ACRL 2011: Walking The Talk

If you attended ACRL 2011 I hope you enjoyed it. I just completed the evaluation (be sure to complete it if you attended), and gave the conference high marks (disclosure: I co-chaired the keynotes committee). One of the things I really like about the ACRL conference is that it constantly evolves. A number of new initiatives were introduced this year. Some risks were taken, and some new things worked better than others. A few of the standbys may not be working as well as they used to. But it’s the way we want our own academic libraries to function – taking risks to try new things for the benefit of the end user – or in this case – you – the conference attendee. We have speakers who encourage us to take risks in the name of change. We read it in our literature. Be an innovator. It’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. You know the talk. Well, for me, the message of ACRL 2011 is that we need to walk the talk – and that’s just what ACRL did.

Take the choice of Clinton Kelly as the final keynote speaker. Not everyone agrees that this was a wise choice. For their final keynoter big library conferences usually go for NPR personalities, distinguished authors or highly recognized library advocates – especially if they are Hollywood personalities. Kelly is none of those. He’s the star of a TLC reality show. Not just any show but one with a strong message about personal change. Kelly shared seven rules for change, and spent more time on Q&A than most speakers. Maybe you liked it, maybe you didn’t. The point is that ACRL didn’t play it safe. They took a risk, and based on the reaction in the audience I’d say it was a risk well worth taking that paid off by giving attendees a great end to the conference.

Take the conference bag for example. For the years 2009 and 2007 ACRL conferences I’ve featured photos of the ACRL conference bag. Guess what? There is no ACRL conference bag in 2011. While I personally miss the bag – well not having it – just being able to critique it and provide a photo for you – I support the decision not to have one. The conference factsheet indicates that the members indicated that the bag just wasn’t necessary. We all have plenty of these bags. If you come to the conference and you really, really need a bag for your stuff, you can always find a vendor at the exhibits giving them away. And we all know librarians prefer to score exhibit hall swag anyway.

What else was new/different/risky? For example:

* Reduced time allowed for contributed papers from two 30-minute slots to three 20-minute slots. On the upside more librarians got to give a paper which is great. On the downside (experienced personally) it is tough to summarize months of research in 12 minutes – but constraints should bring out our creative side. Also on the upside, if the speaker is not so great, it won’t last long. I vote a thumbs up for this change. A risk worth taking.

* Introduction of the IdeaPower Unconference. I only got to one of these but it was packed. My take is that these are lightning talks with Q&A at the end. Sometimes I wasn’t exactly sure what the idea was, although I could tell it was about a project someone tried at their library. Whatever you thought of the presentations, it did give more attendees a chance to participate and present, and from what I heard this was really popular and well received. So this one gets a thumbs up too – not all that risky but it could have bombed.

* Moving the Cyber Zed Shed out of the Shed and into an actual conference room. While I understand the rationale for this – in 2007 and 2009 the CZS was packed to the gills – moving it to a regular room just seemed to take some of the wind out of the CZS sail. Maybe it was that it just didn’t have the “alternate conference” vibe that it used to. I’m going to give this a thumbs down. Either move it back into the exhibit hall or some weird spot or put it to rest. If you can’t get in because the area is small, well, there’s always another program. Again, not a huge risk but a change well worth trying.

*Heavy promotion of conference tweeting. This is not all that risky or groundbreaking these days. Seems like every library conference is judging itself by the volume of tweets it generates – and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Seems like we were just trying to encourage live blogging – but I think there are hardly any blog posts about the conference at all – and I think that’s our loss. I read that the conference generated approximately 8,500 tweets. I did attend two sessions where presenters asked attendees to tweet back responses relevant to the presentation. In at least one of them an attendee protested that he didn’t have a twitter account, and therefore couldn’t participate.

I guess my thinking on this is that if everyone is tweeting about the presentations during the presentations – is anyone really paying attention to what the presenters are saying. I know all the tweeters will say they multi-task well and can tweet and listen. Not me. I was tweeting when asked to, and I know for a fact that I missed something the presenter said because other people were chuckling and I had no clue. There’s no way I would even have attempted to tweet during Jaron Lanier’s keynote – I didn’t want to miss a word he said. Yet other folks were tweeting a plenty. I’m sure they missed something. A presentation of mine didn’t get much tweeting action. I don’t know what that means. Maybe I gave nothing to tweet about. Maybe I kept the audience so engaged that they didn’t want to stop and tweet. I hope it’s the latter. Anyway, I think I’ll do more listening and less tweeting – to me you start tweeting when you are bored and need a distraction to keep yourself engaged. Next time, let’s have a conference with such great speakers that the number of tweets actually goes down. So I turn my thumb sideways on this one. Great for those who like it, but forgettable for those who would rather listen to the talks without distraction or who don’t have a twitter account. Who the heck even knows how we’ll be communicating electronically in 2013.

Speaking of 2013, ACRL 2013 will be in Indianapolis – an up and coming city with a vibrant downtown (I was just there two weeks ago so I know). Will they go with “Start Your Engine – Racing to Our Future” as the Conference theme (Indy 500 – get it). Who knows? One thing I do know is that ACRL is the type of conference that doesn’t rest on its laurels. There will be changes. There will be evolution. Risks will be taken. You can count on it.

