Feb 122012

You remember those (often) older people in your workplace who didn’t seem to engage with conferences and professional development and had a kind of “seen it all” approach?

I don’t want to be one of those.

BUT… I want to work out how to get the most out of my live conference attendance. What I am doing is not working for me – or (I suspect) what I am doing is working as well as it possibly can, and that it no longer justifies spending as much money and time away from my family as I did this week.

I believe that you can learn from every single experience, that every person has something to offer and that if you are blind to the potential gifts then you are a great big fat humbug …

asenat29. Gift, December 3, 2006. http://www.flickr.com/photos/72153088@N08/6510934443/.


I could feel my brain switching off, drifting away and not engaging during many of the sessions at VALA 2012.  I do not blame VALA or the presenters, who on the whole did a superb job that showed the utmost care. I think part of the reason lies in me, and part of it lies in the conference model.

I was both heartened and disappointed when I sat in an afternoon plenary next to someone who I consider smart, engaged, forward-thinking and asked about a session that was concurrent to one I had just attended. They confessed that, after the first few minutes, they also had no idea…their brain (and a fine one at that) had totally tuned out. I heard this over and over from other people. Heartening that it is not just me, disappointing that it is happening.

So what is going on? Is there a mob of smarty-pants know-it-alls who have had our brains totally fizzed by so much immersive gaming and instantaneous access to YouTube that we have lost the ability for long form, sustained thinking – even when it involves just listening, rather than solo reading of an entire 6000 word paper? Are we so arrogant that we cannot show respect and encouragement to those at different stages in their career, or to those who are not also up at 6:30am swapping links on Twitter and comparing notes on the weather, kids, exercise schedules, copyright challenges in France and what happened overnight with ebook supply to US libraries?

I acknowledge that I need to face up to the fact that – although I feel like a completely arrogant tit in saying it – given how long I have been in the profession, and my paid job – I already know a lot about what is covered at VALA and at Library Camp. I just really miss that exciting feeling of stepping out of a conference session, where I didn’t really understand what the abstract in the programme meant, with my mind buzzing with trying to quickly assimilate the new knowledge and ideas into what I already know. That feeling of my professional world..tilting…a little as a big rip appeared in the curtain between me and what was possible and achievable. That feeling of wanting to run out and do something RIGHT NOW.

If I stop going to conferences because I no longer get this experience, however, at what point would ideas start passing me by? When would I become as out of touch with modern tools and trends and ways to help users as I once perceived many older librarians to be ?

Yes, I know that the spaces between the conference sessions are always more interesting and where the real learning happens – if you are doing it right… and this is what unconferences try to replicate. On reflection, however, much of this is daily being achieved for me via my Personal Learning Network, mainly on Twitter. There is a very high level of candour, honesty and transparency. One advantage is the “drip feeding” of ideas. Someone can suggest a problem that needs solving, hear solutions from others, have yet another person ask questions and suggest angles not considered before. Then over a number of months one can follow the trial, measurement and formation of a professional project – with collaborative learning that is not nearly matched by a formal conference paper or by a brief unconference session.

It was drip-feeding that also worked for me as a presenter at VALA. Much of the reward of co-presenting with Con  (No library required: the free and easy backwaters of online content sharing ) was in the very, very long conversation we had in the months leading up to the session. The need for a written paper of a particular length, with a particular level of scholarly argument, made us extremely selective about how we framed the discussion and I learned so much more about the topic as a result. I think that without the intellectual challenge of writing a paper, and trying to contextualise it within the rest of what I was hearing during the live conference, the live conference would have been much less rich for me.

Several sessions did hold my attention entirely. Generally the keynotes did do this. Liz Lyon (The informatics transform : re-engineering libraries for the Data Decade) was not saying anything that I did not know already (apart from mentioning several very useful tools for research data management). Her ease with her material, immersion in it, ability to express the “so what?” of the topic, commitment to support for research data as something academic libraries DO –  made the topic fresh and helped me to engage with the material in ways I may not have been able to by myself. Ditto Eli Neiburger (Access, schmaccess: libraries in the Age of Information Ubiquity) and Jason Griffey (Libraries and the Post-PC era).

During Robin Wright’s session (Libraries and licensing: the eFuture will require legal as well as technical skills)  my brain was totally engaged and I could not tweet fast enough to catch all the important and interesting points.  Her session was a comparison between Australian copyright legislation and provisions of specific parts of academic ebook licenses that covered the same rights. Now… re-read that topic again – not the most thrilling sounding when summarised. Yes, I came to the session knowing very little about the topic specifics, but if Robin had not been able to get to the “so what?” of it, contextualise the implications within the profession and convince me that it was relevant to librarianship then I would have switched off.  Several sessions with more exciting-seeming topics seemed to me to be turgid and dreary (I guess… I do not really know for sure…. as I switched off very early on).

