On Conferences in a Time of Limits
Have we entered a time of limits? I believe we have—and it’s probably a good thing, if disconcerting for many of us. One big aspect of this time of limits is travel costs. They’ve gone up and they’re likely to keep doing so for a while. Higher travel costs and recognition of limits in general—including natural limits—may affect future conferences in a number of ways.
Let’s be realistic. Most people around the world never left a time of limits—they never had the idea that money was always available to do whatever they wanted, that adding incremental ongoing expenses could keep on indefinitely.
In recent decades, it sure seems as though a lot of Americans (and people in a few other nations) behaved as though limits didn’t exist. Saving for the future? Let the future take care of itself. You can always get a better job. You can always suck money out of your house’s skyrocketing value. I devoted a Perspective to this in January 2008 (A Time of Limits?, Cites & Insights 8:1), noting some of the “drops in the bucket” we were “all” assumed to be spending—you know, the $17 Netflix subscription, the $65+ cell phone plan (and, of course, a newer, shinier cell phone every 18 months), the $95 cable TV subscription, $10+ (times some number) for subscription music services, $50+ truly high-speed broadband. Plus, of course the $4-a-day Starbucks habit and all that bottled water. Each one a drop in the bucket; together, quite possibly the difference between having substantial savings and having none. It’s the “latte factor” writ large—the inability to see a series of small expenditures and commitments as adding up to anything. (Do you have six months of expenses—plus your employer’s share of your health care costs—available as an emergency reserve?)
Meanwhile, the overall savings rate hovers right around zero. Most people apparently aren’t willing to save enough for retirement even to earn their employers’ matching funds. Most people carry balances on their credit cards at ridiculous interest rates. Too many people believe they should live upper-middle-class lives even though they lack upper-middle-class incomes. And somehow people believe they need 3,600 square foot houses and oversize SUVs, without thinking about energy issues or resource limitations.
Times are changing. Reality is intruding its head into the fantasy tent. The housing mess is part of that reality. Fuel prices are another part: the shock of paying for gas as though it wasn’t infinitely available seems striking, even though many Europeans have been paying much more for gas for some time. Oh, fuel prices might come down for a while—but in the long run, they have to be fairly high. Which also means that air travel must get more expensive unless airlines are taken over by government and subsidized even more heavily than air travel already is.
You can see all of this as doom and gloom, or you can see it as a set of opportunities—a time to rethink. As librarians, you can certainly see a time of limits as a time in which libraries will be more appreciated for what they’ve always done well—sharing the stories of humanity on a cost-effective basis.
Before considering conferences, here’s part of the last section of that January essay:
Are there limits? If so, will more of us come to recognize them? To bring in another long-time theme, will we seek lives in balance?
I hope so. I’d like to think so. I’m not arguing for budgeting (unless your spending really is out of control). For many of us, that’s a needless annoyance. I’m not telling you to change your ways—unless your ways are causing you to lose sleep or worry about your ability to sustain your lifestyle.
People who live within limits are more likely to make good use of shared assets, I suspect. They’re more likely to appreciate parks, to take walks…and to use their public libraries. I’m hoping more people will recognize the need for limits without having that need forced upon them through foreclosure or bankruptcy or an inability to retire…ever.
Incidentally—as a somewhat humorous aside—Angel Rivera has a lovely post about the extreme side of “no limits” in “Not so good when you are rich?” posted July 23, 2008 at The itinerant librarian (itinerantlibrarian.blogspot.com). Rivera notes a New York Times article “It’s not so easy being less rich,” how some Manhattanites are fretting because their incomes have shrunk “say, to $2 million a year from $8 million.” How can you get by on only $2 million a year? Will your wife (or your husband) leave you if your net worth collapses from nine figures to eight? What if your kids don’t get invited to the right birthday parties? As Rivera says, “Folks, this is clearly tragic. The rich are becoming America’s new disenfranchised…”
I’m trying not to be snarky. Heck, we live in a high-cost area—maybe not as high-cost as Manhattan, but Mountain View isn’t exactly bargain central. The legitimate cost of living around here may strike some people as astonishingly high—but there’s still a huge gap between the cost of living a full, rewarding life and the “no limits” lifestyle too many people seemed determined to have over the last couple of decades.
