Library Conferences

10 things to make a conference great

What makes a conference great? Andy Priestner posed the following question on Twitter today:

I found my answer wouldn't fit even across loads of tweets. So with that in mind, and following on from the previous post on inspiring conferences, here's my personal opinions based on conferences I've attended.

  1. The other delegates. This is very tricky. Much like what makes a good school experience isn't really the Ofsted report and the facilities so much as the other kids and whether they're nice, and a good job experience has (probably) more to do with your colleagues and line-manager than your salary and objectives, a good conference experience has a lot to do with the kind of crowd the conference attracts. If you get open, enthusiastic and practical people to hang out with, the presentations themselves are really just a springboard rather than the focus of the conference. What I remember most about SLA was the other delegates.
  2. A good keynote from outside the industry. LILAC gives fanstastic keynote - and part of the reason is they bring in someone from outside of libraries, who knows enough about them to make their talk relevant without just pandering to librarians. Spare me people saying 'A library without a librarian is just a room' - guess how much that helps me? Correct: not at all.
  3. A variety of formats. There's no excuse just to have a bunch of people doing long presentations, these days. I want to see Pecha Kucha 20/20s, I want to see Teachmeet style sharing, I want to see panel discussions, I want some unconference style rewriting of the hierarchy. Ideally, I'd like to see something not listed here because I've never seen it before. Surprise me.
  4. Speakers who understand speaking rather than just the subject they've been asked to speak about. Don't tell me all about your methodology at the start - if you have to tell me about your methodology at all, do it after you've told me WHY I should care about it (i.e. give me the results first). On the subject of results, if you've not yet finished your project and can't tell us your conclusions, why are you here? And of course, don't get me started on presenters who can't be bothered to make decent presentations, or go over their time slots.
  5. A mixture of the cerebral and the immediate. I want to be inspired, uplifted, and invigorated. I ALSO want to be able to go back to my desk when the conference is finished and change the way I work, for the better, right away.
  6. New blood. I want there to be new professionals at any event I go to, because apart from being, obviously, The Future, they're often the most enthusiastic and passionate. So make sure your event offers hard-up new profs the chance to attend and ideally to present too. (On a related note, I'd recommend going to New Profs events even if you aren't so 'new' anymore; it restores your faith...)
  7. A lead organiser who really has their shit together. I've been to conferences where the person effectively chairing the event seems completely at sea, or not to be invested in the success of  the day at all. Organising conferences is REALLY hard (I've done it, enjoyed it, but resolved to stick to speaking from then on because that is MUCH easier) so you've got to be completely committed and quite sharp, and creative, and good at logistics, to make a success of it.
  8. An appropriate level of resource. It is possible to organise conferences and unconferences very cheaply, but that needs to be built into the DNA of the conference. A hugely ambitious conference shouldn't be attempted without a hugely ambitious budget. I'm quite happy to sleep through 15-minutes of sponsor-talk at the start of each day if it means the event is well financed and everything works.
  9. Technology. If the wifi is no good, find another venue. If the screens are small, find another venue. If the presenter PCs are positioned so the presenter has to look away from the audience to present, find another venue. If someone is doing a presentation via Skype or a webinar software then by God they'd better give a transcendent and truly transformative talk if we're to suffer through the 100% inevitable bad sound quality, visual glitches, and delays where the screen goes blank.
  10. Downtime. I'm an introvert. Most people going to library conferences are introverts. Introverts need time to recharge, away from the crowds, or we go a bit loopy. So the best conference schedules, for me, are the ones brimming with activity - but with some downtime built in too.

achievement via

Anything you'd add?

Why don't English conferences make you feel like this?

Library badges  

Back in 2006 when I got my first position in a library, in a job-emergency and with no intention of staying in the profession, one of the many many things I didn't expect librarianship to involve was exciting foreign travel. But so far it's taken me to Philly, to Latvia, to South Africa, and next year to Vancouver.

In part 3 of my posts about Cape Town (part 1, including a presentation on professional brand, can be read here; part 2 about the trip itself can be read here) I wanted to discuss something that the LIASA 2013 conference made me think about: English conferences have something missing. They don't seem to make people feel inspired and uplifted like other conferences do. Why is that?

NB: I originally, erronously, entitled this post 'Why don't UK conferences make you feel like this?' - but one thing which came out of the Twitter discussion I had about this subject while in SA is that there are plenty of people who've been inspired by conferences in Ireland, Wales and Scotland; this is borne out by the Storify embedded below. Apologies, rest of the UK...

