My Conference Ennui

Although I had planned to take a short break from the blog while ALA Annual was going on (competing attention spans and all that), there was a conversation on Twitter today that really resonated with me. The gist of the exchanged tweets was about the general discontent regarding conferences. It’s been something that has been on my mind since March when I attended PLA in Philly and CIL in Washington DC over a span of two weeks. While I really enjoyed seeing people and hanging out with people at these conferences, I was really not into the actual conference itself.

While the speakers at PLA were talking about topics submitted almost two years prior (a major flaw if you want to encourage people to attend to stay current on library issues), I found the majority of speakers at CIL to be telling me things I already knew. I had hoped that I could find out something new or different about the topic that interested me the most (eBooks) or on something related, but I didn’t come away with much. I probably should have known that I was going to have a hard time at the actual conference itself when my social schedule filled up faster (and was more rewarding) than the sessions. Given the expense involved in attending, it makes the cost/benefit analysis look rather slim. In fact, I’d say I was way more interested in the social opportunities than the work ones; where else will I get to see the people in my personal learning network? There is no better way to spend quality face-to-face time with one’s peers than at a conference.

Until today, I thought it was that I was just “over” conferences. When they were new and different, it was something exciting and fun to do. Given that I stay on top of the issues I care about the most in the library world, the lure of the conference to teach me something new was starting to fade. In establishing connects and staying current, I wasn’t going to get much out of the sessions. Sure, there’s always something I didn’t know but finding that one nugget in a forty five minute presentation is not the best use of my time.

But, like I said above, the sessions almost represent a snapshot as to when they were submitted. Granted, some speakers update their talks to reflect something new that wasn’t in their proposal, but it’s a subject that is static to the moment it is proposed whether it is six months or eighteen months before. Perhaps, I thought, I’m just not the intended audience for these sessions. Perhaps this is for my less fortunate colleagues who don’t have the time like I do to stay up to date. That sounds reasonable, right?

Later this evening, I realized it wasn’t really ‘over’ conferences, I was just doing them wrong. Within that two week time period I mentioned, I also went to a school librarian unconference entitled “Handhelds in School Libraries New Jersey” that was put together by New Jersey’s cooperative, LibraryLink. As part of the conference staff, I had a great time helping out and listening in on what issues face school librarians. While I am aware of school librarian issues in general, this was the nitty-gritty-let-me-tell-you-what-kind-of-crap-I-have-to-deal-with eye opener in how policy, politics, and administration create a competing forces tempest with “let’s make sure our kids are tech savvy for our digital future :)” fights against “OMG we can’t let them go online/use their phone/get on Facebook because it will ruin our lives and Christmas FOREVER”. I learned all kinds of new things; I was able to share what I knew.

It was pretty frikkin’ sweet.

Or maybe it is a little bit of both. I guess I’m over conferences as a means of keeping up with my general topics of interest but it’s pretty useful for learning something new about another area of the library world. But is it worthwhile to pay hundreds of dollars in hotels, travel, and registration to learn about how some of my peers get by? No. The unconference was a bargain but a possibly rarity; it may or may not happen again. If I wanted to get the conference I felt was best for me, I may need to organize the damn thing myself. That’s certainly not the best system either, but at least I would be assured as to the product.

How do you feel about conferences? Best thing, worst thing?

7 thoughts on “My Conference Ennui

  1. I have found my experiences at the few conferences that I have attended to be similar to what you’ve experienced lately. Many of the sessions I went to i didn’t learn as much as I was hoping to, but like Joe mentioned, the “unconference” presentations I went to were very good. I’m still learning enough to make conferences meaningful beyond just the social aspect, but every year it feels like i’m learning less.

    But I also learn so much through the social interactions. The tete-a-tetes and small group gatherings are where I’ve found the best and most interesting information at conferences. Whether it is sitting right before a presentation waiting for it to start, right after, or during the after hour gatherings. I think you hinted at this, Andy, but I wasn’t sure.

  2. With today’s technology (video conferencing tools/skype, etc) each of us can organize our own personal conference by inviting a select group to present, share & update. Select topics, track down the people…..very time consuming to organize but then again maybe someone will get into the business of customized conferences (beyond webinars).

  3. I have been having the same “I’m over conferences” issue – especially in library world. You hit the nail on the head: sessions are stale and redundant, not cutting edge. I used to attend CIL as well, and I found that conference to be cliquish – you have the same group of speakers saying the same thing year after year. I even submitted a session on distance learning in LIS education during one year’s CFP, but was rejected. After 4 years of attending CIL, I gave up.

    I, too, thought I was doing something wrong … that I wasn’t conferencing right. So now I have become very clear to attend only conferences where I can contribute and/or learn substantively. This new stance has led me to seek conferences beyond LIS that meet my professional development needs. For example, I will be attending An Event Apart’s conference this summer to learn more about web design, since I teach that topic within a LIS curriculum, and personally design websites as well. I’m looking forward to this conference and believe it will be a good use of my time.

  4. As much as I enjoyed NJLA this year, I find that the NJLA Micro-Conferences give me more information since they are specific to one particular topic. At NJLA this year I went to more “fun” sessions than ones that would benefit my job.

  5. I attend ALA largely for committee work. I suppose it’s just a different type of professional development. I think I’ll be going to IL this year, which will be different. I’ll actually get to go to sessions! Perhaps I’ll find they’re not as useful as I expect. But yes, conference attendance when you’re on several committees is a very different beast.

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