I’m not going to discuss coping with conferences, conference-speaker arrangements or any of that stuff. If you want to read about that, I refer you to the (so far) longest issue ever of Cites & Insights, the Mid-June 2007 “Cites on a Plane 2: This Time It’s for Keeps” (the lucky number 7:7—issue seven of volume 7). You might also read the followup in the September 2007 issue (Cites & Insights 7:10, pp. 14-15).
Questions that come to mind here are threefold:
• What kind of animal is a given conference—and will that change in a time of limits?
• Why do we go to a given conference—and will those reasons change in a time of limits?
• Should we be thinking about new kinds of conferences to cope with rising travel costs and other limits?
I’m no prophet or futurist. I’ll offer a few opinions on what I think might or even should happen—but I have no special knowledge to give those opinions heft. I’ve been to a lot of “megaconferences” and association conferences, a few other kinds of conferences—and no virtual conferences or unconferences, at least so far.
Association conferences—ALA Annual, TxLA, what have you—are probably the most complex in terms of what happens, which also makes them complex in terms of why you might go.
Here’s my current list of what ALA or TxLA or ASIST Annual is about, with quick annotations on how each aspect might or might not make sense in terms of travel costs and other limits.
• Trade show. That’s what some vendors think of ALA as being, or what they’d like it to be: A place to show your wares, entice potential customers, pitch your message and maybe even do a little real education. With any luck, this aspect is profitable for the association. In a time of limits, smaller vendors may need to give up face-to-face marketing. Larger ones may pull back on the number of conferences and the expansiveness of their exhibit size and staffing—and, of course, receptions, dinners and other freebies.
• Business meeting. Unique to association conferences—the time when committees and boards hold face-to-face meetings and make decisions. This function seems to be least sensible in a time of limits—after all, most work leading up to decision-making needs to be done ahead of time anyway. Why not take care of business over the internet, with chat rooms in cases where you need live discussion? So far, sunshine laws (in many associations) get in the way. With few exceptions, business meetings are supposed to be open, so moving to “virtual” meetings would require bylaws changes and robust open notification systems. It’s worth noting that business sessions may be the biggest reason ALA Midwinter and Annual fit in so few cities—there are a lot of business meetings in ALA and its divisions and roundtables.
• Continuing education venue. Speakers and panelists enlighten attendees on topics of interest, presumably increasing the knowledge and awareness of the attendees. Some argue that “sage on the stage” presentations are no longer useful. I know that, for my learning style, they never have been very useful. But others do seem to get messages best, or only, when they’re presented in this form. Personally, I can’t imagine traveling cross-country to hear someone (anyone) speak when I could presumably read their article or book or watch their PowerPoint presentation at home—but that’s me. Apparently, a lot of people feel differently…enough that I still do one or two speeches a year, and some people appear to do dozens. With high travel costs, does it really make sense to have the same speaker and speech touring around the country and world? I can’t answer that question. (On the other hand, many programs at such conferences feature local speakers, where travel’s less of an issue and you’re probably not hearing a warmed-over speech.)
• Shared learning and discussion venue. The other side of continuing education, carried out in many forms. Interest group and discussion group meetings where people offer their own insights, ideas and experiences on a predefined topic (or choose a topic on the spot)—no expert, just a bunch of peers and people who will become peers. Poster sessions where people add face-to-face answers to content that could otherwise be delivered more cheaply and faster over the web. I’m sure there are others—even “unconferences within conferences,” using the broader gathering to enable a self-defining miniconference.
• Reunion and social event. The chance to get together with people you only see at such conferences and to meet people in the flesh who you’ve only known via blogs, chatrooms and other virtual means. The chance to party, to drink, to chat face-to-face. There’s something very real here that’s essentially impossible to duplicate on the web, as worthwhile as virtual networking can be. A typical conference will have several organized social events, any number of vendor-sponsored events for those who get invited—and innumerable informal gatherings and chance meetings.
• Time away from the office. Conferences aren’t vacations, but association and other megaconferences typically involve vacating—leaving town for a few days. That’s a real value, more so for some people than for others. And it may be one of the two toughest values to replicate through other means (reunions and social events being the other). Just flew in to ALA on Saturday morning and back out again on Sunday night? Then you weren’t at ALA—or at least you didn’t get the full benefit of taking a few days away. Many state conferences make this clearer: They’re held over weekdays, not over the weekend, so you’re obligated to take some time away from the office.
That list may not be complete—and it’s a list that only applies in full to association conferences. Most topical and privately sponsored conferences don’t have business meetings. ALA Midwinter theoretically isn’t a continuing education venue. Many topical conferences aren’t trade shows at all. Preconferences tend to be pure continuing education with a social event or two thrown in.
