Thoughts on Conferencing

by Vicki Williamson
Dean, University Library, University of Saskatchewan

As summer fades, a new academic year is set to begin, and conference season has come to an end for another year, I have been reflecting upon the value of professional meetings and conferences in the electronic age.

As a side note, all reports from the IFLA World Library and Information Congress 2015 in Cape Town, South Africa indicate a very active contingent of 50 Canadians in attendance with the conference highpoint being the announcement of IFLA’s highest honour of an Honorary Fellow Award to Ingrid Parent, University Librarian at the University of British Columbia.

But back to the topic of the conferencing… According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, as a noun, ‘conference’ is defined as a formal meeting for discussion; and as a verb, to take part in a conference or conference call. Librarians have been conferencing as a major form of ongoing professional development for as long as I can remember. In the electronic age, however, are expectations around conferences changing? Sometimes these days I think some folks believe that if they come back from a conference with copies of PowerPoint slides and presentations then they must have learned something.

The business model for face-to-face conferencing has been with the Academy and the profession of librarianship for a long time. The rise of the internet, and new and emerging technologies and applications are challenging that business model, especially in terms of the cost to run a conference and the cost of ‘attendance’. Many professional associations, including the American Library Association (ALA), which runs not one, but two major conferences per year, are questioning the longer-term sustainability of the face-to-face conference model. Half way across the Pacific and well into my 27 hours of flying time to get to the 8th International Evidence Based Library and Information Practice Conference (EBLIP8) in Brisbane, Australia in July, I too began to question the value of the face-to-face conference.

I’m delighted to say that by the end of the EBLIP8 conference my faith in the value of the face-to-face conference model had been restored. There does seem to be a time and place for technology to enrich the conference experience, but nothing quite matches the networking and learning experiences of a ‘live’ conference. So what was it that made EBLIP8 such a great experience and one well worth the cost, time, and effort to attend in person? Was it the amazing conference venue on the grounds of the Gardens Point Campus of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT)? Was it the Queensland’s sub-tropical winter weather with daily maximum temperatures ranging between 22˚ C and 24˚ C? Maybe it was the amazing catering, or, perhaps it was the cultural experience of things Australian that I had forgotten about after almost a decade of working overseas. Maybe it was the program content, or the outstanding quality of the speakers and/or the diversity of the participants who came from countries all over the world. Was it the conference size – that is, small enough that you could move around and speak with most people over the course of the three days? Or, was it simply that the topic of evidence based library and information practice is so applicable in every type of library setting (school, public, academic, etc.) and for every type of library function or specialization (technical, public, and/or corporate services). I’m sure all these factors played a part. I do know for me, it wasn’t the dancing at the conference dinner! Looking back on the whole EBLIP8 experience, it was for me simply having the time and space to listen, engage, and reflect; experience my Ah Ha! Moment during Dr. Neil Carrington’s keynote address on Creating and Sustaining a High Performance Team Culture, and return to my workplace professionally “reset and refocussed” on what’s important to me.

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.