Originally published in 2010′s “Best Practices in Government Libraries”)
by Chris Vestal, Washington, DC Chapter, Government Information, Leadership & Management Divisions
It all started with dinner. I was at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered Issues Caucus’s (GLBTIC) annual dinner at the SLA Annual Conference in Denver 2007. I was about nine months into my MLIS program and this was the first conference I’d ever attended–but I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
I was one of the students enrolled in Drexel University’s iSchool’s totally online program. One of the things that Drexel stressed was that being involved in a professional association was vital to staying on top of trends in the profession, furthering your professional development, and building a support network of colleagues so you could be in a strong position for an uncertain future. We were actually required to pick three different associations to research and then compare and contrast and see which ones could be the best fit for our interests. Most of the students that I talked to agreed that they could benefit from being a part of a professional association.
What set me apart from most of my classmates though was that I had no library experience. I’d never even shelved a book in my life and because I also worked full-time in an unrelated field I didn’t have the time to take a part-time job or internship that would give me that experience. So to me getting involved in a professional association seemed like the only way to get some real world knowledge about the profession. I knew I was interested in working in a special library so SLA seemed like the right fit. I decided that year I’d attend the SLA conference.
Like I said we’d already discussed the value of professional associations in one of my classes. Several instructors emphasized the impact that networking opportunities could have on our careers. But what we hadn’t talked about is what a shy person does at a conference where they don’t know anyone. All the faces were unfamiliar and the idea of randomly introducing myself to strangers was unthinkable–until I attended one session called “Networking for Wallflowers” and saw how many people felt the same way I did. After the workshop I did attempt to meet more people but it still felt awkward.
That changed though when I walked into GLBTIC’s annual business meeting. Here were professionals I felt totally comfortable around. I took advantage of the brief networking opportunities there and promised myself I’d attend the no host dinner later that evening. At the dinner I met more people and told them about my limited experience and asked what I should to position myself for job hunting when I finished library school. The answers varied but all contained one near universal nugget of wisdom–get involved in SLA.
A year went by where aside from reading Information Outlook I didn’t have time to be active in SLA. But I still had vacation time so I made a point of attending the SLA conference in Seattle. I found that conference was a much easier experience for me in terms of networking. Now thanks to the GLBTIC dinner and other events I recognized several faces and was much less hesitant to introduce myself to new people. I was closer to graduating at that point and was avidly seeking out job leads. At one dinner someone told me that the most valuable thing I could do would be to get involved with my local SLA chapter.
I took this advice to heart and started attending as many networking and professional development events as possible. I subscribed to the chapter listserve and read each message that came across.
An announcement about DC/SLA Young Professional’s and Student’s Happy Hour came across the listserv and I thought it’d be a fun event to attend. One of the attendees there told me about the company she worked for and I remember thinking it sounded like a really interesting job. A few weeks later I saw an announcement over the listserv about a federal government career fair for librarians at the Library of Congress. I went to the career fair and ran into a recruiter for the company I’d heard about at the happy hour earlier. Within days of chatting with the recruiter I’d been hired in my first library related position.
But that was really just the beginning of my involvement with DC/SLA. A few months later the DC/SLA President contacted me saying she remembered meeting me at function and wanted to know if I was interested in being the chapter Dine Around (networking dinners for members and friends at local area restaurants) Coordinator. I agreed and went to work recruiting volunteers to host the dinners and then marketing them to the chapter.
I was surprised by the enthusiastic response we received from the chapter. We had 22 Dine Arounds over the course of 2009. I met so many people I might not have otherwise. I got to know people who became friends, people who challenged me, people on the verge of retiring, and people just starting off in their careers–like me. There’s no question that I learned a great deal in library school but I learned so much more about the profession, the association, and about myself by having dinner with all those different people. It turned out that even people I never met at a Dine Around would “meet” me; they’d recognize my name from the promotional emails I sent to the listserv and then approach me at other events.
One Dine Around attendee told me about the DC/SLA New Members Reception and I decided to attend. There I heard Current SLA President Gloria Zamora and President-Elect Anne Caputo talk about the Alignment Project and what it meant for the profession. Recalling their presentation I signed up to be an Alignment Ambassador later that year.
As an Alignment Ambassador I responded to member concerns via Twitter, the listserv, Facebook, and at a Town Hall Meeting. While I was doing this I realized something about myself–that I really enjoy public speaking and writing. But maybe even more importantly is that other people noticed me and I was approached to take over the chapter’s newsletter, Chapter Notes. Working on Chapter Notes in many ways has been like an extension of the Dine Arounds–I get to meet many people with different views, experiences, and skills and learn from them all while doing something I enjoy.
So my point is I can’t possible overstate how important being active in a professional association is to being future ready. You get all the benefits you’d expect like networking and professional development opportunities, but chances are you’ll benefit in countless other ways too. Subscribing to an association listserv provides you with opportunities to get support directly from your peers (especially important for solo librarians) and invaluable information about what’s going on either in your field or location. By taking on different roles in the association there’s a good chance you’ll learn something about yourself–what you enjoy and what you’re strengths are. You can develop skills (like event planning) you might not get to utilize in your paid job which translates into increased marketability when job hunting. The people you get to know can help you grow in ways you’d never expect–like approaching you for opportunities you didn’t even think to look for. Talking with experienced people in the field can prepare you for issues in your work life and keep you from having to reinvent the wheel. For me, informal stories from Dine Around attendees helped me when I transitioned into my first position supervising other professionals. But perhaps most importantly being involved in an association gives others a chance to get to know you and see how you shine. And it can all start with something as simple as having dinner.
Chris Vestal is a Supervisory Patent Researcher with ASRC Management Services on its contract at the US Patent and Trademark Office. Chris is also DC/SLA’s 2011 Communication Secretary.