Which of these activities can be done equally well or better without travel? That depends on who you ask and who you are. I would take issue with anyone who says that any of these are ripe for total replacement with distance or virtual equivalents. People’s needs, learning styles, and socialization styles differ—a lot.
Why you or I go to a specific conference or you go to a specific conference may be some combination of the six bullets above—and it may include one or two others. Before enumerating those, a few comments from others. (I refer you back to the followup in Cites & Insights 7:10 for Dorothea Salo’s take in 2007.)
Steve Lawson discusses what people “bring back” from a conference in this April 24, 2008 post at See also… (stevelawson.name/seealso/). Excerpts:
Is it ethical to spend your library’s money and time on attending national conferences when the two main purposes of those conferences–learning new things and creating and maintaining a professional network–can be done online all the time at virtually no cost? And what does it mean to “bring something back” from a conference these days?
Let’s get another question out of the way first: [Was it right to have so much fun at Computers in Libraries?] Yes. It was right. Information Today did not invent fun. I’m sure Cutter and Dui and all those dudes had fun back in the day when they got together to talk about libraries…
The fun also gets to the question of “what am I bringing back?” There is one thing you are sure to bring back from every conference: yourself. Did the conference make you more excited, more engaged with the problems of your library, more ready to tackle the next project or challenge? Then I’d say that you brought something valuable back…
I still think there is a value in meeting people face-to-face. Yes, I get most of my professional networking done on Twitter and in the Library Society of the World chatroom these days… But getting in a room with those people deepens the bonds you form online and expands the network…
…Many librarians don’t do this keeping current and networking thing every day. Many librarians go to the conference and get their learn on once or twice a year, and we are doing something important for the profession (if, admittedly, not for our “home” libraries) when we put together good presentations and deliver them in person at these conferences.
Lawson links to posts by Rikhei Harris (Llyfrgellydd, llyfrgellydd.info/) and Ryan Deschamps (The other librarian, otherlibrarian.wordpress.com). Some of what Harris has to say in a April 23, 2008 post, relating to a commercial conference, Computers in Libraries:
In the past, I held the opinion that conferences have two purposes: learning and networking. The emphasis, I thought, should be on the learning… [Employers who pay for conferences] expect you to “bring something back.”
I think that we need to expand our conception of “something.”
I think the typical meaning of “something” in this context is “something that another library is doing, that we might be able to do here.”… But...the best conference sessions left me questions, or at least things to consider.
Another idea of “something” is that it can be an informal measurement. One reason I think I didn’t learn more at this conference is because my workplace is already doing many of the things that were talked about—so “something” I brought back was the observation that we’re doing pretty well in terms of integrating emerging technologies into our services…
“Something” can also be “raising awareness of one’s institution and what they’re doing.”… If you present, it’s a way for you to draw attention to your library, business, or organization, and the neat things it’s doing… If you’re an academic librarian and presenting at a conference, you may even be fulfilling job responsibilities.
Is it ethical to attend a conference if your main motivation for attending is to see the faces of the people you network with online? Is it ethical to do so on your employer’s dime?
What does an employer get out of it when you socialize with colleagues? What do we, as employees, get out of it? For my part, I feel closer (emotionally) to many of my colleagues. I feel refreshed and inspired… I like to think that I’ll be a better employee because of the socializing I did at the conference. How do you quantify inspiration?
Socializing is a good reason to attend conferences…but I don’t think a person is being a good steward of their library’s funds if that’s the only reason an employee has for attending a conference. I’ll quantify inspiration enough to say that I think it is a luxury.
Deschamps wrote “The ethics of conference attendance in a networked world” much earlier—November 2, 2007—following Internet Librarian, which he did not attend. Excerpts:
There’s an element in me that wonders if going to such conferences in the future would be useful to my employer. If they pay to send me to the conference, they probably want me bringing something back — that’s totally fair and the way things should work.
The problem is that in a networked world, I can easily converse with any number of qualified professionals on the subjects most relevant to my world. I can usually get it “on demand” and with a few added questions to go with it…I also do not have to go to a presentation that is meaningless to me because there is nothing in a particular time-slot important to me…
So, my main motivation for attending conferences is to see the faces of the people who I have IM’d before. It’s a social networking game, or rather, a continuation of the social networking game, because I already social network with these folks. I am not sure if this is a fair motivation for my employer to send me to the conference…
[T]hen there is the broader question—why should I lose out on great conference fun just because I know how to use the technology to keep up with my learning?...