English reserve

LIASA in Cape Town was on a pretty large scale - several hundred librarians from several countries. Here's how it made me feel: excited, uplifted and optimistic. This is exactly what I want from a conference: you come together with your peers, you share ideas, you go away not just with practical ideas to apply to your job, but feeling inspired about librarianship. This is how I felt after SLA2011 in the USA, too. Interestingly, this is how I felt after the New Professionals Conferences I've been to, and this is how, judging from the Twitter reaction to them, people feel after attending LibCamps. But this is not how I've felt after, for example, Umbrella, or LILAC, or various JISC-related things I attended as part of a previous job, or smaller events I've been to organised by ARLG or CDG. That's not to say these events weren't good events, or weren't useful to me - they were mostly both of those things (LILAC particularly). They just didn't send me home beaming on the train / plane with optimism and uplift.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that English reserve and cynicism is what stops some events reaching the heights I'm describing. The events I've been inspired by have either been on foreign shores where English reserve and cynicism aren't applicable, or for New Professionals conferences where the delegates haven't been around long enough to become cynical or reserved. People seem to get very inspired by unconferences such as Mashlib and Libcamp, and Radical Libcamp - and by definition unconferences should be populated by a self-selecting group of engaged and non-cynical (about the profession, at least) delegates. So basically in situations where the English reserve and cynicism can't get a proper foothold, the conference can flourish and leave everyone feeling reinvigorated - is it that simple?

Now, I'm aware not everyone agrees with me on this. Colleagues of mine, my boss for example, have been to English conferences and come away inspired, so maybe I'm either a: going to the wrong conferences, or b: approaching them in the wrong way? If you have time to leave a comment, I'd be interested in your thoughts.

What's the most inspiring library event you've ever been to? Storify time

Finally, I conducted a brief and unscientific poll on Twitter this morning, so you can get some other perspectives on peoples' most inspiring library events. Thank you to all who took part and RT'd my request for input. I was going to total up the 'traditional UK conferences versus other types' votes, but the waters are murky there as there's plenty of responses from people not in the UK in the first place. So I've attempted to categorise the answers but I'll let you draw your own conclusions. If nothing else, make a note of these as events to try and attend in the future (be sure to press the 'read next page' button at the bottom - there's loads of good stuff here)...


This will automatically update here as I add things to the Storify. (Storify is great, by the way.)

NPID2010: New Professionals Information Days

Newcastle City Library, via Flickr CC (ricaird) For the last few months I've been working with Chris Rhodes, Maria Cotera and Kathy Ennis to create a new CILIP event. Actually it's a refit of an old one - the CILIP Graduate Day that I presented at last year. We've re-thought it from scratch, introduced some new ideas, got in some fantastic speakers, and rebranded it as New Professionals Information Days - the reason that is 'Days' plural is that we're doing the programme twice, once in London and once in Newcastle, to try and make CILIP more inclusive and a little less London-centric.

Some of the ideas we've incorporated came from the many people (most of them New Professionals Support Officers) who took part in the initial brain-storming session at CILIP HQ. Our little working group then took these ideas on and honed them into what I think will be a truly excellent pair of events.

The London event takes place at CILIP on October 1st, and the Newcastle event takes place at the City Library on November the 23rd. You can find full information, including times, speakers, topics, how to book and so on, via CILIP's website. For now, here's a few points I'd like to highlight:

  • The events are free (and you get refreshments too!). I'd be really surprised if you get to another event this year, with such a good line-up of interesting speakers and topics, without having to hand over a big chunk of change
  • They are aimed at people who've joined the profession in the last few years, and also those who haven't joined it yet at all
  • The days are structured in such a way that many people will be able to attend without having to take a full day off work - so for example, the London event runs from half-nine in the morning till four in the afternoon, but the last session is a repeat of the first session (with the keynote speakers sandwiched in between). So you only actually need to come from 9:30 till 1pm to see everything - OR, if you prefer, from 12 till 4pm. Good eh? I think this is a mint idea (got a feeling it came from Bethan Ruddock in the original brain storming session) and more conferences should make themselves flexible in this way
  • The theme is great - pursue your passion through librarianship. This is something I've written about before - how the information profession allows you to pursue your existing passions and bring them into your job; I'm thrilled we've managed to build the entire conference around this idea. We need to publicise this aspect of librarianship more, it's ace.
  • The speakers are fantastic! First we put together a list of the subjects we'd like to hear about as New Professionals, and divided them into different strands. Then we put together a wish-list of who we'd ideally like to hear speak on the subjects we'd come up with. And basically they all said yes! One person couldn't make it so I'm having to fill in with a talk about technology (and the Prezi I'm going to use for that will be lovely :) ) but otherwise we've got a stellar line up - including Phil Bradley, whose keynote will be entitled "Around the world twice on a library degree"! How cool does that sound? I've never got to see Phil talk in the flesh before, and we're honoured to have him.
  • Newcastle City Library is beautiful... It's a fantastic modern building - if you live Up North, try and come along just to see how a brand new library operates, looks, and feels. You can always nip in from 15:45 - 16:45 and just hear Phil and Maxine Miller's keynotes!
  • If you can't attend, you can follow on twitter using the hashtag #NPID2010, and either way you can get to know the speakers a little bit better: @PhilBradley, @katie_fraser, @LexRigby, me(!), and, coming over all the way from Spain, @nrobinsongarcia. We'll also be doing something with Wallwisher that will allow in-the-flesh attendees and virtual-attendees to interact together. WOOF!

