Your ACRL Conference Planning Team

An enormous amount of work goes into planning the ACRL National Conference. No sooner does one end then the cycle of planning starts again for the next one. At ALA the 2011 conference planning committee had its first official meetings. We first met with members of the 2009 planning group for a debriefing session. Then we moved on to our first major task of identifying the conference themes and trying to come up with catchy names for them. Whereas the Seattle conference had five themes the Philadelphia conference will likely have seven. We think that will make it easier for those submitting proposals to more easily find a theme into which their idea fits.

At the end of the day loads of ACRL members will be involved in making the conference a success, from the many members of the planning committees to everyone who presents and participates. But the backbone of the conference is really three people. The chair of the conference committee and two ACRL staff members who somehow help us clueless members to pull this whole thing off. Here is your conference team for 2011:

Your ACRL 2011 Conference Team

On the far left is Margot Conahan, ACRL’s manager of professional development, to the far right you have Tory Ondrla, ACRL conference supervisor, and in the center is Pam Snelson, Library Director at Franklin & Marshall College – and the Chair of the Conference Planning Committee for 2011. Together these three will lead the conference planning committee in organizing another memorable ACRL conference.

9 Out Of 10 Academic Librarians Surveyed Liked The Seattle Conference

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 – 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!!!

A Guide To The “New Normal” For Academic Libraries

I was able to attend only the first half of the ACRL program at which the just released ACRL 2009 Strategic Thinking Guide for Academic Librarians in the New Economy was introduced and discussed. Four panelists representing different perspectives within the profession reacted to the new report. If you want to read more about the panel session at ACRL you can do that here and here.

Not quite an environmental scan the authors state they were going for something a bit different:

In the wake of dramatic economic developments, government action, and a flood of higher education trends reports, we felt that a strategic thinking guide would better complement the current literature. This guide considers three important drivers in the current environment and poses questions to stimulate conversations and action in your libraries and on your campuses. Along the way, we point to the work of higher education associations, private foundations, government agencies, and individual experts for further assisted reading.

What are these three drivers? Nothing that will come as a total surprise:

Driver #1: The Economy and Higher Education – you can’t read a higher education news publication or engage in a conversation with a colleague without the economic meltdown finding its way into the discussion. According to the guide the big question for libraries is “how will we afford it?” But how can we not afford to develop new organizational structures and services that will lead to “student success and faculty productivity” as the report puts it.

Driver #2: Students – No one is quite sure what our student population will look like in the fall. Even now some public universities are expecting many more students who’d normally be going to pricier private schools. The report identifies a number of student trends, and asks how we can prepare to serve a new generation of learners who are quite different from their predecessors on campus.

Driver #3: Technology – For academic libraries, a rapidly changing technology landscape seems more like the old normal than the new normal. But our need to adapt is driven by advances such as cloud computing and smartphone communication. Not surprisingly this section has more points to make than the other two. But the bottom line for academic libraries is how are we going to leverage all of these technologies in ways that enable us to connect with students and faculty, and make it easier for them to use our technology.

The new normal is a concept that signals that everything we’ve taken for granted over the last 20 years is being melted down, re-thought and cast into a new reality. The old rules are broken and new ones must replace them. And most of all individual expections have to be set to a new and lower standard. We read extensively about the need for change in academic libraries, and perhaps ACRL’s new strategic thinking guide will serve as catalyst for discussions among colleagues about what changes will enable academic libraries to be meaningful, sustainable and viable in the new economy.

Green Conference Bag Is A Letdown

I’m all for a green conference – save energy, water, re-usable materials – but I have to say that the conference bag was just not up to past standards. In a way I feel bad for all those first-time attendees because they will never know the golden years of ACRL conference bags. Here’s what we got in Seattle:

ACRL2009 Conference Bag
ACRL2009 Conference Bag

This bag is described as being made from 51% recycled material. I’m all for recycled material. This bag might work for a fast 15-items or less trip to the grocery store, but it fails to meet the needs of a hard-driving conference attendee. No zippers. No internal pockets. No key holder. No back pocket for papers and maps. No cool internal hidden pocket where you’ll leave something and forget it until the next conference (Oh wow – so that’s where I put that). No water bottle holder (plastic BPA free re-usable bottle of course). In all, it just doesn’t cut it as a conference bag.

