Virtual conferences

I was recently (re-)reading Eszter Hargittai’s Conference Do and Don’ts. The piece was definitely geared to freshly minted (and soon to be minted) Ph.D’s and not to established academic librarians, but I still found it interesting. Since I organized my first conference earlier this year (local arrangements, not necessarily the program) and have been involved with other planning committees, what makes a successful conference has been on my mind.

Eszter points out that:

While an important part of going to conferences is to present your work and hear updates on other people’s research, it would be wrong to think that formal presentations are the only key component of professional meetings. In fact, at least as significant if not more are interactions that happen in between sessions and during social outings (e.g., receptions, group dinners).

I wholeheartedly agree. In Ezster’s case, I believe her blog post is more focused on creating connections for future academic job connections, but there are other reasons why an academic librarian needs to try to take advantage of social opportunities at conferences whenever possible. This is especially true if you are the only librarian (or one of a few) in your organization that does what you do. This is often the case with systems librarians but other type of librarians, especially in small to mid-sized institutions, are often in the same position. By meeting other librarians that do similar things at conferences, you can create a network that will help you get your job done.

Say, for instance, the Director of Libraries wants to implement a new institutional repository. If you have been to conferences and met other librarians who have worked with this, you have a ready-made list of (free) consultants. While you could send out an e-mail to a mailing list, you are much more likely to get the real-scoop from someone you have met before and have even a small relationship with than you are from someone that you have never met. These relationships can be very valuable. I remember once a number of years ago we heard about this great new product from a vendor. The demos were impressive, and the developer partner presentations made the product look like it was very promising. However, once I started talking to a colleague from a developer partner site off-site over a few drinks and dinner, I learned a lot more about the day-to-day dealings with this particular product. While the product may have been good for some libraries, it became clear that it would not have been a good fit for us. We decided to not invest a significant among of time and money into a solution that would have turned out to be a mistake for us, that there was a very good chance we otherwise would have. (BTW: I think looking back, everyone would agree that the product was not successful, so I am positive we made the right choice).

So what has this have to do with virtual conferences? Nothing, and everything. Yes, at virtual conference you have the opportunity to present your work and here other people talk about there projects and that is very valuable. However, you do not get to make the same sort of connections as you can in person. While attending a conference in the comforts of your own office, it is very easy to get distracted by e-mail, printer problems, people knocking on your door, etc. Thus it is harder, at least for me, to pay attention to sessions you do attend. Likewise, you don’t get to see the audience reactions and unless attending with other colleagues from your own library, you can’t instantaneously run new ideas and concepts learned off of others.

For this reason, I am not a fan of virtual conferences and do not see them as a viable replacement for in-person get together. Yes, virtual presentations have there place, and grouping them as a conference can make some sort of sense, but I think that the virtual is better suited for training, and shorter Webinars.

You may ask then, what about travel budgets? We can’t afford to fly librarians all over the world. Yes, this is a problem. But there are cheaper options. State library conferences, regional conferences such as those put on by the Ex Libris Users of North America (ELUNA)’s Regional User Groups are inexpensive options. Depending where you live, there may be many other local one or two day conferences. For example, I often see some nice conferences put on by New England ASIS&T and NERCOMP in the New England area. If there isn’t any in you area, unless you are in a very remote area, that is a sure sign that someone should step up to the plate and put one on like the folks in Portland Oregon are doing with Code4Lib Northwest. It doesn’t have to be a huge production with paid plenary speakers. An unconference for example can be put on with less organization (at least by the host). You just need a date, a room or two, and someone to feed the attendees (or at least supply them with coffee).