Of Internet Librarian and Conferences Virtual and Physical

I'm a bit late to the party in commenting on Internet Librarian this year. Chalk it up to the head cold I brought home with me. I once again had a great time, and although this time around it wasn't quite the same eye-opening, world-rocking experience last year's was, Internet Librarian is still some of the most fun I have as a librarian. And interestingly enough, my comment from my last post, that "to be perfectly honest, I think I could ignore the sessions... ...and still have a great conference experience if it meant I could hang out with the other conference attendees," turned out to be somewhat prophetic.

That's not to say there weren't good sessions - it was very nearly worth the price of the conference just to hear Joe Janes' keynote. But unlike last year, where I was completely floored by the number of really great presentations, the presentations this year varied a lot more in quality. There were excellent presentations, but there were also a couple of real turkeys, and overall it just seemed like fewer presenters brought their A game than last year. ((Inevitable, perhaps - last year, it seemed like everybody brought their A game.))

However, I do not for one minute consider my time in Monterey wasted. But the most useful bits of the conference this year for me turned out to be conversations that occurred in between sessions, at the various receptions, and over meals. I got to hang out with many of my online buddies, including several people I haven't seen in person since Internet Librarian last year. I ran into a friend and former classmate in the airport and we got to catch up on life over a great seafood dinner. I got to meet a whole bunch more people. And in the midst of all that, I got to be party to some really great conversations ranging from the current state of library literature to Mac geekery to change and innovation in libraries (or the lack thereof).

I also got to hear what I think was the beginnings of a lot of the talk that's been going around since Internet Librarian about virtual conferences, and even though this may amount to nothing more than a bit of "me too-ism", I want to contribute my two cents.

My experience at Internet Librarian this year has convinced me that Jason Griffey (who's written 3 times on this subject recently, posts to be found here, here, and here), Meredith Farkas, Michelle Boule, and the other folks ((whose posts I have, unfortunately, failed to bookmark and am too lazy to look up for linkage here)) who have weighed in on the idea of virtual conferences (particularly in the case of ALA conferences) are absolutely dead on in saying that the traditional conference format is due for a change. I think some serious thought needs to be given to exactly which of the traditional conference activities are still best handled in person and which ones are really better moved to the virtual realm. And here's my take on where some lines should be drawn.

First, the virtual:

Formal business meetings and committee meetings really need to go virtual - by taking away the requirement that people are forced to all be in the same place at the same time in order to participate, it should mean that a lot more people will be capable of participating. ((This doesn't mean they *will* participate, but it does take away one excuse to not participate.))

Any program/talk/presentation/whatever you want to call it where the primary intent of the presenter is to "talk at" the audience can probably go virtual. One thing that really came home for me at Internet Librarian this year, is that I don't have a lot of patience left for traveling to sit through presentations that amount to canned speeches where the presenter is saying little more than "look at my cool thing, isn't it cool," and has no real interest in engaging the audience. That's not to say that purely informational presentations are a complete waste of time - they frequently contain genuinely useful information - but I don't have to be physically present at the presentation to get what I need out of them.

I'm sure there are other things that are more suited to the virtual realm, but for me, those are the two biggies. These are also the two primary reasons why the big, huge ALA conferences generally fail to inspire much interest from me. I don't want to spend a great deal of time, money, and effort to travel to a distant city in order to do the sort of work that could just as easily be done online. And, I have to say that in ALA's conferences attempts to be all things to all people, it seems like the balance it tipped more towards the sort of purely informational presentations that I don't feel a need to be physically present for. It's not that I'm unwilling to participate, or that I'm uninterested in the content, or even that I'm unwilling to pay to get access to the content. But I just don't get a high enough return on my investment (of time and the energy it takes to travel as much money) to make it seem worthwhile to go.

But that doesn't mean I think the physical conference is dead. I will still gladly pay good money and travel to:

See any program/talk/presentation/whatever you want to call it where the primary intent of the presenter is to inspire the audience. ((And inspiration can take so many forms: you can inspire action, you can inspire thought, you can inspire debate....)) Because, let's face it, the best way to get people charged up about something still seems to be to do it in person. I read a number of blog posts rehashing that Joe Janes keynote I mentioned earlier, and though they were all pretty good at capturing the basic content of that talk, not a one of them was an adequate substitute for sitting in the audience and hearing the talk live. And even if most of "informational" side of conference presentations go virtual, I will always be willing to pay good money to go see the most inspiring folks do what they do best.

See any program/talk/presentation/whatever where the primary intent is to start a conversation amongst the people in the room. Be it a formal round-table discussion, or an informal get-together over dinner. Even if there are folks there who'd really just prefer to sit and listen ((A preference that I'll admit to being guilty of myself fairly often, depending on the situation.)) I've found that a conversation between several people almost always proves to be more interesting and informative than if it had just been one person talking.

Socialize. Because despite the fact that I can hang out virtually with all my online buddies, it's still not the same as actually getting to hang out with them in person. I'm sure I'm not the only person to notice that no matter how good our virtual lines of communication get there is still something incredibly compelling about getting together with people in real life.

It comes down to this: I have a limited amount of time and money to spend traveling to conferences, and as a result, I'm choosy about what I consider going to. I can't go to everything (no one can). But if I had the opportunity to virtually attend conferences without incurring all the expense of attending the physical conference, I'd probably attend more conferences. And the group that figures out the best mix of virtual and physical content (and better yet, that figures out a way to make money off of both) is going to win. Huge. They'll definitely have my support.