On Online Conferences

by Donna Frederick
Services to Libraries, University of Saskatchewan

As I prepare my presentation for the Library 2.015 conference, I am reminded of recent comments about online conferences. These comments range from how some librarians enjoy the variety of topics and perspectives offered to those who felt that these conferences were amateurish and low-impact. The debates I have heard remind me somewhat of arguments I have heard about open access publishing. Given that I have attended free online conferences for five years in a row and presented at them four times, I feel that I can now confidently compare and contrast the different types.

I have presented at both “in person” and “online” conferences. There are some key differences between the two. These differences don’t necessarily make one type better or more important than the other. “In person” conferences do generally have a stricter vetting process for proposals, this makes sense for a conference which involves physical space, sessions which occur at a specific time and a limited number of attendees. It would be a waste to rent a room for a session which very few people attend. If the number of presentations is bloated out of proportion with the number of conference attendees, the “empty” room is likely. Careful selection of the most suitable proposals makes sense. With online conferences, presenters are required to submit proposals which are reviewed by a committee before being accepted but the criteria is not as strict and, as far as I understand, there is no official limit on the number of sessions.

My favourite in person conference is definitely ALA. Once a year I meet with colleagues and experts from within my specialization. I communicate with many of these librarians via email and social media during the year. I find it valuable to meet with them in person. There is nothing like being in the room when the Library of Congress discusses a controversial new standard change. Given that I often don’t have the chance to speak to those who have a deep understanding of or interest in the fine details of my work, I relish animated and energetic interest group talks. I have found it motivating to speak to those who have written the books and journal articles I have read. I wouldn’t suggest that it would be good for the ALA conferences to be replaced entirely with an online conference. To do so would truly be a loss.

But what about online conferences? I have to admit that the first time I gave a presentation to a blank computer screen was a strange and alienating experience. This is coming from a person who completed a master’s degree online! With the online conference, the magic often shows up after the fact. Maybe 20 or 30 people will be present in the virtual room while I give the presentation, but I have discovered people will continue to watch the recorded sessions two or three years after they were first given. My Library 2.0 presentations have led to many interesting email and social media discussions. Various doors have been opened to me and I have made some valuable professional connections. With the in person conferences where I have presented, I received some follow-up email but not anywhere near the volume I received for my online conferences.

In terms of being an attendee at an online conference, there are a few unpolished sessions but most are worth watching. I find the keynote speakers are generally well-known and respected librarians. Quality research and reports of highly interesting projects from around the world are common. One of the key issues is that some of the librarians who present at Library 2.0 are those who for one reason or another may not have the resources to travel to and present at the larger conferences. I find that the recordings are a definite strength because I can gradually work through the sessions which might be of interest for months after the conference. If I start watching a session which is not of interest, then I move on to the next one.

In summary, I think that online conferences play a significant role in leveling the playing field for ideas from libraries and librarians from around the world. It’s important to recognize the value of the opportunities to share ideas and experiences and not write the conferences off because they are free or because the diverse array of presenters include students and less experienced librarians.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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