Thoughts For Better Conference Discussions

A highlight of an ALA conference for many librarians is the discussion sessions. Unlike the structured programs, anyone can take center stage as the speaker. There’s no set agenda so anything can happen. Great discussions are stimulating, but they really work best when those in attendance are activated and make themselves integral to the program. We should use these forums to challenge our thinking and traditional methods.

At one such session I attended in Seattle, which had a great premise for a heated discussion, it just never seemed to materialize. Instead of hard questions and bold calls for action, what I mostly heard fell into one of two categories, either “here’s what I do at my library – who else is doing this?” or the variant “we tried this – is anyone doing it better than we are?” These are good questions to ask and that’s one reason folks come to the sessions – to share what they’re doing with others in order to affirm they are moving in the right direction. But to my way of thinking, those fishing for answers to these types of questions could do their trolling in the sea of discussion lists. My personal preference is to move beyond “my library” to “our profession and its future”. I’d like to hear more of “why are we doing this”, “what do our patrons want”, “is this the best we can do” or “can we do this better next year or should we do something else”. I think these questions can lead to a far more engaging discussion.

So here are some ideas, aimed at discussion participants, I thought of that might lead to better, more engaging discussions at future conferences:

  • Think more globally about the discussion topic. It’s not just about your library but what could be happening beyond it.
  • Be on the lookout for articles on the topic or new ideas related to it – share them in addition to your own local experience.
  • If at all possible give some thought to the topic before you get to the room; you’re more likely to be in the right spirit to get engaged in the conversation. I realize that some folks just drop in to these discussions on an “it’s convienent to where I am” basis, but a fair number of us know about the topic in advance owing to a prior invitation.
  • Jot down some questions you’d like to ask, in advance of the program, that could prompt others to say “hmmm” let me think about that.”
  • If a group is significantly large (50 or more) you might be able to get by as a lurker. But smaller group discussions only work if everyone contributes. Even if you think what you have to say won’t be significant, get it out on the table anyway. You never know what’s going to spark others to get engaged in the discussion. If no one shares an interest or finds it worthwhile to discuss, they’ll just move on – don’t take it personally.
  • If you are just joining to passively listen (or rest your feet before moving on) consider that you might be taking a seat from someone who really wants to be at the table to add to the discussion.
  • Perhaps the moderators of these programs can allocate the discussion time so that the first half is “how are we doing it good at our libraries” and the second half could be the “why are we doing this and what else could we be doing to make our libraries better”. The session organizers could even put these (and their own) “tips for preparing for our discussion” into their invitational e-mail messages. Let’s always aim for discussions that send us home thinking about more than just what we’re doing in our own library.

    Posted by StevenB

    4 thoughts on “Thoughts For Better Conference Discussions”

    1. Steven, I certainly understand what you’re saying, and I hope that the discussion group I co-chair offers an appropriate mix of practical advice and theoretical underpinnings. But I have to say that what I frequently enjoy least about conferences are the presentations that seem so abstracted from reality that they might as well be discussing the results of a particle accelerator experiment.

      I don’t mean to single you out, because everyone uses this phrase to describe the concept, but the sarcastic contempt that drips from “how my library does it good” really sets my teeth on edge. Doing it well, whatever “it” may be, is a goal we ought all to aspire to, and I know of no better way to acheive that than through informal, practical conversations with my colleagues. The reason I agreed to chair my group is because I find it by far the most useful thing I do at ALA meetings. I would enjoy it less if the participants began to worry that their comments were insufficiently profound.

    2. I think the peril of “how we done it good” (which is the semi-snarky way I often see/say it) is not so much that these anecdotes are insufficiently profound or under-theorized, but that people often get too caught up in the specifics of their individual circumstances. I would love to hear how some library set up a new website or information literacy program. I don’t necessarily need to know that the director was on maternity leave at the time or that version X of product Y when used in conjunction with the college’s home-grown registration system tends to throw JavaScript errors.

      I guess it is sort of useful to know how you done it good, but what I’m really looking for is how I can do it good myself.

    3. Good points Steven. Also, if you are at a talk and no one asks a question, do the speaker a favor and a least lob a softball to try to get the ball rolling.

      And remember to speak loud enough and clear enough so that people can hear you. Don’t mumble or speak too softly. This goes for lunch and other informal professional situations as well. If I can’t hear what someone is saying I get tired of saying “what?” and eventually stop talking to them. Don’t be mousey! Speak up!

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