unlikely places in the span of a month? Well, each time I saw an aquarium, I was drawn to the black, unmoving fish hidden in the dark corners of the tank away from the light and the moving, bright flash of the other fish. They looked like catfish, but were speckled. I was so curious about the not-catfish, so I asked the local aquarium expert. Here’s what I learned about that fish[1], and how I think it applies to conferencing.

It is hard to find colorful freshwater fish for aquaria. All fish in an aquarium have a job. They were chosen because each fish does something to keep the aquarium tank clean. The fish I was drawn to, the Plecos or Plecs, are not colorful, but they eat waste and keep the glass and other parts of the aquarium clean. Here’s a perhaps unflattering view of one sucking on the glass (but I think it’s cute):

While Plecos mostly keep to themselves scuttling around the sides and bottom of the aquarium, when it’s time to feed, they, like all the other fish, merge into the light around the food. Just like the aquarium fish, everyone attending a conference has a job, and emerge into the light even if they would naturally be off in a corner keeping to themselves.

While at the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) meeting, I chatted with a speaker who told me that she might look like an extrovert while conferencing, but is pretty quiet and introverted back at work. I think that’s the same for many people. And even the most extroverted need some time to and for themselves. While you’re at a conference, your job is to meet people, mingle, and network, and learn. For the couple of days when you’re merging to feed your professional self, to develop in your career, to learn new skills, you can be colorful, you can be extroverted, you can be a star if you need to be. So how do you navigate a conference like AALL if you’re more like the Pleco?

You plan ahead. Fear is necessary for survival. But, you don’t have to worry about being eaten by the woolly mammoth if you prepare.[2] You can control where you emerge into the light, pre-conference. If you volunteer to help at the registration booth or with tours or with directions, you determine the amount of exposure you will get and how you will meet people. The same with if you volunteer to be a program coordinator, moderator, or speaker. The role you choose to take, your job, will determine how much of an extrovert you need to be, how much time you’re in the limelight, for the duration of that job. If you agreed to be nominated and win the election to be President of your professional association, you know you will be the star of the show.[3]

There are other things you can do pre-conference. You can sign up to go on a library tour. With a tour, you have a chance of meeting members of the tour group, or at least the tour guides, for a set period of time. Signing up for dine-arounds to go to restaurants is another good way to network and meet new people at conferences. You can also sign up to go on sports outings or other excursions with folks who are interested in similar things as you. If there are receptions, try to arrange to go with people you know or reserve tables ahead of time. Register for pre-conference workshops or summits or in-conference roundtables or deep dives or interest group meetings. This means that you get to meet different people in a controlled, low light, not scary setting.

What to do during a conference might be more difficult for a Pleco. It takes courage to meet new people when you’re naturally an introvert, but one of the ways to overcome fear is to take little steps. And to remember everyone is in the same boat. One conference tip AALL gives is to try to meet one new person. If you’re an audience member and you go and introduce yourself to the speaker after their presentation, you have met one new person! You can do the same if you participate in “discussion dens” or other same-interest group meetings. Talking to conference exhibitors is also non-scary.

You can also take a chance and seize opportunities to do something fun, spontaneous, serendipitous while at the conference. You may embarrass yourself, or you can have the best time.

And it’s okay to give yourself some down-time out of the light. After meeting a lot of new people, you can go back to your hotel room and take a nap. You can go for walks. You can digress.[4] Rest and relaxation is important. Even for extroverts. Maybe especially for extroverts. AALL has daily morning yoga sessions that are helpful for centering yourself. Exercise gives you energy to do more strategic conferencing, and also meet new people.

There are a lot of ways to network at conferences and meet other law librarians and legal information professionals who will be long-term colleagues and friends. So, plan ahead when conferencing whether or not you’re more like the Pleco and enjoy the heck out of the light while you’re at a conference, because your time there will be the food you need, the information and people networks you glean, that will sustain you in your work throughout the rest of the year, and in your career.


[1] Any errors about the fish are mine. This is what I think I heard from the aquarium expert.

[2] I think I learned about the woolly mammoth survival technique from a Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL) = L’Association canadienne des bibliothèques de droit (ACBD) conference program?

[3] Unless you bring in a megawatt keynote speaker – AALL 2018: “From Knowledge to Action” had John Waters (PDF)).

[4] My most fond memories of conferencing have been because of digressions. Like the time I and a fellow AALL attendee visited a romance novel bookstore. The time a CALL attendee and I explored Ottawa post-conference (and I discovered I could have taken more scenic routes to get to conference programs!). And the time I visited the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto with another CALL colleague. And the times IALL/ACURIL attendees and I drove across Puerto Rico and went clothes-shopping. And the times I’ve gone to movies at international conferences. In Canada, I saw OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d’espions. In Germany, I saw Der mit dem Wolf tanzt (Dances with Wolves is much better in German). And the time a group of IALL delegates and I went to a Hertha Berlin FC Club football/soccer match. (BTW, too bad Germany did not make it past the group stage in the World Cup, but congratulations to France, Allez Les Bleus!)


  1. Hi Lyo,
    As a sometimes aquarium keeper, I like the metaphor!

  2. Lyo, such an interesting post with so many great suggestions for conferencing. The Pleco does have an important job, albeit in the shadows and without fanfare. Also, when my team Brazil got eliminated, I was betting on my next favorite, Les Bleus, so I am happy they won. I will definitely try out some of these tips when next I conference. Regards. Yasmin

  3. Nice post, Lyo! Good advice for everyone here.

  4. Lyo Louis-Jacques

    Hi Ken! Cool! Now I know who to ask for answers to my follow-up aquarium questions. I have many…:-)

    Hi Yasmin! Thanks! And I was rooting for Brazil too. I had several favorites based on the player personalities and how they played. France played so well as a team and I was so happy for Mbappé. He seemed to really enjoy playing and get along with his teammates. Can’t wait for next World Cup!

    Hi Margie! Many thanks! And great seeing you in Baltimore. Lovely speech at the Luncheon.

  5. Jessie Burchfield

    Great post, Lyo! Thanks for sharing your tips!

  6. Wendy Hearder-Moan

    These are good suggestions that introverts can use in a variety of situations, not just conferences. I especially like the one about volunteering. I always feel that if I have a “job” to do at an event, I feel more comfortable about approaching people than if I am just drifting around aimlessly.

  7. Lyo Louis-Jacques

    Thanks, Jessie and Wendy!