I became an academic librarian in February of 2021. Starting a new position during a pandemic is… weird, to put it lightly. For one thing, I’ve only done one in-person event. Everything else has been virtual. If I want to be honest about it, I kind of want it to stay this way.
Don’t get me wrong! As a former children’s librarian, I know the euphoria that happens when you have a good preschool story time or you can see, in real time, children growing from the services you’re providing. Nothing made me happier than watching kids learn and appreciate art in my Art for All Ages program. There’s a certain energy to in-person events that you can’t capture online.
That’s not the point of this blog post, though. I’m writing this to tell you that virtual events are, in their own way, totally awesome. They’re unique and they have their own advantages, and every time I think about what we’re capable of now thanks to technology, I’m blown away.
Let me break down why virtual events are totally awesome into four of their many benefits:
- You can get presenters from anywhere. I’m lucky in that I have a budget that would allow me to fly people in from other places and put them up in hotels. But is that the best use of those funds? Especially now, because tickets are so much more expensive and flying is so complicated. Webinars skip that whole step. Just this year, I’ve hosted lecturers from Florida, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, Massachusetts, California, and New Jersey. I didn’t have to worry once about booking a hotel or what would happen if a flight got canceled. My goal is to eventually get someone from a different continent. Imagine hosting a webinar with someone currently in Paris or Barcelona or Tokyo! How cool would that be?
- No masks or social distancing necessary. My friends and colleagues in public libraries know well the struggle of getting people to wear masks. Students at my campus have been incredibly courteous about wearing masks in our library and about campus, but it only takes one confrontation to ruin the atmosphere of an event. Then there are the logistics that go into limiting attendance and social distancing. No worries about that when everyone watching on their own devices in their own spaces. And if you plan for 50 but 200 show up, cool! Not as muh when you have limited seating in a real-world auditorium. Been there, done that. It wasn’t fun even pre-pandemic.
- Accessibility. Yes, I know the digital divide can make this a struggle—My college is in an area where there are large gaps in connectivity in communities. Thankfully, we’ve been awarded grants to address these issues. We distribute Wi-Fi hotspots and laptops now.
Once students have those resources, our recorded webinars can be accessed from any device with an internet connection. This is a benefit to students with demanding schedules because of jobs, families, other classes, or any number of responsibilities they’re juggling. Webinars are also an excellent way to include students who continue to take classes from home because of mobility issues, vulnerability to COVID, or because online learning is the most convenient form for them. Students with hearing difficulties have access to subtitles and captions. They can replay portions of archived webinars if they need or want a refresher. YouTube also allows students to slow down or speed up a video to match their own pace. I love webinars for the same reason I loved e-books as a public librarian: the technology makes for a more accessible and user-friendly experience.
- Your audience is the world. This is especially true if you offer free webinars and advertise them on social media. We have had people tune in from all over the globe for a Shakespeare presentation in April, and it’s so neat to see attendees type in the chat that they’re tuning in from far, far away. Again, the excitement is different from watching a live audience absorb an idea or having a patron thank you in person, but it’s still thrilling.
Job satisfaction can be hard to come by in a virtual world, especially if you’re not someone used to cultivating relationships online. That said, webinars can still give those of us who have been seeking out that feedback a bit of what we lost when libraries shut down. Even once our situation changes, which (depending on who you ask) could be years into the future, I don’t see virtual programs going away. I’m certainly not going to stop. I find it too valuable a resource for our students and faculty.
I will definitely do in-person events again, but mostly for local presenters and programs that don’t translate well to online formats, like anything that involves food. I might be able to find job satisfaction through Zoom webinars, but until someone figures out how to digitize pizza, popcorn, and cookies, it’s just not going to have the same draw for our students. Who knows, maybe in the future we’ll be able to share a virtual pizza with a class while they listen to someone lecturing about cloud computing from Trinidad.
That sounds totally awesome to me.