08 July, 2009

not your IFLA conference

An hour or so ago on facebook I found out (from Librarian Idol) that IFLA has pulled the pin on Brisbane in '10. This follows on from CBC having also cancelled their conference. Plus there is no ALIA biennial in '10 because we were expecting IFLA to be in town and I have no idea if ALIA has killed off the NLS (I know it was on the cards at one point).
But even if NLS is still on, I am probably not new enough these days (although I would love to go, in my opinion NLS '06 was better than either of the ALIA biennials I have been to - and yes that includes the one I was on the organising committee for).

Anyway, shortly after the facebook chatter started I got the official email (did twitter beat facebook?). And shortly after that Snail suggested we need to create something to fill the void. Well, I agree

but what?

Naomi Doessel commented "ALIA planning an innovative event for 2010" to which I replied with some scorn.

This got me wondering why was I scornful about the possibility of an innovative ALIA conference?

Well, I have already said NLS in Sydney is the benchmark for a library conference as far as I'm concerned. And I am yet to go to an un-conference, so I can't speak to how things work in that setting (but I like the concept).

What I can speak to however is my experience on the organising committee for an ALIA conference. I don't believe I have blogged to much about that experience, while it was happening I was too busy to reflect and then afterwards I wanted to step back.
But if I could sum it up simply it would be 'hidebound'. There is just so much that has to be done a certain way, some of which I can see the underlying reason, much of which makes no sense to me.

One big problem is that papers are judged without knowing whether the presenter can present. Some papers which seem to be full of life and interest are murdered by presenters who mumble, read powerpoint slides word for word, who are uninspiring beyond belief or any one of a million other possible problems.

The converse is that there 'can be' a certain amount of political interference in the blind review process when ALIA's favourite sons and daughters submit uninspiring abstracts there 'may be' questions asked if they are not accepted (or so I hear).

Then you get complaints about the lack of papers on specific topics (which is a problem if no one submits an abstract on that topic and more of a problem if abstracts are submitted but they are awful).

Then you have the problem created by layers of bureaucracy, you have the committee with its ideas but then you have ALIA head office and ALIA elected members with their ideas (and lets face it if the conference is crap the organising committee has a certain level of anonymity. Well, you don't ever have to put it on your resume). Then there are the exhibitors, whose money the current model needs, but whose demands I think we could do without. Still if you've got the money then you've got the power, yet I hate the fact that conference organisation can get turned into a massive event with the main focus being stuffing as many people as possible into the exhibitor's hall at every opportunity.
And then you have a PCO, a professional conference organiser is supposed to smooth the way for the committee but (again, in my opinion) a PCO can be very closely tied to the exhibitors. They can also remove a certain level of experimentation by constantly referring the committee back to what has worked before. Lastly (not to be too hard on PCOs) their bills are paid for not by the organising committee, but by the parent organisation (ALIA).
For example, those of you who were at dreaming08 will remember the disappearance of the tables and chairs after the first day. You see the exhibitors thought people were sitting in the warm centralian sun, when they could have been buying databases and shelving. So who removed the chairs? No one on the organising committee.

Now all this is just off the top of my head and me being the guy I am I am willing to accept I may have misrepresented some details in my remembrances but lets put that aside and move on to what I think should be done differently.

  • Don't sweat the cash, it shouldn't all be about the food and the venue
  • Give the committee autonomy
  • Scrap the PCO (it may take more people to make it work without one, but if we're not chasing the cash we can't afford them anyway)
  • Use a combination of sources for papers. Some can be the standard blind reviewed call for abstracts but for others seek out those who have spoken well at other conferences and ask them for something on a topic.
  • Avoid the big keynotes. Do you really base your decision on whether to attend on the couple of big names we can afford to fly in from overseas?
  • Tame the vendors, if the plan isn't extravagant we don't need to kowtow to their whims just to get their cash.
  • Cut the price. OK I'm riping out our revenue like a mad man but I don't believe a professional association should be making a profit on a conference. Plus, there is a cost tipping point where a significant reduction in cost will give a significant increase in numbers.

Actually, I'm going to make this a bigger point. When the price is so high that most people have to rely on their employer to be able to attend you are only attracting a specific segment of you claimed audience. A conference for a professional association should be priced so that individual members can afford to come at their own cost. And not just the top end of the profession, but generic librarians from behind service desks and OPACs across the country, librarians from poorly funded libraries, librarians who are so far down the pecking order of their organisation that they are never going to be sent to a conference.