There was a backchannel conversation (via Twitter) about whether people presenting at VALA should be selected on presentation skills (via an audition movie 🙂 ), as well as selected on the ideas that they had to express. I disagreed, arguing that people with good ideas or interesting experiences do not necessarily also have a skillset that makes them good at presenting, so we would be excluding their experiences. The audience needs to be able to think, listen and absorb without expecting to be entertained as well as informed. I am torn, however.

I think being able to present ideas well in a way that suits the audience – in writing, verbally, via movie, as audio-only, as a blog post, as a facilitator  – is a professional literacy. Several people work on mentorship and quality control with the written papers – often with two external reviewers, the conference coordinator and the author together reviewing, suggesting rewrites, rewriting and then reviewing again. It is what makes the VALA papers generally the best quality one is likely to find anywhere in a professional conference not specifically aligned with academia. This excellence in writing is not necessarily a skill set many of the presenters have before the paper review process. Maybe it is time, however, to re-think mentorship to improve what can be achieved during a face to face conference.

It would be useful if – given the affordances of online networked communication – the face to face part of the conference was viewed by the organisers as one component of the entire experience. When delegates were all in the same location it would be best if the event was fine-tuned to take advantage of what can be done best face to face. More conversation, rather than getting across raw information. With the money that I spend getting there, and family time I am giving up, I do not want it to be about getting information that I could download and read at home. Writing and preparing a paper for a conference involves many hours before the live event over a number of months- so possibly we could get attendees also doing a bit of homework in a way that would make the event work better for all attendees.

Hagon, Paul, January 21, 2009. http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulhagon/3215463975/.

This is what I think would make a face to face conference experience more engaging for me. I fully accept that different people are at different stages and that I am probably an outlier. VALA is excellently organised and the topics, keynotes and quality of the papers, are world class – so it is not a criticism of this specific conference.

1. Potential presenters thinking about where the gaps are in professional literature and communication – then trying harder to pick topics that address these, rather than merely describing their experiences with particular work projects. Carolyn MCDonald’s lightning talk at Library Camp about innovation in general, or Zaana Howard’s workshop involving practical application of design thinking concepts  (A speed date with Design Thinking ) are examples of where this was done well.

2. Papers that describe particular work projects emphasising the “so what” of the project – not just to their individual workplace, but to the profession in general. I do not mean a literature search, I mean working out where the novelty and freshness lies and emphasising why it was different or significant. The paper from David Feighan and Sue Healy ( The internet of everything – linking the print and online collections ) was a great example of this – using the presentation time not just to explain what they did to serve their tech-savvy clients, but also explaining where their preconceptions about the group were challenged,  and raising questions about how the rest of the profession may cope when their school kid clients become the audience’s adult clients.

3. Attendees given more opportunity to pre-read the conference papers, plus more expectation that they have done so. Admittedly it is an absolute luxury to have time to read papers beforehand, but having read many papers during my plane ride over, I definitely found the best live sessions touched on and expanded the topic covered, rather than replicated the paper. If presenters were confident that attendees had read the paper, then more time could be spent on the “so what?” and maybe on the discussion and advancing forward from the paper’s topic. Although there is often an argument that releasing the papers earlier would result in lower attendances, if this is so then is the live format REALLY adding that much value? Reading a written play, listening to an orchestral recording, or downloading a restaurant menu is totally different to the live experience… and maybe we should think harder about what it is that makes the “live” part of a live conference lively and special.

4. The bootcamp sessions are great, but attending one or two of these limits the breadth of other sessions one can attend. Maybe it would be useful for participants to work on projects before they attend, so that the session at the conference becomes a trouble-shooting and sharing session. I tended not to go to any of the bootcamp sessions this time because I learn best by getting in there and having a go, mucking around and nutting it out – but having a chance to then expand or reflect with others would be useful. Maybe once one has paid registration, bootcamp presenters could offer a couple of online sessions before the conference, participants could do their homework, and then compare notes during the live conference.

