Sure I’d Attend The ACRL Virtual Conference – If It Was Free

How many ACRL members share this sentiment? I raise this question because of a comment submitted to a previous post about the ACRL virtual conference, asking if any thought has been given to making the ACRL Virtual Conference a free event. And that’s a good point to raise. After all, there are a fair number of free web conferencing opportunities being promoted throughout the year. Why does ACRL charge a fee to attend the conference? Is this just another way that ALA tries to vacuum money out of its members’ wallets (or conference budget line)? Honestly, I have no intimate knowledge about the economics of the ACRL conference, so I don’t have a good answer to the question.

I do know that putting on a virtual conference has costs attached. The organization that provides the conferencing infrastructure has expenses, and ACRL can’t expect to use their (in this case, The Learning Times Network) resources for free during a two-day conference. We couldn’t expect to use the New Orleans Convention Center for free, could we? I’m sure there were other costs as well. Perhaps ACRL could do more to find sponsors who would support the cost of the virtual conference, allowing them to lower the registration fee. On the other hand, I think there may be some positive outcomes because ACRL does charge a fee for their Virtual Conference. Consider the following:

  • ACRL supports great programs and benefits for members. There are scholarships, such as those that allow many younger members to attend the national conference for the first time. There are grants, such as those that allow sections and regional chapters to offer special programming to their members. These benefits have costs associated with them, and I’m quite sure that any revenues from a Virtual Conference help to support these activities.
  • Virtual conferences should be more intimate. I like that I’m not a tiny dot in a huge auditorium with hundreds or thousands of folks. As a virtual presenter I find that when the number of attendees gets too large (nice that lots of folks wanted to hear my presentation, but…) we lose some of the intimacy of our learning space. With just 50 to 100 attendees there are ample opportunities for active participation, and for engagment between speakers and attendees – and among the attendees themselves. I felt that many of the sessions were more like classrooms in which I was listening to a lecturer, and then engaging in a discussion with classmates (many of us attended the same sessions during the conference so we got to know each other just a bit). That’s the intimacy I’m talking about. You don’t need to have a PhD in economics to figure out what impact making the conference free will have on attendence. Say so long to small crowds and intimate sessions. It’s something you rarely get at a national F2F conference, and I’d hate to lose it in the virtual space. Please don’t interpret this as as an elistist or exclusionist statement, but if a registration fee keeps the number of attendees present at a number that makes for a better virtual learning experience I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

    What if ACRL did make the virtual conference free? Would you register? I think more members certainly would. And would they show up? When any program or event is free those who registered have less of a commitment to attend, and I do believe that virtual conferences require a certain commitment factor. By commitment I mean making sure you have taken the time to test your PC before the conference to make sure it works and you are ready to log in the day of the first program. I mean investing in a microphone so you can participate more fully. I mean clearing your calendar so you’ll be free all day to log in to conference sessions. If the attitude’s going to be “maybe I’ll give this a try the day of the conference” it’s not going to work well for you, the presenter or other attendees. To my way of thinking, having a registration fee in place helps to ensure those who attend are seriously interested and have made a commitment. That’s going to make it a better conference experience all participants.

    Perhaps ACRL could make some of the poster sessions and a selected presentation archive or two available for free after the conference. Not only would this be a great gesture for the members who didn’t attend, for whatever reason, but it might encourage them to do so in the future after getting a taste of virtual conferencing. I’m sure there are going to be many free virtual webcast events throughout the year, such as those offered by the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community, OPAL, Web Junction, SirsiDynix, and others. If you try them and find virtual conferencing is a form of professional development that appeals to you, give some thought to registering for a fee-based, more intensive experience like ACRL’s virtual conference. I think you would find it to be a great value for money considering how much you can learn right at your desktop. And speaking of great value, there are several presentations and poster sessions that I can choose from to use for staff development (ACRL is fine if you use your conference registration to log in and share a session with others – up to a year after the conference – but it’s not kosher to pass your conference login account to others to use as they wish). As an administrator how much might you spend sending staff to F2F conferences and workshops to get the same level of training. From that perspective the registration fee is an even better value.

  • 7 thoughts on “Sure I’d Attend The ACRL Virtual Conference – If It Was Free”

    1. I think there needs to be an additional nuance here. I think maybe “free to ACRL members” ….

      I find the juxtaposition in my email for announcements for fee-based ACRL online workshops with announcements for free online sessions from ELI and others interesting on certain days. The barriers to participate in free are just plain lower. I don’t have to ask for funding or pay for it myself, there is not administrative paperwork to process my registration (as there is when the library is paying and so has to comply with various audit etc rules), and I can venture out into areas that might be of interest but not core to my job duties. Finally, if it turns out the session isn’t what I expected or (rare but happens) the speaker isn’t any good, I easily move on to other things without guilt.

      Regardless, I’d really like to see when the revenues from the online conferences and workshops go to within ACRL. (Reflecting a similar discussion found time to time on many blogs about the lack of transparency about ALA finances.) We criticize other organizations for using library subscriptions to journals to support other activities that aren’t self-sustaining on membership fees. Is ACRL doing the same thing but just with fees for various services that we might think should be member benefits?

      On a side but related note – I’m really pleased that my Chair’s program for the Instruction Section this year will be captured digitally and then made available on the IS website. I don’t expect fewer attendees at the session in NO because of this (though I predict fewer attendees for other reasons). Thanks to another author on this blog (ScottW) for chairing the committee and making it reality.

    2. >Perhaps ACRL could make some of the poster sessions and a selected presentation archive or two available for free after the conference.

      Why not put a synchronous event–keynote or discussion or the like–for free as the “kickoff” of the conference. If people attend and like it, they can instantly sign up for the rest of the conference.

      Why not all the poster sessions for free *during* the conference? Poster sessions are nice, but no one pays $200 for an online conference because they want to see the poster sessions.

      Give more away for free, and I bet you will get more paying customers in the long run. If the conferences are already filling up before the registration deadline (are they?) why not release most of the content for free shortly after the end of the conference? I expect people are paying for the opportunity to interact and be a part of the conference. If that is true, releasing the recordings and “posters” would have no effect on registration.

    3. Those are some good suggestions Steve. I’ll just mention a few things here. Keep in mind the poster sessions – if you haven’t seen one – are not just the kind of poster you see at a conference. They are recorded presentations so the content is quite useful. Perhaps a few could be free – but I suppose part of paying the fee is getting access to all of them. I think the idea of a free keynote session is also a good idea. I don’t know what the limit is on the number of people who can join an Elluminate session but it wouldn’t be fair to a paying customer if they couldn’t tune in because someone who didn’t pay got there first (maybe there’s a tech solution for that). As far as making everything free afterwards, I believe part of the value in paying is to get access to everything up to a year after the conference. But ACRL should monitor visits to the sites. I would be most paying customers don’t come back that often throughout the year, so at some point the programs could be made free or available at a deep discount. The archives are much more than just uploaded PPTs – which is what you get after a lot of conferences are over. But thanks for your suggestions.

    4. Virtual Conferences work for me (and others in one librarian libraries) because I don’t have to clear my calendar to attend. They are a prime example of “cheaper, better, faster” — and I don’t have to choose two.

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