June 26, 2008

My theory of conferences

I saw this on the Regenerations blog a few days ago:

I have just returned from beautiful Fredericton, where I was a delegate at the 2008 Conference of the Association of Canadian Archivists. This year's theme was "Stemming the Tide: Archives and the Digital World" and although the sessions did focus primarily on electronic records, digital archives initiatives and the implementation of electronic records management systems, there was a lot of information that could be applied to the library world. Many libraries and archives exist in assorted partnerships, such as Library and Archives Canada, and it is a given that these so-called sister professions have a lot to offer each other.

Of course, a line (usually financial) must be drawn somewhere, and it would be impossible for anyone to attend all the conferences that look appealing. What I am wondering is this. Do you ever attend conferences that are not strictly related to libraries? I can think of librarians who have attended leadership events, and IT conferences, but are there others that you would attend that have particular bearing on your jobs? Does plain ol' interest ever win out in your choice of conferences, rather than attending only those that you "should"?

And I thought it might be worthwhile to briefly explain my own theory of conference attendance.

First of all, there seem to be two overall frameworks for conference attendance out there: go to the same one every year or go to a different one every year. The first leads to integrating into a strong community and more solid networking. The later leads to broader networking and more diversity of ideas that you are exposed to.

I started my career more towards going to the same conference every year, mostly attending the Special Libraries Association (SLA) conference with one or two others interspersed due to travel issues. Lately, however, I've tended to want to go to a different "out of town" conference every year to expand my horizons.

So, over all:

  • Local Library Conference. It's really important to try and regularly attend the local, general conference. For me that's the Ontario Library Association Conference. That leads to building a good local network as well as getting exposure to ideas and innovations from across the library spectrum. I'm lucky that the OLA conference is very large and so affords lots of opportunities to both attend sessions and to present your own ideas. I've presented there several times in the past and will be presenting there in 2009 (on Science 2.0, natch).

  • Diversify your library conference experience. Like I said, I used to go to SLA all the time. Not so much anymore. As my work life has moved more towards supporting Engineering programs, the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) is becoming more relevant for me, that that's the conference I'll probably be attended more often than not in coming years. But it's not like I'll never attend another SLA. As well, I'm really interested in library computing issues so I'm sure I'll attend another Computers in Libraries one of these days. I've also really wanted to attend the ASIS&T conference for a more theoretical take on issues. Another conference I've been long interested in attending is the ACM/IEEE Joint Conference on Digital Libraries. So, you can see that my interests are far-reaching and wide-ranging as well as very specific. Getting exposure to all these communities is a good thing.

  • Domain-specific conferences. I'm a science & engineering librarian. So, it's going to be very important to me to keep up with the scientists and engineers -- the state of their pedagogy, how they're communicating with each other, what the main trends are in their various fields, what they're thinking about the future of science. In that case, I also want to try and attend conferences where most of the attendees are scientists and engineers. For me to become part of their communities and to network with them is a huge opportunity, to both learn about them and, hopefully, to educate them a little about my world and what we can do for them.

    In the past little while, SciBarCamp and the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference are examples of conferences I've attended to get that perspective. It's certainly there at the ASEE conference as well, what with over 3000 engineering educators present. Coming up, I'll be attending the Perimeter Institute's Science in the 21st Century conference as well as the successor conference to the NCSBC, Science Online. FSOSS is coming up too. Like I said, these conferences are incredibly important for me. They're both fun and very instructive. After all, we support the education and training of scientists and engineers so their concerns are our concerns, their future is our future.

    Most academic librarians likely find themselves belonging to multiple communities, like I find myself belonging to the library and scitech communities, and it's important to be part of and knowledgeable about those communities. I know several who are attending the ELPUB conference this week which is another great opportunity to stretch out beyond the library world.

Of course, one size doesn't fit all and your mileage may vary. Funding and time are limited, so I take advantage of local conferences of all types as much as I can.

What's your theory of conferences?


ChristyC said...

My thoughts about conferences are similar, but I have challenges actually going to the conferences. It's hard to find time (with both work and family) and the money.

My goal is to stick with one conference a year (right now it's SLA) and try to mix it up with one other conference. I'm thinking about going to the American Association of Physics Teachers in 2009. Perhaps I can ask for extra money if I'm experimental enough!

FYI, SLA is in D.C. next year, celebrating their 100th anniv. Should be a good one to go to.

Mita said...

I've always been more inclined to attend the smaller conferences in which attendance is capped to between 100 and 200 folks like Access and WILU. OLA is my exception because it does such a good job in being accessible for both those attending and those presenting for the first time.

What I think is fascinating is the apparent trend in increasing the amount of folks participating at conferences through adding lightning talks (like at Code4Lib and Access), Pecha Kucha sessions (at Computers in Libraries), and unconferences like One Big Library (which I wish I could be at!)

John Dupuis said...

ChristyC, I agree about the time and money issues, which is why so many of the conferences I mentioned are local. And with the era of cheap oil most likely coming to an end, travelling long distances to conferences will become increasingly rare over the next decade or so, if not sooner.

In that scenario, conferences like OLA, SciBarCamp and, yes, OneBigLibrary will become increasingly important means for f2f networking and sharing.

Mita, I agree that small is better. We had about 70 at the OBL and it was a great size. We actually didn't end up doing any lightening talks but we did combine similar proposals into one session to give more people a chance to talk. And we did miss you!