5. Maybe more panel sessions, especially from people who gave papers about similar topics, but who are never otherwise in the same part of the country while also in a room full of professional peers who can ask questions.  Con and I had thought HARD about our topic because we had to narrow down and refine it into a paper, so a lot of ideas had been left on the cutting room floor. Ellen Forsyth (Playing at professional development ) and Philip Minchin (Stacks of fun: games, community, libraries, technology ), Kim Tairi and Helen Reid (Opening up the playground: supporting library staff to learn through play) , for example, had thought a lot about games and play when preparing for the conference. I would have loved a panel session on the last day where an audience could ask them questions about the topic that brought out the depth of their knowledge. I understand that panel sessions have been tried before, but given that definite themes emerged by the last day of this year’s conference (eg. the role of Big Data, whether our users want the services that we value, the effects of copyright, the role of the catalogue, support for researchers) , maybe panels covering these would have been useful?



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  5 Responses to “Getting the most out of an in-person professional conference…”

  1. Kathryn,

    I hope the VALA conference committee read your very thoughtful post. As a senior (in age) member of the profession who has been to a considerable number of conferences I can relate to almost all of what you have written.

    I still remember my reaction after attending my first ALIA conference in Melbourne is 1976 (I think). I was most impressed by papers in areas with which I was completely unfamiliar. Are you familiar with Brain Pickings? Have you read the Mother Jones interview with its creator Maria Popova http://motherjones.com/media/2011/12/maria-popova-interview?page=1 in which she comments on how she gets inspiration from things NOT directly connected to her day job. I still find that I get the most inspiration from areas where I know little or nothing. But sometimes I can be surprised by a new take on an old topic – or what I think is an old topic. The NLA paper on Trove & Tim Sherratt’ paper were not the same-old same-old – they were exciting.

    I only came to the beginning & ending sessions of VALA this year so I missed your paper, which I will read in printed form, but I do hope you will consider being a corresponding member of the programme committee as I think you could make a very useful contribution.

  2. Hi Kathryn,

    I also find it very unusual to learn something new at a library conference and have always assumed this was a function of the conference paper model. When abstracts and papers are submitted months in advance of the conference itself it is inevitable that the latest innovations will not be included and most people will have heard about the paper topics well before the conference starts.

    Anne’s comment above about about getting inspiration from areas where she knows little echoes one of the repeated themes I picked up at VALA. Quite a few of the presenters said librarians need to look outside their industry for inspiration and innovations.

    Perhaps a good way to improve the conference experience would be to invite more speakers who work well outside our field? I’ve seen some good speakers at educational conferences and IT conferences who go t me thinking and reading outside my area.

    I attended Zaana’s Bootcamp session and it seemed to me that the participants who knew nothing about design thinking got the most energy and enthusiasm from it. I don’t know though that your idea of having people work on projects before they attend would have the same effect. This would restrict willing participants to those who have the luxury of plenty of preparation time before the conference. Unlike you, I had work to do on the plane and did not get a chance to pre-read any of the papers.

  3. Hi Kathryn
    So much of what you said resonated with me, so thanks for putting it out there (NZ’s Library Life has put a link to this post). I was privileged to attend both the 2011 Lianza conference and the 2012 Vala conference in the last few months. At the former, several of us said similar things to what you have said here, so it is time for conferences to start having more interaction, making better use of having the people in the same physical space – and recognising and exploiting the online conversations.

    Some ideas/suggestions for conferences:
    • Have panel discussions that are true panel discussions. In the past I’ve attended panel discussions where the panel acted as though” panel discussion” was a synonym for presentation. There needs to be interaction between the panel members and some debate. I’ve also seen some really good ones. Last year’s Lianza conference wound up with the Keynote speakers doing a panel discussion – great way to use the speakers and hear from them again, including hearing their reflections.
    • An academic colleague told me of a conference he attended where not only was everyone expected to have read the papers before, but people were selected to review each paper – that person then presented their views and ideas on the paper (with author present) and discussion followed. I must admit to finding this daunting – I struggle to find/make the time to read papers beforehand – but could be a neat way to do one or two sessions.
    • I like the way Vala encourages questions at the end, however some sessions lend themselves to more input and exploration of ideas. I felt the session I attended on ebooks/eacquisition was really useful, but I wanted to hear more – including what others in the audience were doing, how they were dealing with some of the issues, and some interaction with the publishers. I know there is plenty of time for talking to people throughout the conference, but if all the likeminded people are in the room, maybe do more with them!

  4. […] few weeks back I came across some of the VALA2012 presentations mentioned in the Librarians Matter blog. And, to be honest, the reason I followed the link to Eli Neiburger’s (of the Ann Arbor […]

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