Conferences and Contribution

Last post I asked some questions and put forward some tentative conclusions about speaking and conference participation. I probably seemed surer than I actually am about the topic, but by the end I was thinking more about what a conference should be. I do think librarians should be better funded by their libraries to participate in professional conferences, especially if they’re required to for tenure, but I’m still not sure what I think about compensation, or even waiving conference registration, and that’s because of what I think a conference should be. Should a conference be outsiders lecturing to insiders, or insiders conferring amongst themselves? If a conference should be professionals conferring amongst themselves, then compensating speakers isn’t a good idea.

Not all occasions of librarians speaking to librarians are conferences, of course. In a workshop, for example, an expert of some kind is paid to come in and train or educate people on a particular topic. The workshop participants acknowledge they need some sort of outside expert and pay extra to get this person. However, this might not be a good model for a conference, because the idea of a conference isn’t to have experts come in and train us, but to provide an opportunity for us to talk amongst ourselves. Anything that encourages the expert/star model devalues the possible contributions of the group.

What constitutes the group is dependent on context, of course, and it might not work for every conference. ALA as a whole might be too big to classify, but even there I don’t see the reason ALA pays for all of the celebrity speakers. Is that really an attraction for the librarians? Do librarians considering going to ALA ever make their decision based on who is giving the keynote speech? Maybe they do, but that would seem weird to me.

Smaller conferences and divisional groups within ALA are more the kind of thing I’m talking about. At a LOEX conference, the idea is that instruction librarians get together to discuss instruction. Unless a speaker is a non-librarian bring a useful non-library perspective to a subject, the speaker is one of the group contributing to the well being of the group. One of the proposals I submitted recently was for the Reference Renaissance conference coming up in Denver in August (actually, I submitted two proposals, but only one was accepted). It’s partly a RUSA-sponsored reference conference, and I’m a reference librarian who’s also in RUSA. I’m one of the group, not an outside expert coming in.

Under this model of a conference, state library associations, for example, wouldn’t pay people from out of state to come in to speak; instead, they would rely upon the expertise of their own, which is probably there but unnoticed. I know conferences want recognizable names to bring in more librarians, but in my experience rarely is the librarian with the recognizable name an expert in something so esoteric that many other people couldn’t do the same thing, especially for some generic keynote speech. Presenting research might be a different story, but that’s not what happens at a lot of conferences.

Wouldn’t it be better for all of us to come together as related professionals and share our knowledge than to rely upon some great-(wo)man, banking-model, speaker process? I think it would, but this requires at least two things.

First, it requires adequate institutional funding. In both of my professional library jobs, funding has been linked to participation. The more one participates in a conference (presenter, committee chair or member, etc), the better the funding. This is a good model because it encourages active participation. It should be the institutions, and not the conferences, that supply the funding, though. If some don’t pay or even get paid, the rest usually have to pay more.

Second, librarians need to have a sense of obligation to participate and share their knowledge. This might be even trickier than funding, because some conferences seem to have trouble even finding good presenters. I’m conflicted on this issue, because I do think professional librarians have some obligation to contribute to conferences if they can, and yet I’m always reluctant to put myself forward as a speaker. Until recently, I’ve never submitted a proposal to speak anywhere, and what few speaking gigs I’ve done have been thrust upon me. I don’t think I have anything particularly earth-shattering to offer, but I’m a pretty good speaker and I’m very good at leading discussions so I could probably contribute more. Heck, I haven’t even written much. Until I started this blog, I rarely wrote about library issues for any public audience.

I’m not sure why I haven’t tried to speak more so far, but it’s probably because the only motivation would be a sense of obligation. Though I have a quasi-tenured job, speaking wasn’t necessary, I don’t have any special desire to be famous, and I don’t especially like to travel. As is probably clear from this blog, I also don’t focus much on the practical issues that attract a lot of librarians to conference presentations. Other librarians have different issues, I’m sure. Perhaps it’s a lack of confidence that keeps people from participating more, or just a lack of interest. Perhaps associations don’t always do enough to develop a culture of contribution or look hard enough within their own ranks for speakers.

My position on this still isn’t clear even to myself, but for some reason I think that instead of a star-circuit, a culture of contribution and an idea of a conference as a gathering together of related professionals would be better for us all. Of course, maybe I’m just saying that because nobody’s offering to pay me to deliver their keynote speech.

2 thoughts on “Conferences and Contribution

  1. Thanks for continuing to write such interesting stuff.
    I like the reminder that conferences should be occasions to “confer.” I think this is the impetus behind many of the unconferences/library camps etc. I haven’t been to one of those, but I very much would like to do that.
    On the other hand, I recognize that some speakers are better than others, and I presume that the “star” speakers are at least known quantities that should be able to hold an audience’s attention for the keynote.
    My limited experience on program planning committees showed me that it is pretty impossible to judge whether a person submitting a proposal will be an effective speaker or not unless you have seen them present before or unless they are well-known enough to have a reputation. In a traditional conference setup, when there are more people who want to present than there are slots for presentations, a lot of the quality of the sessions is left up to chance.
    I’ll put it this way: I’m speaking at a thing on Friday where I’m looking forward to just talking to other Colorado academic librarians about stuff. But I’m also looking forward to the Colorado Association of Libraries conference in November mainly because Jessamyn West will be doing a keynote and I am a Jessamyn fanboy.

  2. Good points, Steve. I’ll admit I’m sort of fumbling towards an opinion on this issue. I haven’t seen anyone speak that blew me away so much that I’d definitely want to hear them again, but that’s all very subjective, I know. There are plenty of awful speakers, which is why, as I noted in the last post, my musings aren’t meant to malign popular speakers. Then tend to be popular because they’re good, and known quantities. It makes perfect sense to get them. I’m just considering why one might not want to.

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