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Professional conferences can be a great LIS career booster – in-person networking, learning from cutting-edge presentations, immersing yourself in the dynamic energy of the profession or a new-to-you industry. There’s just one problem: conferences, including their registration, housing and travel costs, can be way expensive.

In addition, the broader your LIS interests and areas of expertise, the wider the range of conferences that might pique your interest. PLA, SLA, ALA, AASL, ACRL, and AIIP might just be the starters. Then there’s Computers in Libraries and Internet Librarian, the Charleston Conference, KM World, ARMA Live, the ASIS&T annual conference, and dozens of other specialized information professional events.

Information professionals are even finding a home at theoretically unrelated events such as the music and tech festival, South by Southwest (SXSW), an indicator of the expanding range of information/library expertise and interests.

If you can only afford one, does that mean you miss out on everything else?

Not necessarily.

Making the Most of Conferences In Absentia

Yep, being there in person may be the best option, but if it’s not one you can afford, here are the best ways to make the most of all the great conferences going on each year – for free.

Do a topic scan.  One of the recent advances for would-be conference attendees is that you can usually see an online program in advance – essentially, the topics program organizers thought would be most valuable for participants. This offers you a terrific way to quickly identify emerging topics in a specific field, see what skills are going to be in demand as the discipline moves forward, and learn about how these topics are being approached by discipline experts. See a topic or phrase you don’t recognize? This goes into your “learn more about this” bucket list.

Do a speaker scan.  Who are the leading experts (i.e., speakers) on the topics in which you’re interested? These are individuals you may want to follow via social media, their writings (books, blogs, online, print), or their presentations via SlideShare, YouTube or TEDEx (wherever they may have presented). In addition, you may want to reach out to some speakers for additional information or information interviews. (Some experts are wonderfully responsive, others less so.)

Pay attention to themes.  Conference organizers generally try to choose an event theme that’s so timely everyone will want to attend – so if there’s a conference theme, you want to see what it is and how the programs address it. Why? Because there’s a good bet that if that area of expertise or issue isn’t already on your professional radar, it will be soon. (Yep, add it to the bucket list….)

Note who’s exhibiting.  Vendors can be potential employers in your area of interest, so it makes sense to check out what exhibitors are viewing specific conference attendees as a target audience. If this is an area of professional interest for you, vendors could be a source of jobs such as training, marketing, sales, product development, etc. This is also a great way to keep tabs on new developments, especially tech advances – once you’ve seen who’s exhibiting, visit their websites to check out what they do, how they do it, and the products and services they provide relevant to your area of interest.

Create virtual networking opportunities.  Just because you can’t be there in person doesn’t mean you can’t reach out to the individuals with whom you’d like to connect if you could be there. Let them know in advance that you won’t be able to attend, but would look forward to following up with them after the conference. This is a great way to elicit their feedback regarding important conference take-aways and what they found to be most valuable (with, of course, your offer to do the same for any conference you’re attending). Your goal is to maintain the relationship, even if you can’t do so in person.

Follow the program Twitter feeds during the conference, if available.  Not all presentations and/or conferences have live Twitter feed discussions going on but this is an increasingly popular activity among Twitter-savvy conference attendants. Find out if there are relevant Twitter hashtag conversations going on, and follow the discussions for key points, recommended resources, and other insights.

Look for post-conference materials.  Some speakers post their presentation materials online after the conference via their blog or website, YouTube, SlideShare, or some other social media channel. Wait a couple of weeks, then use your favorite search engine to see if any of the conference presentations in which you have an interest ended up online.

Might you become a presenter?  In addition to these research and outreach actions, you might also want to consider whether the conference you’re checking out (but missing) this year might go to the top of your must-attend conference list for next year – with you as a presenter.

Is this an audience of professionals with whom you’d like to share your knowledge while building your visibility and credibility? There’s no better way than becoming known as the expert who spoke at the conference. Most conferences don’t offer any (or much of) a financial incentive to present, but in terms of building your credibility, it’s invaluable. Assume the call for proposals will go live shortly after the current conference wraps up (this information will be posted on the conference sponsor’s website).

Don’t Let a Lack of Funding Hold You Back

Conferences can be one of your best sources of professional growth – expanding knowledge, connections, and career visibility. Realistically, however, we’ll never have a big enough budget to attend all the conferences that might deliver great experiences. As a smart (and budget-conscious) alternative, taking advantage of their online program information is a great way to make the most of the opportunities they do present even when we can’t be there in person.