Stephanie Trigg has posted about how postgrads and early career researchers can become 'part of the conversation' in her blog Humanities Researcher. As a person who is quite timid about approaching other students, let alone senior-ish academics, her advice seems good to me. I enjoy the community building and conversational aspects of 'networking' very much (especially if scones are also involved) but I've never felt comfortable with the notion of grooming contacts for future benefit. That does not seem to me to be greatly in the spirit of learning, nor of civil discourse generally.
Stephanie also wonders about whether leading lights in their fields welcome questions from novices. My experiences have been a bit of a mixed bag, but I'll say that some of that has been due to my own ignorance or lack of preparation. For every disgusting fake-flavoured banana their have been plenty of juicy jelly babies and choc buds. Many academics have made time to talk about their research, or my research, at conferences, on the telephone, at seminars or over coffee. Many also participate in online discussion groups so that they can share information with students and early career researchers, which is surely time they could be spending doing other things. I suspect that my areas of interest (children's literature and publishing) are especially supportive of newcomers. I think that most of us carry around the vestigial love and passion for our research fields that makes us want to share as much as we can. Perhaps I am being overly rosy about this, but I don't think so.
There is one professor out there who has a steely glance that might intimidate Leigh Matthews, but she's still extremely helpful to her own and other postgraduate students. Helpful in time consuming, considered and demanding ways, too, rather than pats on the back and a quick exit.
Thinking about this all rather makes me think that I'll be back into the studying one of these days after all.