November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

How Conferences Could Be Better

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Snapshots from the IPDX conference in Portland, OR, a tech event that is popular with librarians.
Photos by Rachel Wente Chaney

Mollee Holloman counts her pennies when conference time rolls around. The school librarian, who has worked at Manteo (NC) Elementary School for the past four years, recently received permission to increase the number of events she can attend each year—but only after being named Dare County Schools’ District Teacher of The Year for 2015–2016.

In addition to attending three local conferences in her state during 2015–16, Holloman went to BookExpo America (BEA) this year, and covered the airline ticket to Chicago, IL, plus her hotel with the $1,000 scholarship she received as District Teacher of the Year. While there, she splurged for a $30 ticket to attend an author’s breakfast. But when she considered staying for an extra day, her budget prevailed.

“Saturday was BookCon, which was open to the public, but would have meant buying a different ticket,” she says. “I didn’t do that.”

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Attendees at an American Library Association Conference. Photo courtesy of the American Library Association.

School and public librarians are familiar with stretching their dollars at work. Finding the funds to pay registration fees and travel costs to attend events—the American Library Association’s (ALA) Annual Conference, the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Conference, BEA, or others—is often impossible. Plus there’s the time needed to attend. Educators must convince supervisors and administrators to let them take the time off—or use their vacation days.

ALA’s conference numbers reflect the logistical ups and downs attendees may face from year to year. At 26,362 participants, including exhibitors, attendance at ALA Annual 2013 in Chicago was a record high for the past 10 years, according to ALA’s website. At other conferences, attendance has fluctuated dramatically: Just 17,642 attended Annual 2012, held in Anaheim, CA, in 2012, while 22,696 registered for the 2015 Annual Conference in San Francisco.

Whatever the numbers, all attendees agree on one universal goal: they want to get the most they can from their days on the ground. Here’s how some of them think the conference experience could be improved, plus suggestions for getting the most out of whichever one you attend.

A costly barrier

Andromeda Yelton, president-elect of the ALA’s Library Information Technology Association (LITA), wishes conference organizers would address more of the issues around cost. A self-employed software contractor who teaches librarians to code, Yelton pays for every conference she attends—no one underwrites her fees. As she takes the helm at LITA, ALA Annual and Midwinter Meeting are musts. While Yelton can cover her own expenses, she knows that others can’t. That  may even determine  who can afford to serve in ALA’s leadership, she believes.

“That’s a major problem,” she says. “It limits the ALA leadership and Board of Directors to people who have instructional support or the wealth to do that.”

The money needed to attend conferences can be a particular barrier for younger hires: spending a couple of thousand dollars on work-related conferences just isn’t possible for many, especially if their library system or district won’t help offset the cost.

“I have noticed changes where it’s [more] challenging for people to attend conferences in person,” says Andrew Medlar, president of ALA’s Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) and assistant chief for technology content and innovation for the Chicago Public Library. “The folks I do see are often staying for less time. And I know ALA has shortened the conference to accommodate that.”

Many of those who attend ALA conferences have roommates—often the same person for decades—to trim costs so they can keep attending these events, which can be positive, and sometimes, career-impacting experiences.

Medlar would like smaller, rural libraries, where funding challenges can be formidable, to receive assistance so their staff can participate. He knows firsthand how valuable a professional get-together can be for educators—and the sacrifices many make to get to them. These concerns informed his, and ALSC’s, difficult decision this spring to cancel what would have been ALSC’s 2016 National Institute in Charlotte, NC, in September—a move that the group felt it had to make to protest the passing of Act HB2, requiring single-sex bathrooms in the state. (All registered attendees were assured a refund of their registration fees.)

Bigger conferences not always better

For those who do find support and time to attend a large conference, the next challenge can be to make the event seem manageable. For many, big events can feel intense: thousands of other people seem to have plans in place before they even arrive. You don’t have to be an introvert to feel like walking into ALA Annual solo is akin to hitting the lunchroom alone at your new high school. Even veterans say that ALA, BEA, or ISTE, a favorite for many librarians, can feel chaotic.