Being as I am writing this 'stream of consciousness' I will just interrupt myself now to note that the money thing seems to be a big sticking point for me. Now back to my musing.

The idea of giving more people the chance to attend professional conferences is the main reason I believe ALIA needs to keep the New Librarians Symposium too. I don't know much about how that is going, but when I first heard people arguing that NLS was splitting the conference budget and making it harder to get exhibitors and sponsors I thought it was short sighted. After all, not every librarian from one library can get to a conference and (as I have noted) it seems like it is a monocosm of senior librarians at a biennial. So, if the boss has a choice between sending himself or sending a newgrad...

Am I off track a little?

ah well, it is late and the brain is fuzzy. I'm going to do something I don't usually do, I'm going to post this now and I might come back and edit it later.


Kalgrl said...

Money is a BIG thing + distance...got to take a "cut lunch and a water bag" from anywhere not close to the bigger cities, and thats just to get there....maybe we should have an e-conference, or an e-conference unconference - Australia wide online...just some thoughts

Andrew said...

Hi John,

My opinion is that, at this stage, it's far too late to start even thinking about a large-scale event in 2010 like the biennial, or, for that matter, even NLS.

However, I think a better approach would be for regional and special ALIA Groups to put together smaller 1-to-2 day forums/symposiums. It provides more of a local focus, which I think can be lost sometimes with the bigger events, makes it more accessible financially, and gets a larger number of people professionally active. Plus it doesn't take two years to prepare. ;)

Of course, it doesn't have the scope to raise the kind of revenue that a big event like biennial (or even NLS) does. But right now isn't the safest time to be investing in big-budget events, as we can already see...

CW said...

Love the idea of forums/symposiums. Would also be great if we met virtually, nationally!

John you have said a lot of what I have been thinking about conferences... things have to change, i don't think the model is sustainable in the long term.

John Chisholm said...

What was I thinking saying I would come back and edit my post later. That is not how this blog is supposed to work!

So, no edits and let the conversation continue. Oh and the conversation is continuing well at libraries interact too.

snail said...

Most importantly, let the conversation continue wherever it wants to be held: here, there, twitter, facebook, whatever. Dude, I like the stuff you say and it's given me stuff to think about :-)

Jenelle said...

I really like this post - you've been there, done that.

The point about the ability of presenters to actually present is one that is so important to make sure a conference actually works. Also - love that you highlighted the international keynote issue. I have never understood that. The only one that stands out as worthwhile in my experience was when Jessamyn spoke at the NLS in Adelaide.

Two day symposiums are the way to go. The NLS model manages to cover a broad range of topics and mix things up a bit as well as having the informal atmosphere where everyone can feel comfortable and learn - and appealing to a wider audience is what is needed especially now I thought.

Great stuff and it is wonderful to see the discussion going on. :)

Librarian said...

Hi John have just caught up with all the chatter as I've been unwell the last couple of days. Seeing as I was quoted I thought I should chime in! :-)
Actually a lot of your ideas re conferences have been included in the new NLS model that we (NGAC) have just submitted to the Board - I can't talk details coz it's confidential until it's (hopefully) approved, but issues such as cost, ensuring a quality program, succession planning and support for the committee, issue of trade exhibition, etc are all covered - and a lot more. I'd also love to see people like yourself - no longer considering yourself new - still being involved, perhaps in a mentoring role.
Due to IFLA being scheduled for next year a timing change has also been recommended - which should also help with the cost/support issues. While we'll have to wait for the Board's response I hope to see another NLS in December of 2011.
As for 2010, it's great to see so many people excited to get something innovative happening - and as for what ALIA has "planned" - nothing as yet as ALIA is a member organisation so members get to contribute and help to decide! Kalgrl I love your idea of a e-conference unconference, but I'd also like to see some face to face interaction going on. Kate Sinclair has suggested ALIA get a wiki or suggestion page up hopefully next week for ideas from all over the library community, and I hope to organise a discussion for interested new graduates the week of the 20th which I'd love to have you along to once it's set.
And don't forget VALA is scheduled for next year too - so hopefully IFLA leaving our shores will actually lead to more innovation and participation!

Librarian said...

For some reason my comment didn't leave my name :-( It's Naomi Doessel. oops!