Lest I sound ungrateful or anti-green movement please know that I’m an outstanding recycler of past conference bags. In fact, I only need one good one and I’ll just keep using it over and over again. In fact I went to Seattle with my ACRL 10th National Conference bag which I think is the all-time hands-down champion of ACRL conference bags (see the photo in the post).

Here’s my suggestion for how we can really save money and resources at the 15th National Conference. Provide an option on the registration form where attendees can indicate if they want a bag or not (e.g., Option 1 – I must have an environmentally-friendly bag; Option 2 – Never mind – I’ll bring my own). That way ACRL knows exactly how many bags to produce and bring and only those who want it get one (easily noted on their badge). End result – no wasted bags that end up in the trash.

ACRL provided two other environmentally-friendly supplies for conference goers. One was a mug made of corn plastic. I guess that will eventually find its way into the jungle of unused mugs in one of my kitchen cabinets. The other one is already a permanent fixture in my shower. ACRL provided a nifty little shower timer that lets you know when four minutes have expired.

ACRL2009 Shower Timer
ACRL2009 Shower Timer

According to Mary Ellen Davis, ACRL Executive Director, the average American takes an eight-minute shower. So we were given a tool to help save Seattle a whole lot of water during the conference. I used it everyday and never spent more than 3 minutes showering. I thought the thing wasn’t working right so I timed it with a stopwatch when I got home. It’s exactly 4 minutes. The real test will be when the kids come home for visits. If I can get them to take 4-minute showers I will be forever in debt to ACRL.

And even if you didn’t use the ACRL bag or the ACRL shower timer you still could eat an ACRL cookie:

ACRL2009 Cookie from the All Conference Reception

Winds Of Change At ACRL Conference

ACRL is down to its last few hours of activity. As usual it’s been a whirlwind experience. I finally did discover the link to the ACRL Conference blog. Take a look to read more about the conference and the presentations.

I can’t quite put my finger on it but the conference definitely has a different vibe this time. There are many new faces. Approximately one-third of the people here are first-time attendees. I’m hesitant to say this has added a younger demographic to the conference because some of the first-timers I’ve met are more traditional midlife career changers who are new to the profession. And while I don’t have the demographics I’m betting that the median age of the conference population is way down. Perhaps it is best to simply say this might be a watershed conference for academic librarianship because it brings with it the emergence of academic librarianship’s next generation.

In addition to the conference blog I’ve been taking a look at Twitter activity from the attendees – not all first-timers to be sure – but this is definitely one example of how the next generation is experiencing the conference and bringing a new dimension to the proceedings. Just looking at the stream of comments during the events you can get a picture of which programs are attracting the Twitter crowd. For example, in the 4:00 pm Saturday slot you can see there was lots of ongoing discussion about the paper presentations on LibGuides and student use of web 2.0 tools. What about the other programs in that time slot? Nothing.

I was chatting with a new-to-the-profession first timer, and asking how she liked the conference so far. It was clear that the new generation has little patience for speakers who simply throw up slides and talk for 20 or 30 minutes without paying attention to the audience. They want interactivity. They want to be a part of the program, and they want it to be a conversation not a lecture. That’s why they create their own conversation on Twitter. Is this a good thing for the conference? I don’t know.

To its credit ACRL continues to look for new ways to keep the conference timely, vibrant and relevant to its members – and the Cyber Zed Shed, the Virtual Conference and a conference hashtag for Twitter are all good signs. But the Philly 2011 planners have a real challenge ahead of them, and I hope they will pay attention to what’s transpired here in Seattle. It’s clear that ACRL needs to acknowledge the new generation, and give thought to how this conference needs to change to accommodate new academic librarians, new ideas, and new ways of communicating and learning. The winds of change demand a new ACRL Conference experience.