Fillin’ up on free stuff

February 16, 2007

I vaguely remember a King of the Hill episode where Hank was at a restaurant, probably with Peggy and Bobby. They got a free appetizer (bread, if I remember right), but Hank warned them not to “fill up on free stuff.”

As anyone who has attended a library conference knows, vendors hand out all kinds of free stuff. Librarians probably know at least one person who brings home a whole suitcase of such baubles from conferences. In fact, I remember someone in library school actually telling people to bring an empty suitcase so they can fill it with giveaways.

It seems reasonable to question the long-term benefits of grabbing goodies at conferences. I work at a large academic library that provides generous travel funding to its staff, and that could probably purchase more sticky notes and pens than we need. At least until I lose it, or it disappears in one of several tote bags (also vendor freebies), a vendor’s pen might save me a trip or two to the supply cabinet. On the other hand, staff at smaller and poorly-funded libraries might have a better rationale for sending staff to big conferences and grabbing as many gratis goodies as they can. Bulk orders of pens and sticky notes pose no challenge to well-funded institutions, but every mismatched handout might delay the necessity of purchasing such items. Admittedly, a trip to Staples or Wal-Mart to get a pack of Bic pens would not break the budget of even the most woefully-underfunded libraries. Still, I don’t begrudge them their desire to save every penny they can.

Despite my own attitudes about “fillin’ up on free stuff,” I will admit to having encountered some outstanding giveaways. Two of my favorites came from the EDUCAUSE annual conference in Atlanta (2002), where I received a nicely-made backpack with the organization’s logo; for almost $500 a head, it seemed appropriate to get a decent memento. While visiting the Hewlett-Packard exhibit, I got a couple of interesting pens. They were compact, and they resembled a “retro” rocket. When trying to figure out giveaways for the Texas Library Association’s Automation and Technology Roundtable’s booth a few years later, I remembered those pens and decided that we should give away something similar. They did not look quite as swanky as the Hewlett-Packard pens, but they all disappeared by the second day of the conference. I think people liked the novelty of compact pens, as well as their practicality.

I can understand why people might want to get free stuff at conferences, but I have no idea why some attendees view conferences as a freebie-grabbing free-for-all. Sample pens and sticky notes may seem practical, but I have difficulty figuring out the necessity of various “novelty” handouts, including the myriad useless gadgets that have no purpose besides superficial amusement. That may work for librarians with pint-sized patrons, but I don’t understand why others end up grabbing such novelties for themselves.

Simply put, I think some people like to get a good deal. They accumulate stuff so they can say, “Look, I got this for free.” The same goes for those who hunt bargains, including my wife and me. However, we approach bargain-hunting by carefully scrutinizing sales at department stores and outlet malls, as well as offerings from used book stores. In the latter case, I highly recommend Half-Price Books chain; one can easily get lost in the mothership store for hours. Recycled Books in Denton, Texas, is quite excellent, too.

Just a few weeks ago, I thrilled at finding a rare Wagner recording for only $6.00. Just by looking at it, I figured out immediately that I couldn’t just buy the recording at Barnes & Noble, or even at Borders. As the record in Amazon indicates, the album is no longer available to purchase new, and the one review for it says, “Snap it up while you can.” On the other hand, my mother-in-law is much tighter with money than us, but she has two or three closets full of clothes bought on sale. Although not necessarily a bad thing, a considerable number of garments still have the price tags on them. Diane and I also scratch our heads over the “bargains” that her parents have accumulated from estate sales, which end up stored somewhere in their house or sitting under our Christmas tree.

Fortunately, Diane and I agree about the obsession some people have with accumulating freebies or bargains for their own sake. Coming back from conferences, we have a rather light collective loot, usually consisting of little more than a few practical supplies with logos of various vendors. Diane has told me how some vendor representatives look stupefied when she declines to take something free. I suppose the vendors rely on the opposite reaction, where people simply cannot turn down something free. As for myself, I do not stay very long in exhibit halls. I have not been designated to purchase anything major on behalf of the library, and conferences have too much going on for me to spend time looking at everyone’s wares. Nevertheless, Diane and I try to take advantage of sales on the final day of a conference, where vendors take at least 50% off the normal price. We usually try to find books for our own personal enjoyment or professional enrichment.

Just as Dr. Phil doesn’t care if people follow his advice, I don’t care if you end up with a whole truckload of freebies at conferences. However, I would recommend rethinking your freebie-taking habits if you have felt physically and mentally weighed down, or if you fret over the logistics of taking all that newly-acquired stuff home. I’m certainly no therapist, but I would recommend exercising common sense when fillin’ up on free stuff at conferences. I’m sure Hank Hill would agree, with a resounding “Yep.”

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