Jack Martin believes that he survived his first ALA Annual Conference because he had a mentor who introduced him to “everyone”—or at least, a lot of people. Many organizations, including ALA, have mentoring programs in place. Those that don’t should consider starting one, Martin believes, and those that do should expand them.

Martin, executive director at the Providence Public Library in Rhode Island, adds that signing up for a smaller, two-day conference, in advance of ALA, helped him build a network before jumping to the bigger sandbox. The former president of ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) found that as his network grew, his qualms subsided.

“It’s hard for folks to walk into a conference with thousands of people, but they should be garrulous,” he says. “Conferences have always been about the connections I make, more so than about the knowledge I gain.”

Yelton remembers attending a smaller, two-day AdaCamp unconference, designed to get more women involved in technology, during which organizers had designated some quiet rooms that were dark and without music. Attendees could “chill out for whatever reason,” she says.

AdaCamp attendees also received color-coded lanyards, visible from across the room, that noted whether they felt comfortable being photographed or not. Let’s face it: one person’s selfie could bring another person suffering. “It’s not expensive, and it’s not hard,” Yelton notes, and she appreciated the gesture.

“Having unscheduled time would be hugely helpful,” adds Hollman, noting that excitement, new ideas, and fresh faces can all send brains into overload. An unscripted hour or two to network or refresh can help librarians better remember what they’ve absorbed, so they can more effectively put new ideas in play when they get home. “So many of us are the only person in our building doing our job,” she says.

“Without the time to process, you risk losing what you’ve gained.”

Digital tools and virtual attendance

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The North Carolina School Library Media Association Conference.

Tavia Clark, who, with Holloman, co-runs social media for the North Carolina School Library Media Association and its annual conference, believes that social media and apps should be incorporated in every conference. She encourages those who attend her event to use Twitter hashtags to connect to other people, share ideas, and glean takeaways from sessions they may have missed.

“I really like it when a conference has an app so I don’t have to carry around a bunch of extra stuff,” says the school librarian for Currituck County High School in Barco, NC. “I can just use my phone to access information.”

Clark would also like to see more sessions offered online. Since it is difficult for her to get to events across the country, she would be willing to pay a discounted attendee rate to sit in on a virtual talk from home.

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The closing keynote for AcceleratED, part of IPDX, featured a bicycle that only moves backwards.

Jennifer LaGarde, lead school library coordinator and digital teaching and learning specialist at New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, NC, is a big proponent of putting as many event sessions online as possible so that more can learn from them. But she also believes that sometimes, nothing beats hands-on time to embed ideas and experiences. She recently attended the IPDX Conference, an annual tech event with a large library following held annually in Portland, OR, and named for the local airport’s code. She was struck when she found all the tables covered with paper—not whiteboards or digital screens—and attendees writing on them, sharing ideas. “All participants can then collaborate and there’s a philosophy around that,” she says. “I have tried to emulate that [spirit] back home.”

LaGarde attended 15 conferences during the 2015–2016 school year. In some cases, her district covers the cost; other times, if she is an invited speaker, the conference organizers will pay her way.

Lagarde’s key advice for all: “I learned to thank the people who cover you to remind them of what you’re doing,” she says. “Then they can see that this new way of [engaging] with the kids wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t had that opportunity.”

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Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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Comments

  1. Marjie Podzielinski says:

    The one thing conferences provide that Twitter discussions don’t is face to face peer interaction. This is what I enjoyed most.

  2. Getting as much information as possible about the workshops/sessions on offer WELL beforehand — that makes a difference in whether or not I decide to register at all. Boston’s ALA meeting was just across the river, but it was nuts trying to figure out what was going to be presented on what days (staff members were planning to take turns attending, leaving other folks here to mind the library). I skipped it altogether, and got the highlights on social media.