Did you have the opportunity to attend both the 2007 Baltimore ACRL conference and the 2009 Seattle ACRL conference? If so, which did you like better? I did get to both and I really wouldn’t compare the two. I think each conference needs to stand on its own. You have different cities, a different crowd, different themes, different speakers, etc. With so many differences a comparison could be difficult and not all that informative. It’s likely something worked better at one than the other, but every conference is going to have its ups and downs and it all balances out in the end. Yet, when I reviewed the results of ACRL’s comprehensive attendee survey for the 2009 Seattle conference, I was surprised to see a number of comments directed towards comparing the two, and a number of them expressed a preference for the Baltimore conference.
That said, the reactions to and comments about the ACRL Seattle conference were overwhelmingly positive. I was especially pleased to see that many of the newer-to-the-profession first-time attendees indicated how much they enjoyed the conference and that they intended to register for Philadelphia in 2011. Here are just a few of the highlights from the official survey questions:
* 94% indicated they’d recommend the conference to their colleagues
* 87% indicated the most important reason to attend is “keep up with the profession”
* The top response to the question “what is the most valuable part of the conference” was “connecting with colleagues”
* Ranked from “most important” to “least important” here’s what attendees said they found valuable: panel sessions; keynote speakers; poster sessions; contributed papers; cyber zed shed
* 55% of attendees reported that their institutions paid 95% or more of their conference expenses
* When asked what are the top issues for academic librarians the most frequent responses were: keeping up with technology; managing change and innovation; dealing with budget issues
* When asked what are the top issues for the academic library profession the most frequent responses were: technology change; demonstrating the library’s impact; maintaining relevance; managing change and innovation; declining support for libraries
* There was an increase in the number of attendees between ages 21-30 to 13.5% of all attendees (up from 10% in Baltimore); the majority of the attendees (41%) were 51 or above.
* For those of you waiting for librarians to retire only 8% indicated they’d retire in the next 5 years; 15% indicated they planned to retire in 5-9 years.
There were tons of comments, far too many to even summarize here. Again, I’d say the bulk were positive and reflected great enthusiasm for the conference, the Seattle location and the “green” initiative. Here is a sampling from the comments:
* We need to cut program dead weight; we cannot ask people to pay to come to boring and irrelevant speakers
* The content was consistently very good; the scheduling to avoid conflicts was a blessing and everything was easy to get to
* Too many session on instruction and reference; I want more sessions on management issues
* Still the best conference for academic librarians
* I want to be provoked by something new and creative
* I come from a very small private institution and didn’t feel like I could connect with those from large research universities
* Too much flat and outdated content; we need the latest and greatest in Philly
* Too many posters and not enough sessions
* Too many sessions and not enough posters
Well those last two comments give you an idea of what ACRL is up against in trying to figure out how to improve things for the 2011 conference. For everything that some folks loved there were other respondents who disliked that same aspect of the conference. I was interested to see a number of comments suggesting that ACRL should model the conference on EDUCAUSE. There’s no question that the annual EDUCAUSE is a great conference, but I think ACRL already has a similar structure and in fact offers more programming variety and innovative activity such as the cyber zed shed. What to do? Here are a few random observations and thoughts:
* Consider reducing the number of contributed papers and increasing opportunities for birds of a feather sessions. There were more than a few comments that indicated the topics are out of date by the time the conference rolls around; that’s not unexpected when proposals for papers and panels are due a year before the conference. You could debate that the contributed papers are the least interactive and dullest part of the conference. This is not good for a conference where the top reasons to attend are “connect with colleagues” and “keeping up”. Can we give this conference more of an “unconference” feel where attendees could identify the topics they want to talk about and then have BoaF sessions generated shortly before the start of the conference? Attendees want to connect with their colleagues, and they want to be involved. This could be a way to do both. What gets lost? Opportunities to list conference paper presentations on CVs. Then again, doesn’t ACRL have some responsibility to promote scholarly research at the conference through the delivery of contributed papers. Or is there another way to do that? We may have a conflict between tradition and changing attendee expectations that needs resolution for Philly 2011.
* Attendees seem to like the format of the cyber zed shed – concise 20 minute “browseable” presentations (many comments indicated the need for a bigger room for this part of the conference) – that don’t demand much time and allow them to take in a greater number of sessions while at the conference. Is there a way to create a conference that shifts to more of these shorter format presentations? I don’t think we should entirely lose programs that need more time for in depth exploration of topics, but attendees could benefit from the ability to take in more content in shorter bursts. It could also create opportunities for more people to participate as presenters.
* The flip side of shorter sessions would be to consider doing away with the three-hour workshops; that is the one content area where I noticed more negative comments than positive ones. You’d think these programs would offer the most opportunity for interaction and sharing ideas with colleagues but the comments indicated too many slides, talking head presenters and colleagues who seemed more interested in getting continuing education credits than talking with each other. Why not offer the workshops as virtual programs that ACRL can make available throughout the year so those needing continuing education credit can get it when they need it. Re-thinking the conference means figuring out what to eliminate as well as what to add.
I’m going to wrap it up here. As a member of the conference planning committee for 2011 I know there will be much discussion about how we can improve the conference. These evaluations provide great food for thought, but innovative ideas can come from anywhere so please share yours with members of the Philadelphia planning committee (or send them to me – bells at temple.edu – if you like and I’ll pass them on). I’ll just finish with these three items:
* Do you think “cyber zed shed” is a name in need of a change? Several respondents commented that they hated the name. Do you have a suggestion for something better (the complainers of course never have a suggestion for anything better)? What about “Tech Tips in 20”?
* Who do you think would make a great keynote speaker? I’m co-chairing that committee so please feel free to send your suggestions directly to me.
* Who wants to own up to recommending we have the conference in Kansas City? Oh yeah, and who said they wanted more handouts!!!