What are your purposes for going to a conference, and is it really an organization-improving activity in the end, with all the advantages to be gained from social networking? What can I gain from an in-person conference that I cannot gain by through technology-mediated tools?
Rikhei Harris returned to this question in this July 18, 2008 post. Discussions in Harris’s workplace about workloads have also involved professional development opportunities—and Harris started thinking again about the “something” we bring back from a conference. Excerpts:
In retrospect, I still think my definition of “something” is too narrow in scope—I seem too focused on what the library gets “directly” from their employees’ conference attendance.
I think that all we really need to “bring back” from the conferences we attend is the potential to become better at what we do.
Conference attendance is, in my mind, a personal matter. We do not—or at least, we should not—attend conferences thinking that we are sponges sent to absorb information and then squeeze it out upon our return. We attend them to do our jobs better.
I plan to attend two very different conferences this year. One is not actually a conference, but a seminar - it’s the Interagency Depository Seminar, which is a week-long “boot camp” for government documents librarians. I daresay that most of my coworkers would not choose to attend this seminar, and would not get very much out of the notes I plan to take.
The other conference I plan to attend is ACRL. I go with two aims—one, to present (if my proposal is accepted, that is), and two, to meet network with science librarians from the Science and Technology Section. Although I imagine several of my colleagues also plan to attend, they’ll go for different reasons, and will not get the same things out of it that I will.
What I’m trying to get at is that whether a conference has a very specific focus, or a more general one, one’s motivations for attending can (and should, I think) be very personal…
And I think we should bring those reasons back… Let’s talk about why we choose to attend particular conferences in the first place; let’s talk about what we hoped to get out of them, and whether we did. Let’s talk about how these conferences fit into our work responsibilities, or our professional aspirations.
T. Scott Plutchak offered a comment from a library director’s viewpoint, saying (among other things):
If you bring back a specific idea that helps a particular project that’s great, and we do a lot of formal and informal sharing of our conference experiences, but it’s the immersion in your professional networks that is the number one reason I’m willing to spend as much money as I do on making sure as many people in my library get to conferences as possible... Coming back from a conference with a great idea to share is wonderful; but coming back one intangible step closer to being the most brilliant librarian you can be is priceless.
Excerpts from Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s January 9, 2008 post at Academic librarian (blogs.princeton.edu/librarian/), before going to ALA Midwinter—one of the clearest comments in favor of megaconferences, specifically the biggest of them all:
I’m typically on the maximum three committees at any given time, and yet ALA is so huge that my maximum active involvement is such a tiny part of the picture…
It took me a while to find something useful to do. I was on a couple of committees early on with people I really liked, but we didn’t seem very busy. I had a great time going to meetings and chatting with people, but not much came of it. Since then, I’ve tried to work only on committees that get things done, and I’ve felt much better about it… Part of the satisfaction I get from ALA attendance is the actual work produced.
One of the greatest professional benefits I get is definitely psychological. I feel better getting away from my own library for a few days and talking shop with other people from around the country… Nowadays I can get a feel for what others are doing from reading library blogs, but until very recently conference attendance was one of the only ways to get a more immediate feel for what other libraries were doing than the traditional library literature offered. It also helps me get a perspective on my own library and job…
There’s also the socializing, which is sometime personal and sometimes professional… Usually when people get together who have little in common except being librarians, the discussion turns to libraries and librarianship, and I learn something new that’s useful in a way hard to quantify.
I know a lot of people attend the programs, but I’ve never gotten much out of them. My learning style is to sit in a room alone reading or playing with software or something, preferably with some good music playing in the background. Usually whatever people are speaking about I’ve already learned. The discussion groups, on the other hand, are often engaging.
…It seems to me that some newer librarians wonder why they might attend ALA at all, especially since there are other conferences they might go to. Smaller conferences certainly have their appeal, especially because you can focus on smaller topics and talk more about relevant subjects. But the gigantic nature of ALA has its appeal as well, because so much is going on that you can satisfy almost any librarian urge.
Here’s my short list of reasons you might attend a particular conference. The set of reasons will be different for each of you and for each conference. As you think about these reasons and how they apply to various conferences, ask yourself: Which of these can you justify in a time of limits—and which of these could be fulfilled as well or better by different kinds of conference experiences?
