Planning the Access Library Technology Conference

by Shannon Lucky,
Library Systems and Information Technology
University of Saskatchewan Library

In September the University Library at the U of S hosted the 25th Access Library Technology Conference. The core planning team (Jaclyn McLean, Craig Harkema, and myself) are still wrapping up the last loose ends and paying the last of the bills before we hand everything over to the next planning committee, but we have had time to reflect on the last year of planning and what made the event a success. The TL:DR is that smart delegating and asking for help saved our sanity and made Access a much better conference than we could have done on our own.

The longevity of the Access conference is remarkable – it is not led by an academic association and doesn’t have much of a formalized structure. It is supported by a community of library technology people dispersed across Canada who pass the organizing role from institution to institution each year. It had been 19 years since Access was last hosted in Saskatchewan (Access 1998!) and it felt like we were overdue for a return to the prairies.

Organizing a conference is one of those tasks that academics take on because someone has to do it, but it isn’t something library school prepares you for. In some ways, this makes Access a great conference to host, in other ways the lack of guidelines was daunting. There are so many ways to mess it up.

We were handed the keys to the conference – logins credentials, a comfortable budget (that we didn’t want to empty for future years), and documentation from previous years – and were told to start planning immediately. There are only a few traditions we were advised to continue: we should livestream the conference for free (which we did – recordings on the YouTube channel), keep it a single stream program, continue the Dave Binkley Memorial lecture, and make sure there are enough socializing opportunities (and enough refreshments).

Our core team was well balanced and it was a real pleasure working with Craig and Jaclyn, but we were appropriately intimidated by the amount of work that needed to be done in less than a year. In response, we delegated like crazy. This may be the most successful thing we did during the entire process. By dividing up tasks into discrete projects with well-defined time commitments and expectations we were able to approach colleagues and Access community members to pitch-in in ways that utilized their strengths and were (hopefully) professionally beneficial for them. Making targeted asks rather than a general call for volunteers also may have helped us solicit time from very talented and busy colleagues.

The major volunteer contributions that made this conference possible were:

  • The program committee (Charlene Sorensen, DeDe Dawson, Karim Tharani) who wrote and advertised the call for papers, coordinated the peer reviewers, and created the timetable. This felt like a gargantuan task, perhaps the biggest part of making the conference successful, and having this work happen smoothly while we dealt with more prosaic tasks was a big help.
  • Peer reviewers, mainly members of the Access community, who volunteered online to review proposals. We were impressed with the number of volunteers and their thoughtful feedback.
  • The diversity scholarship committee (Maha Kumaran, Naz Torabi, Ying Liu, Ray Fernandes). I could not be prouder of how well the diversity scholarship program worked this year. We were fortunate to have Maha, whose research involves diversity in libraries, agree to lead this committee who designed the application and adjudication process, spread the call for applicants well beyond the typical Access circles, and made their decision after reading many qualified applications. The excellent work of this committee made me feel confident in our process of awarding the scholarships and it is one of the top things I will recommend to future organizers.
  • Hackfest workshop leaders (Darryl Friesen, John Yobb, Curt Campbell, Donald Johnson, Andrew Nagy) who organized workshops on the first day of the conference including hauling gear and coordinating their groups of registrants.
  • Conveners (Megan Kennedy, Tim Hutchinson, Carolyn Doi, Danielle Bitz, Joel Salt) who coordinated, introduced, and moderated questions for each block of speakers.
  • Social events (Sarah Rutley) who managed to transform all of our crazy (and sometimes terrible) ideas into three days of great activities, coordinating multiple vendors, food allergies, and last minute changes.
  • Hotel logistics (Jen Murray) who was the central contact point between the committee and our venue – having one person focused on all the details around the space, food, and time schedules was a lifesaver, particularly when things went off the rails.

In other areas, we ponied up and paid for professional services including the venue, catering, AV support, live streaming, and registration system. All money well spent. The downside is that I know we had enthusiastic, talented members of our local library community who would have gladly volunteered and done a fantastic job. It’s almost a shame we didn’t have more work to do. Almost.

There are many more people who made this event successful including the support of the U of S Library and Dean Melissa Just, Virginia Wilson who gave us great advice based on her experience hosting the EBLIP7 conference, Carolyn Pytlyk who helped me write our SSHRC Connections grant, past Access organizers, and all of our sponsors. I also want to thank all of the attendees who were so engaged and enthusiastic about both the perogies and the conference program. The whole process was so much fun you can count me in to host again in 19 years – see you at Access 2036.

Access 2017 organizers and volunteers

Access 2017 organizers and volunteers celebrating a successful conference by throwing axes.

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

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