Who, Me – A Conference Mentor?

Submitted by Jacey Kepich (Case Western Reserve University) and Emma Clarkson (New York Public Library)

During the 2024 MLA conference in Cincinnati, I had the delight of connecting with first-time attendee Emma Clarkson from the New York Public Library, thanks to the conference mentoring program organized by Joel Roberts (University of Memphis) and Nick Brown (Library of Congress). Emma and I wanted to share our perspectives and encourage others to consider participating at future meetings, particularly mentors. You – yes, you! – can be a conference mentor!

The mentoring program is a great way to make connections and help first-time attendees feel at ease. You’ll have plenty of ways to connect throughout the conference, starting with the first-time attendees reception, where mentors introduce themselves and icebreakers keep conversations moving. This occasion segues perfectly to the general opening reception, where networking opportunities abound. Who doesn’t enjoy making new friends over hors d’oeuvres?

Emma and I stayed in touch throughout the conference, and although we didn’t attend every session together, we found plenty of opportunities to catch up over coffee breaks and dinner. I was impressed how quickly and naturally she introduced herself to new colleagues, taking the initiative to connect with a presenter I suggested she meet, whose familiarity with unionized work environments could be helpful. Had I not joined the MLA Big Band, we would have added attending the Cincinnati Symphony concert to our bucket list as well!

From Emma’s perspective:

On Wednesday evening, I showed up to the first-time attendees reception, whose organizers had suggested it as a way to meet our mentors. Kudos to Karen, Becca, and Allison for their thoughtful scaffolding of the event, which mixed us across geographic and professional lines! They gave a helpful presentation, introduced all the mentors, and shuffled everyone off together into the opening reception.

Jacey and I introduced ourselves, and as we got to know each other’s backgrounds, I started to get a sense of how small the library world was, and how easy it could be to make connections. As Jacey folded me into conversations with others at our table, I met one of her colleagues from a former institution, who had gone to grad school with a friend who stopped by our table; others invited me to join them to hear Messiaen at the Cincinnati Symphony on Friday. There were coworkers from my home institution (NYPL), friendly faces from the Greater New York chapter, and my suddenly three-dimensional colleagues from the Linked Data Working Group, all mixed into a sea of names I knew from MLA-L and faces I recognized from Zoom.

This kaleidoscope of connections kept up all week, and it was wonderful to see Jacey regularly in the midst of it, to catch up after a plenary, or share information from different sessions. She invited me to join dinner with a group that welcomed me immediately; she put me in touch with a colleague who, like me, is in a union, and who generously shared her experience.

I had initially hoped my mentor would have similar job responsibilities to me—for the sake of small talk, I guess—but the opposite actually proved even better. Jacey introduced me to a different cross-section of the conference than I was otherwise thinking about, and I’m grateful for the encouragement to attend a few different sessions, as well as the opportunity to meet several new colleagues. I certainly got lucky, but in a community like MLA, I suspect even completely random matches would spark wonderful connections across the profession. I encourage anyone who’s considering attending MLA for the first time to read that one extra email and put their name in for a mentor—you’re guaranteed to have a rewarding experience!