• Resumé building—by working on committees you wouldn’t otherwise bother with or by doing presentations you wouldn’t otherwise do. (Otherwise, you’re not just building your resumé.)
• Professional and personal networking—putting faces with names, meeting new people, getting back in touch with people in your field.
• Association business—working on committees, etc., because it’s stuff you (or your library) care about.
• Seeing and learning about products and services—the attendee side of the trade show.
• Learning from those who know more—attending “sage on the stage” presentations.
• Teaching what you know—presenting.
• Sharing information and ideas—the less formal, more shared part of continuing education.
• Getting away for perspective and re-creation—the fundamental virtue of leaving town for a while.
• Having fun. What? Is there something wrong with fun?
What have I missed? What set of those justifies attending a particular conference? Will that set—and the needed justification—change if it costs 30% more to go? 50% more?
I don’t think there’s any simple set of answers. You can make the questions tougher if you consider conferences you pay your own way for—and what else you could do with that money.
It would be presumptuous of me to try to list all alternatives to today’s conferences, particularly since today’s conferences include most of these alternatives. I think a good roundup of alternatives—and how they actually do and don’t fill various needs—would be worthwhile. There’s not space to do that here, and I lack the background to do a good job.
How will limits change existing conferences? Dorothea Salo has her own guess, as set forth in “Tight budgets and conference attendance,” a July 17, 2008 post at Caveat lector. Others have been thinking about this and suggesting alternatives, and I may gather some of that material for a possible future essay.
A few semi-educated guesses:
• I’d be surprised if ALA Midwinter and ALA Annual don’t shrink somewhat, although ALA Annual attendance varies so widely that “shrink” may be hard to measure. I would also be surprised if either conference shrank so much that it ceased to be viable or profitable. Personally, I’d love to see Midwinter at 5,000 people or so (and most committee meetings taking place in open internet-mediated virtual sessions)—but I’d be astonished if it got down to anything like that number. 10,000? Maybe. As for Annual—well, even though DC handled it well, 27,000 is too damn many people. Would it be a better conference with one-quarter the business meetings, a lot more discussions, and maybe 15,000 people total?
• The big state and provincial conferences and the well-organized small state conferences aren’t going away, and I doubt they’ll even shrink. I anticipate that AkLA and TxLA will continue to be premiere events of very different sorts (more or less the two ends of the spectrum, with around 220 and around 7,000 participants respectively)—and that we’ll continue to see reshuffling, combining and other tactics for troubled state conferences to work better. Sometimes, it makes sense to go biennial. Sometimes, it makes sense to get school library/media center people on board at the same time (as many states do). Sometimes, a regional conference may make more sense for all concerned—or a two-state combo (e.g., Oregon and Washington this year). Go away entirely? It seems unlikely.
• Dorothea Salo thinks there’s only going to be room for one “niche” conference in each niche. I think she may be right, at least in terms of face-to-face, hotel-based conferences. I wonder whether some of the commercial and tightly focused topical conferences will either merge, become more “virtual” or disappear entirely?
• I think—I hope—we’ll see more information sharing, birds of a feather, spur of the moment and “unconference” sessions, more sessions featuring local experience and somewhat fewer lectures featuring the same Big Names over and over. But that’s me, and I’m probably wrong. Dorothea Salo and others are discussing the “middle ground” of technology training, one that may not be well served by any of today’s methods. I believe that people like Salo are more likely to find new solutions than people like me, although I’ll certainly be following the conversations.
• I do believe we’ll see lots of innovation. I also believe there are some things that online just can’t do as well as face-to-face—and that the gap will continue to be large enough to bring some of us cross-state, cross-region or cross-country once or twice a year.
• When it comes to innovative conferences (online, unconferences/camps, etc.), price may be an issue in an unusual way. To wit, will librarians pay as much attention and gain as much value if it’s free, or will a fee increase the apparent importance—and thus the effectiveness?
Here’s the odd thing: In some cases, travel costs may save conferences from themselves. I’ve heard rumblings that one conference was unwieldy when it passed 2,000 attendees. I know that another conference was a much better experience with 600 people than it was with 750—and it’s now hitting a thousand or more. Larger isn’t always better, particularly when it comes to participatory conferences.
We learn in different ways. We refresh ourselves and our networks in different ways. Those ways may need to change for most of us. I don’t see drastic short-term changes—but change there will be.
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