Conference Seasons and Summer Vacations

In the past four years, roughly $7,000 has been spent getting me to conferences around North America.

Photo credit: Michael Coté, CC BY 2.0.

I’ve been working in libraries and archives since 2012. In the past four years, roughly $7,000 has been spent getting me to conferences around North America. $1,500 of that came out of my own pocket; the rest was covered by student awards, travel grants, honoraria, and professional development funds from associations and employers.

I often wonder if my career so far (or my future potential) is worth all that investment and all the attendant paperwork. I’m grateful for it all, but the conference life isn’t what I thought would be when I first dreamed of building my career by sipping gin and tonics at hotel pools in faraway places.

I went to my first conference in early 2013, when I submitted a student essay to a contest and won $1,500. That cash was earmarked for my flight from Montreal to San Diego, four nights in an absurdly branded conference hotel and its “surprising, sensory environments,” plus, of course, the registration for the conference, where I’d have to present my paper.

Since then, the locations have become progressively less luxurious and I’ve spent progressively more time wondering when it’s enough. This summer, I think I’ve hit peak achiever.

I know I got hooked on the hustle: applying for awards, submitting presentation proposals, sitting on committees, organizing events — even designing crappy posters that are embarrassing to stand in front of. It felt important.

And it’s definitely helped me: my resume looks great, interviews focus not just on experience but also on my research (a.k.a. a quantifiable “interests” list), and I’ve made friends with great library workers in every sector.

But I’m also a lifelong poor person, whose traveling was previously confined to places reachable by Greyhound. This has been my first glimpse at jet-settery, why you would ever roll your clothes instead of fold them, and how to transform yourself from business-casual to awards-ceremony classy in under an hour.

I finally understand what it’s like to travel as a Canadian, too. In a convenience store in Dallas, the owners gushed about how great Toronto is. They pulled out a brochure for the Aga Khan Museum and told me that traveling there was their big savings goal that year. I hadn’t even visited yet, but I felt a surge of pride.

Luckily, my urge to hustle coincided with my student status. Student prices for conferences often extend for a year or two past graduation; student-level association memberships can be bought right before you graduate and stay valid for up to two years; scholarships and early-career awards are numerous.

After that first initial exuberance ($250 on a hotel room per night?!) I’ve reined in my spending — and gotten back to my roots, folded up in bus seats.

One trip from Toronto to Washington DC was done via coach (17 hours each way), hostel bed, and a student registration fee. Those costs were covered by a $750 honorarium that the (incredibly kind) conference organizers gave me when I told them I couldn’t afford to pay my own way.

Going to Canadian conferences, arguably more relevant to my career, is also way more expensive; our airfare is higher, even from Toronto, and our locations are more remote. A trip to Victoria cost me $120 for a hostel and a $100 student registration, but also more than $800 for a round-trip flight. Getting to Fort Worth and back was only $550.

The last few trips were fully on my own dime, using up coveted vacation days in my first Real Adult Job. (I put in an application to get extra “professional development” days, two pages of all the great sessions I’d attend that would make me more valuable to my employers, and never heard back.) Instead of spending my vacation days on long weekends, I spent them on long weekends at conferences — including a few recovery Mondays after multi-stop discount flights home.

I’m still tempted when I see Calls For Proposals from places I want to visit: New Orleans 2017, Reykjavik 2018. I tell myself that, now that I’m a seasoned pro, I can fit in more museums and galleries. But this year I didn’t propose any presentations in far-flung locales.

I decided to slow my conference roll months ago, when a contract job came to an end and I didn’t immediately find another position. Faced with paying out of pocket again (plus that painful exchange rate), I thought I had better not commit myself to any trips eight months in advance.

Instead, I want to focus on publishing and building my in-print representation, which might not get me a seat at a banquet table but will get me citations. Conferences are great, but presentations don’t come to much, even if you “publish” your slides online afterwards.

It also turns out I do much better networking online, where I can disengage whenever I want, unlike the awkward in-person networking of introverted librarians. Sorry, friends.

This article is part of our ‘Summer Series’ collection. Read more stories here.

Allana Mayer is a librarian, archivist, and freelancer writer in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter at @allanaaaaaaa.

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