So a free event, organised flexibly to fit your schedule, great networking opportunities, in ace surroundings, with online elements, and brilliant speakers. How can you resist? London is nearly full already by the way, so book soon if you want to go.

Really excitingly for me, the London event is being followed by a LISNPN meet-up that evening, in a pub of Woodsiegirl's choosing. The idea is to come together, set the world to rights, and plan a fool proof future for the profession... There's one in Manchester soon too (tomorrow at the time of writing), and both have been organised spontaneously by the members of the network. This excites me more than anything we've done with LISNPN so far - if it provides a platform for Information Professionals actually coming together and shaping their future collectively, then it's worth its weight in gold.


Do you spend enough money on career development?

A wanted, professional development, poster mock up

Shelling out cash on career development is a tricky issue.

It can be tricky to raise the cash in the first place; I don’t know about you, but me and my wife pretty much spend or put into savings everything we have, each month, no matter what we’re earning. It seems the outgoings expand to fill the vacuum of any wage increase – so making money available for professional development essentially means taking it away from something else.

It can be tricky to decide what to spend it on. Is a course more useful than a workshop? Is attending two local conferences better than one massive national one which costs a lot to get to? Should I be spending my money and time on something directly related to my current 9-to-5 role, or on something that might benefit my general development and later career?

Most of all, it can be tricky to get a tangible sense of whether or not it is worth it. Will you earn back what you spend? Will the next job you get on better pay have anything to do with that conference you went to, really? Is the fact that something is fun and interesting of itself, and may not actually lead anywhere career-wise, worth stumping up cash for? Etc.

I have various professional outgoings, on an annual basis. CILIP membership: £184. Website hosting + domain name registration plus upgraded wordpress package to allow for more storage / formats etc: £100. Business cards with the nice wikiman logo on the front and a horrific picture of me on the back:  £20. A combination of all this stuff plugging me in to the wider profession and meaning librarianship has gone from a job to a vocation for me: priceless! But it is a lot of money all told, and there has to be a limit to what I can spend – I’d love to be a member of SLA-Europe but have so far not quite been able to make that happen (even though I’m 99.9% sure it’d be worth it). And this isn’t taking into account money spent on conferences or training, or indeed the Annual Leave it costs me to do all the things I like doing – the extra-curricular Information Professional activities.

I’m very fortunate in two ways: firstly I work for an employer that invests in training opportunities and takes developing its employees seriously, so for all stuff directly relevant to my job I get sent off on training all the time. Secondly, by the time this blog is two years old this time next year, I think I will have attended more than 10 fantastic events for free (and with train fares paid), that I would otherwise have paid to attend myself as a delegate, because I’m either speaking at them or helping organise them. It sounds outrageously cynical / glib to say it’s worth submitting a paper for an event you really want to go to, but it really is worth bearing in mind! You’ll get more out of the day anyway, and you’ll save a lot of money. Same goes for volunteering to help run things – hard work, but free attendance For The Win.

I still pay for stuff myself where necessary though, and that doesn’t always end well. I once booked last minute train tickets and a place on a (rather disappointing, and quite expensive) copyright course in London in order to fill a gap in my CV for a job application, and subsequently didn’t even get interviewed for the post! We moved heaven and earth to make that happen, savaged the bank-account, took leave to attend, and the result was: fail. But generally speaking, I think it is worth taking a punt and spending money on career development. I didn’t get to see Woodsiegirl’s talk at the New Professionals Conference, but I understand she said something along similar lines.

What strikes me is that most of us who are in this for the long term end up doing a library Masters. This costs a fortune – thousands of pounds, and I couldn’t have afforded mine without help from my incredibly supportive parents. You spend several grand on a piece of paper that allows you to earn more in the future – and of course you might learn some interesting stuff along the way, but remember it will be outmoded in just two years. Two years! It used to be that the information you learned would be useful for five years after graduation, but the library world moves so fast that you only get 24 months nowadays. (I think the experience of being exposed to and immersed in lots of different aspects of the profession is more valuable than the specific stuff you learn, but that’s a different debate.) Not only that, but because so many professionals have the qualification these days, it doesn't mark you out at all - it just gets the door open in the first place, rather than getting you through it. As a result, your learning can’t stop when you have a Masters – it’s only by going to conferences, training, courses and events that you can continue to stay ahead of (or even just try and keep up with) the game.

So next time I'm wondering whether to hand out £50 or whatever for attending a conference - I'll remember all the sacrifices made to afford library school, and how astronomically much more that cost than the conference will, and how you have to keep making financial sacrifices in order to move your career along, and that eventually I probably will earn it back if attending this event is part of a rounded programme of professional development, and take a deep breath: then invest in my career.

- thewikiman

Cheers to TheatreGrad and FieldVole whose blog post and comment respectively made my mind up on writing this post!

P.S. Talking of spending money on library-related things, the New Spice video (in response to the Old Spice man vids that are going viral at the moment) really is absolutely outstanding - here it is in case you've missed it so far:

I'm a big fan of the guy who has apparently been attacked by a plant, at 0:19 - they say libraries are boring, but clearly they dicier places than many imagine...