11 thoughts on “ACRL 2011: Walking The Talk

  1. This was my first attendance at an ACRL conference. I really enjoyed it, but like most conferences, at some point your brain hits overload. But overall, I found it well worth my employer’s money and my attendance.

    I LOVED the IdeaPower Unconference! I went to about 4-5 of these. I hope they do it in 2013 and perhaps I’ll get the courage to get up there myself!

    I agree with you on the contributed paper presentations. They sometimes seemed rushed, through no fault of the presenter. On the other hand, you didn’t have to wait long if the presentation was so-so. I did enjoy yours though Steven.

    I’m getting more used to tweeting and did it at the conference, but tried to tweet only once and only if I thought the speaker said something profound or useful. Usually if I’m bored, I just leave.

    I also enjoyed the few poster sessions I attended, but boy, are those crowded!

  2. Steven, I’ve already filled out my conference eval but had one more thought on this, and I wonder what your reaction is. Sometimes you want to hear projects and programs people did. Sometimes you want to hear their research. Sometimes you want to hear ideas or pontificating. What if we could separate out this stuff? The panels vs papers isn’t so useful to me. I’d rather hear “how we did it” vs “our research showed” no matter the topic. It’s not always clear from descriptions which is which.

  3. Big thumbs UP to the unconference. I went in without any preconceived notions about what it would be like, and I really enjoyed the sessions. Even got a couple of ideas to bring back to my library.

    Big thumbs DOWN to the shortened contribution papers. As both a presenter and attendee, I felt like all that could be provided in the 12-minute slot was a teaser for the research paper. Bring back the 2 papers per session!!!

  4. I think you bring up a good point about Twitter during conferences. Twitter can be a way of distracting yourself, but I also think it can be a great way of participating. In some sessions I did not tweet at all because I was so interested. In other sessions I tweeted a lot because I wanted to share all the pearls of wisdom and see what others were thinking. I never tweet anything from a session that bores me. They just engage me in different ways.

    Full disclosure: it was a panel session I was on where someone protested that he couldn’t participate because he was not tweeting. :) And it was true he couldn’t participate in that specific sort of way, but we also wanted folks to participate by going up to the microphone. People engage with sessions in different ways. Some people don’t like going up to the microphone, but still have ideas they want to share and Twitter is perfect for folks like that. It allows them to engage in another way. For our session we wanted to engage people who used Twiiter and those who choose not to. I don’t think there is one correct way. Tweeting, blogging, taking notes, nodding violently, if your engaged and learning, then you probably are getting a lot from the session.

  5. Thanks for the feedback. I like Joan’s idea about giving content indicators – sort of like the menu where it indicates “spicy” or “healthy” regardless of category. So perhaps three indicators: practical (how we did it here); research (talkin’ bout my study); conceptual (thought experiments) – I think the proposers could easily indicates where their content fits. Good point Andy – and I agree – some people are going to tweet because that’s how they engage. I’m just wondering whether they’re hearing what you’re saying while they’re tweeting. But perhaps given this activity, savvy presenters will plan for incorporating multiple modes for engagement into the presentation – good advice. The poster area will never have enough room.

  6. Having attended other academic scholarly conferences, 12 minutes + questions is comparatively lengthy for a paper. It does challenge the speaker to distill and, personally, it works for me. And, I was happy we could include 50% more papers by going to 3 per session – if we cut back to 2 then the rejection rate will climb quite a bit and it is already high!

  7. Great commentary.

    I really liked the unconference portion. Didn’t like the name “IdeaPower,” though. Cheesy and not very explanatory.

    And in that vein, what does “Cyber Zed Shed” even mean? I didn’t go to it in Seattle or Philly because I didn’t know what it was.

  8. I had a fantastic first time at the conference, and it’ll take me a while to unpack all the new things I learned. I liked the 3 papers/session format, but I did find myself wishing that there was more time. It almost always seemed that there were at least 3 or 4 things I wanted to attend in each timeslot, and I didn’t get a chance to try out any of the roundtables or ideapower unconferences. One thought is to make Saturday a full day of presentation slots with the same number of accepted sessions, to space things out a bit.

    K, your cyber zed shed comment made me giggle, as a colleague asked me the same thing! I don’t have the answer, but maybe others do?

  9. Steven, one more thought on ACRL: I get why conferences have themes, but the tracks (sub-themes?) within the bigger theme weren’t very helpful, not to me, and I suspect not for others. Perhaps we could get rid of the silly tracks that relate to the name but have some punny relationship to the town, and replace them with the research / practical & case students / experiments tags instead (and sessions could have more than one).

  10. I thought the IdeaPower Unconferences were great–what a wonderful way to share new research and projects–and a great way to give more people a chance to participate as well.

    I also liked the shortened papers, again because it gives more people a chance to participate. With the proceedings online, we can still get all of the info we need.

    Speaking of online, I think it is great that all of the papers are online in the virtual conference, and that screencasts will be added too. What a great value! Thanks to all who are responsible.

  11. I concur with Joan. Though I can certainly appreciate research in which our colleagues are engaged, I find that practical application is most useful in terms of having something to take home to our individual institutions. In other words, how did these academic librarians apply their research findings to what they do day to day?

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