Conferences, Communities, and Sustaining Engagement: An ATG Hot Topic

by | Feb 25, 2019 | 0 comments

Courtney McAllister

By Courtney McAllister

Although it feels like the semester has just begun, my calendar is rapidly filling up with appointments and meetings for upcoming conferences like Electronic Resources & Libraries (ER&L). The influx of conference preparation this week has prompted me to contemplate how these gatherings contribute to professional development and growth. Conferences take a tremendous amount of effort to organize and manage, and attending them costs time and money. So, what does the value proposition look like?

I think one of the biggest challenges librarians and information professionals face is carving out time to learn new things or reflect on what is going on in the larger industry or environment. There is so much day-to-day hubbub to keep us busy, pausing to take a breath and process a new idea or development can be a rare luxury. I have a stack of provocatively titled articles and reports in a folder on my desk, labeled “READ SOON” in angry, bold Sharpie. The webinar archive links start to become an embarrassing backlog after a while. I feel a bit sheepish about watching a recorded session on emerging technologies that has been languishing in my queue for 18 months. There is no shortage of information to inspire and instruct us, but how do we prioritize time to engage and discuss?

The peer-to-peer learning opportunities discussed previously can foster more immediacy. Feeling accountable to a mentor, mentee, or collaborator might improve follow through. I always achieve more when there’s someone else to keep me on my toes. However, these relationships also take time to cultivate, and sometimes the spirit of camaraderie and sharing is squelched by logistical limitations. I think conferences bring structure to our unrealized knowledge sharing ambitions. Although I am surely not the only one who has had to multitask during a session because of some time sensitive issue at my home institution, I always appreciate the way conferences disrupt my daily routine. Being physically away from my office pushes me to engage with new ideas and spend time with others working in the industry, instead of perpetually procrastinating.

For me, conferences have been valuable sources of:

  • Inspiration and big picture thinking that helps me feel like my work is connected to something impactful. Some memorable examples include hearing Char Booth at NWILL 2016, Ruth Okediji at Charleston Conference 2018, and Brewster Kahle at Charleston Conference 2017. Each of these speakers made me feel a sense of excitement about the work happening within the profession as a whole. It’s useful to have these moments to draw upon when one feels frustrated or exhausted.
  • Practical advice on best practices or innovative improvements to implement at my own institution. Sessions on data visualization tools and techniques have been beneficial to me, because I never went through formal training in these areas. Assessment and statistical analysis are also topics I love to hear about. I’ve never exactly felt confident with my math skills, so anything that helps demystify “math stuff” is always appreciated.
  • References to things to look up later. It can be a book or author reference, or some tool or project I learn more about post-conference. I always struggle to keep up with the ever-evolving plethora of acronyms in LIS and LIS-adjacent fields. When I come back from a conference, I feel like I have a better grasp on the jargon or new terms.
  • Stress relief through sharing experiences or challenges with other attendees. If you are in the midst of a complex and exhausting state-wide ILS migration, you will be able to find other people at a conference who are either in a similar position, or have been recently. If your library is about to hire a new Dean or Director, there will be no shortage of people who understand your excitement and anxiety. There’s something profoundly comforting about talking about a worry or stressor with someone who can truly commiserate. I’ve had these conversations segue into practical advice, but even when that doesn’t happen, it is cathartic to have honest conversations about how we’re dealing with changes or challenges.
  • Expanding one’s sense of community and networks. When I plan my schedule for a conference, I try to seek out at least 2 or 3 sessions on topics I am completely unfamiliar with. While the content might not be as relevant to my daily duties, it’s incredibly useful to be exposed to a wide variety of topics and perspectives. It’s also a great way to engage with new people. The LIS world can have lots of sub-sections or mini-communities. When I worked in resource sharing, the ILL listserv felt like a very close knit community, and I feel a similar sense of affinity now with LibLicense and ERIL. But it’s important to go beyond that comfort zone and, as mentioned in a previous post, embrace an expansive definition of peer.

Conferences can be a great opportunity for professional growth. I think the question is how to make the inspirational and educational benefits of a conference more sustainable, but also accessible, dynamic, and easy to engage with – something that can be infused more consistently within one’s regular life.

I think social media replicates some of the positive benefits of a conference. Following LIS people on Twitter has introduced me to really interesting ideas or developments. The drawback I’ve experienced in using social media is that my attention span for check-ins is usually insufficient to properly absorb the longer form pieces or threads. Scanning a social media feed is usually something I do when I have 5 minutes to kill before my bus is due. That has been ideal for gleaning bits of information and ideas, but more substantial news and updates tend to fester in my digital to-do pile.

Perhaps projects like The Scholarly Kitchen are more conducive to substantive commentary and information sharing that integrates a variety of voices, fosters a community, and creates opportunities for interactive engagement. On a meta-level, I think this raises some interesting questions about the potential value of a single author series, like the current iteration of Hot Topics, compared to multivocalic forums that bring together a wider ranges of perspectives. Just as conference sessions try to steer clear of “sage on the stage” syndrome, our online forums and communities prioritize diverse perspectives over the lone voice. Stay tuned for an upcoming announcement about how Hot Topics will be shifting to a more expansive, interactive model in the future! In the meantime, some points to consider:

  • Can online forums and projects like Scholarly Kitchen help us sustain the momentum we often get from conferencing?
  • How have conferences impacted your professional growth or development?
  • What strategies have you used to integrate conference experiences and takeaways into your daily work or professional trajectory?


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