Speaking of Speaking

For the first time ever, I have submitted proposals to speak at conferences. Obviously I’m not exactly itching to be famous. Over the past month, I sent in two. As I was preparing my most recent one, I read the recent posts at Information Wants to Be Free complaining about librarians having to pay their own way to speak at conferences, and the disproportionately negative effect this has on newer librarians and librarians with poor institutional funding.

I feel most badly for those librarians on the tenure track who are more or less required to speak and yet also don’t receive adequate funding, and who also most likely aren’t particularly well paid as newish librarians at poorly funded libraries, but it’s not clear that we as a profession suffer because they can’t afford to speak at a particular conference or that it’s a problem for anyone but them specifically. Just being a good speaker or saying well what any number of librarians could say equally well isn’t necessarily a reason to feel bad that people can’t afford to speak. I also would want to know why the person wants to speak. If it’s required for the job, that’s one thing, but there are plenty of motivations for speaking that don’t particularly deserve any special sympathy.

There’s the professional advancement argument, for example. There’s the possibility that being a popular speaker might lead to better jobs. But how necessary is this? It’s not necessary for career development or getting good jobs, at least in my limited experience. I have a great job, and I’ve spoken and published very little. Is it the case that “famous” librarians get better jobs? I don’t know, but I do know it’s possible to get good jobs without being particularly well known, and I also know I can’t think of any librarians on the conference speaking circuit that I’d willingly trade jobs with.

Then there’s speaking just to speak more, to be “famous” for its own sake. I find this the least sympathetic motivation. Many people understandably thrive on widespread recognition and speaking offers. They want to be well known and desired, and I see nothing discreditable about that, but I also don’t see how it’s of any benefit either to anyone else or to the profession as a whole. For one thing, it leads to a saturation of the same old librarians and a limitation on new voices. Librarian celebrity perpetuates itself, so prominent speakers get asked to speak because people have heard of them, not necessarily because they have anything particularly relevant or fresh to say in the context of a particular program or conference. This is no insult to popular speakers. Speakers tend to be popular because they’re good at it. But there are other good library speakers who are never considered because they’re less prominent.

We’re getting closer to a reason for concern here, but I see no reason to sympathize with librarians who just want to become more prominent and might not have anything to say that isn’t already being said. After all, conferences seem to get speakers, and there are plenty of librarians motivated to speak because they just want to speak or because they have to for tenure and are funded adequately. And if we’re honest, do we really think there are that many librarians who have such novel contributions to make that we’d benefit from hearing them speak? Would they really be saying anything that isn’t already being said by other speakers and better funded librarians?

We just don’t know. That’s one reason why this would be a problem at all. Systematic exclusion of new library voices could very well be limiting useful contributions and interesting professional discussions, and newer librarians who haven’t yet been fully indoctrinated into traditional ideologies of librarianship might have a lot to offer. Without some change, we’ll never know.

I’ve argued that a problem of excluding these librarians from conference speaking and participation is that there’s at least the possibility they have novel and worthwhile contributions to make to the profession and that their voices won’t be heard, but we know that’s not exactly accurate. These librarians aren’t being silenced in any way. The biggest hole in my argument is that it’s easier than ever to put your ideas before librarians. Once upon a time one either wrote for the limited library press or one spoke at conferences, but times have changed. Any librarian with something to contribute can start a blog and put forth their ideas. So if these librarians have so much to contribute, why not just start a blog?

There are several reasons why not. For one, it’s not like one starts writing a blog and the world sits up and takes notice. Trust me on that one! Blogs also require some sort of sustainability. There’s a huge difference between having good ideas and sharing them at a few conferences and writing about those same ideas week after week. How many blogs have you seen that start up with a “Hello, World!” post about how excited the librarian is to be blogging and sharing professional ideas with the world, but then end six months later after a sporadic few posts that as often as not apologize for not blogging for a while?

Then there’s the difference between speaking and writing. Speaking and interacting with live human beings in a discussion of trends or ideas is very different from sitting alone with the laptop. Good writing takes effort, even if one has a sustainable blog, and a lot of librarians who might very well have good ideas and want to speak out might not write well. Also, blogs and conference presentations reach different audiences. There are a lot of librarians, perhaps the majority, who read no blogs at all, but who go to conferences and workshops. Thus, because of the difficulty of getting noticed, sustainability, writing ability, and audience, a blog will only be a useful approach to entering the professional conversation for certain types of librarians.

We’re still left with the question of whether excluding poorly funded library voices from conference participation excludes worthwhile and novel contributions that we otherwise would benefit from, and we still don’t know. I think the fact that librarians are required to speak at conferences but aren’t funded by their libraries is much more regrettable than that any specific library conference won’t compensate their speakers. Partly this is because of my conception of what a conference should be. I’d much rather conferences be considered places where professionals come together to confer with each other than gather to listen to the same group of “famous” librarians time after time, but this is more difficult to achieve when many librarians don’t have adequate funding in the first place. This is more a problem of insufficient institutional support for professional development, though, rather than a problem of conferences not paying for people. Paying people to speak at conferences goes against the idea that conferences are places for professionals to come together to confer with one another.

So not compensating some speakers means that some librarians who may have novel or useful contributions to make to the profession are not heard, but compensating speakers goes against the conception of a conference as a place where professionals come together to confer with one another. For me at least, I think it’s more important to address the issue of inadequate institutional funding than to expect to be compensated for speaking to your fellow professionals during an ordinary library conference.

2 thoughts on “Speaking of Speaking

  1. The way I read most of these discussions about speaking at conferences, it seems like people are talking less about “expect[ing] to be compensated for speaking to your fellow professionals during an ordinary library conference,” and more about the conferences that require speakers to pay registration.
    Last I heard, my state association conference organizers felt they could not afford to waive conference registration fees for speakers, but they would allow speakers to do their session without registering, as long as they didn’t stick around for the rest of the conference. That might not be ideal, but at least it means that those who feel the need to present but don’t have institutional support can speak without having to pay registration themselves.

  2. That’s a good point, Steve. I guess I’m putting forward a possible argument against having people come in for a day who aren’t part of the conference, and so an argument against any sort of star system. In this scenario, conferences would be about people coming together and relying on their own talents for speakers rather than bringing in someone who isn’t involved with the whole conference.

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