At the end of August I attended the ARA Conference 2013 in Cardiff. Three days of enlightening, inspiring and sometimes heavy-going talks, all related to accountability, culture and ethics. I was one of the lucky ten who were awarded a bursary by the ARA to attend, which covered all my costs. It proves the phrase “you don’t get anything in this life for free” is a falsehood – I applied for the bursary, made my case and was given the financial ability to go to my first conference. Simple as that! I could not have afforded to go even to one day without it. I wonder how many others there were at least partly funded by their employer? It’s a costly thing to do, but definitely worth it if the theme is especially relevant for you or your organisation, or as a networking opportunity, or to simply spend a few days with fellow professionals who all understand and champion what you do for a living. The latter may be particularly rewarding for those who work in small archives, small teams or as the only records professional in a larger organisation.
My main aim for the conference was to network – get my name out there, engage with people, scope out possible future jobs or colleagues. However, although I consider myself a sociable person with no problem talking to new people, I actually found this a difficult thing to achieve in practice. As a new professional, I haven’t really done ‘the networking thing’ before. As a newbie and a first-time conference attendee, I didn’t feel confident in passing comment to a speaker about the talk they’d just done. I wasn’t sure how to approach people I’d never met and get them talking about things that would provide me with professional opportunities. There weren’t many points in the day where there was time to properly engage with people. The only real opportunities were the social events in the evening – the welcome drinks and the gala dinner – but it seemed people were less inclined to talk shop at these. I did attempt to talk to other professionals, and I did have some interesting chats with a few, including a couple of speakers. However, I ended up spending the majority of my time sat next to or conversing with the other bursary winners. I believe most of us would consider ourselves ‘new professionals’ and for the majority it was the first conference they’d been to. So I found kindred spirits in knowledge, experience and aspirations. Discussions or sharing experiences with them kept me not only engaged in the conference, but also with the challenges and opportunities for the more recently qualified (or qualifying) in the archives sector. However, these people will not be opening doors for me any time soon and I worry that my time would have been better spent trying to talk to those who could. It definitely reiterated need for training in networking, so that opportunities can be fully utilised. Along with things like staff or budget management, the Masters simply doesn’t teach you these essential careers skills.
The differences in approaches to the presentation and delivering of talks at the conference were particularly interesting. Some used slides with bullet points, others had just pictures; some read out full text they had written, others had brief notes and some just seemed to chat about their topic without referring to anything; some even showed some lovely brief videos. Presentations are a point of contention for me, as there are common mistakes made that mean their audience easily stop listening. It was interesting to see which styles kept me focused and engaged, and the talks in which I struggled not to switch off. For me, simply reading through a very interesting, thought-out piece of writing instantly makes it difficult to follow the important points. This style of writing is suitable for articles which I can take my time over and make notes to aid my understanding. As a presentation, it makes me tune-out, disengage and miss the crux of the argument or statement being made. I much preferred those who seemed to know their talk and their topic inside-out and almost just spoke off the top of their head. This makes a presentation feel a lot less formal, with less distance between you and the speaker. You can engage with what is being suggested and feel like you have time to process what is being said. I have definitely taken away some ideas from the conference on what works in presentations and talks, how best to engage with your audience, and which approaches I will try to avoid.
My overall advice to new professionals is attend as much free stuff as you can! Any free seminar, training, conference or event that you can get to without too much difficulty or expense, GO! You’ll be amazed what you can learn, who you might meet or which new area of archives you discover a passion for. Free spots can be limited, so apply early. Keep an eye out for any bursaries being offered for the larger events. They may come from the organisers, the place where the event is being held, or by organisations such as the ARA who would like a presence at the event. Don’t be afraid to ask your line manager if they can help with the cost, particularly if it’s directly related to the work you or your organisation are doing. Make a good case and highlight the benefits they could gain (directly or indirectly) by you attending. This could be new knowledge, skills, contacts or a way to promote your organisation or project. I think one of the biggest barriers for new professionals continuing their professional development is finance. I’ve struggled to make ends meet since finishing my course last year, let alone afford fees for courses and seminars. So take any opportunity you can to attend things cheaply, or seek out the financial support that’s available.