Claire Bell debates physical vs online conferences

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December 15, 2011 by Catherine Dhanjal

Claire Bell, Multimedia Librarian at Aberdeen Central Library shares her views of Internet Librarian International and other recent conferences.

Internet Librarian International 2011 (ILI 2011) was a thought provoking and information packed conference. On my return to Aberdeen, as I tried to describe to colleagues just what it had all been about, I found great difficultly in summing it up concisely. My head was reeling with all the information. So much had been covered both during the presentations and in talks with other participants. Gradually I realised that I kept coming back to the same topic. This was not a main theme of the conference but underlies much of the work that was presented and spoken about.

Use of the internet for professional development and information sharing.

 

Observing how information given at the conference was shared with delegates, and comparing this with other conferences and meetings attended, gave me food for thought. Gradually, and to differing degrees, Information Professionals are learning to use new technology to ensure that learning experiences are not trapped in real time and single geographical locations but can be shared across time and space.

As mentioned above, attending ILI 2011 was somewhat like delving into a deep and richly filled Christmas hamper. The choice of presentations was huge, but you were never quite sure what it was that you were getting. As is often the way with conferences, what was said on the label, in this case the very professionally presented schedule, was not always what was to be found in the tin. However, the content was always nourishing. In addition, as the conference ran three concurrent strands, it was often difficult to choose which event to attend. Often two talks that I wished to attend were held at the same time.

The conference organisers must have recognised in advance that these might be problems for delegates, as slides for each presentation were posted on the ILI 2011 site. This ensured that a missed talk, either through mislabelling or a clash of the schedule, was not altogether lost. However, on their own, without the soundtrack to the talk, some of the slides made little sense. Delegates who had missed a talk and who tried to recapture it once home could not turn back time.

This conundrum was also faced by the experimental Library 2.011 (http://www.library20.com/page/2011-conference) conference which followed on shortly after  ILI 2011. Library 2.011 was a purely online free event held in multiple time zones over the course of two days.   In contrast to ILI 2011, if you missed a presentation, for example, because it was held at 3 am in your time zone and you preferred to be asleep, you could  ‘turn back time’ and watch what you had missed!  Indeed, as I draft this article a few weeks after the close of the conference, the recordings and accompanying slides are still available online. This is also a solution taken in Cambridge for TeachMeet events. All talks are recorded and made available on YouTube afterwards for those who could not attend. (Email from Isla Kuhn, Reader Services Librarian, University of Cambridge Medical Library, 08.11.11)

This idea could be extended further to paid-for conferences. Obviously such conferences do not want to lose money and attendees by providing all talks online for free. However, a two-tier approach might provide a solution – a physical conference could be accompanied by a cheaper online conference for those unable to finance a trip away. Access to videos of presentations, both live and recorded, could be password protected and passwords would be given on payment of a fee.

The opportunity to attend a conference at a reduced fee, albeit online rather than in the physical world, has the potential to appeal to organisations with restricted budgets. This approach might increase the number of delegates able to attend a single event and also the number of professional development events an individual could attend in a single year. For example, I was only able to go to the ILI 2011 conference due to the generosity of MMIT and ILI, otherwise it would have been impossible. The conference fees alone would have swallowed a large part of the annual training budget for all staff in my library. It was a wonderful conference and I learnt a lot which I have been able to take back with me. I am extremely grateful to ILI and MMIT. As the conference continued I met others too, who without the aid of an organisation other than their employer would have been unable to attend. The provision of online attendance at a lower rate might enable more Information Professionals to benefit from the conference.  Such conferences would also reflect an increasing trend amongst Information Professionals for online collaboration and learning. Meeting online rather than in a physical location is becoming more and more routine. An illustration of this is the 23 Things course for UK public libraries. (http://23things.wetpaint.com/) The course is based on online material from other Information Professionals shared using a creative common licence and many of the members of the four partnership authorities and indeed many of the participants have only ever met and worked together online.

It seems unlikely that an accompanying online conference would discourage those institutions who could afford to from sending members to the physical conference. One major benefit of attending a physical conference is the opportunity to meet other information professionals who are interested in similar things to you. For those attending online, this aspect of conferences can, in part, be met through the use of chat facilities such as those included with Blackboard. This enables delegates to interact with both the speaker and other participants. However, whilst it is extremely useful to be able to interact online, somehow nothing quite matches face-to-face interaction. Indeed throughout ILI 2011 several people excitedly told me they had just met someone in real life that they had hereto only interacted with online and I did myself.

To conclude, whilst a two-tier approach to conferences may not be for everyone, I would hope that all of us will be able to take some of these lessons on information sharing from ILI 2011 and Library 2.011 and use them in our every day practice. Learning experiences no longer need to be  located in a single time and place, but, by innovative use of online tools, can be made available to interested parties wherever and whenever they may be, opening up the whole experience.

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The MmIT group is a CILIP special interest group concerned with the organisation, delivery and exploration of information through modern media including graphic forms, video and web based application. This blog contains news from the group and about multimedia information and technology in the library and information. For more information about MmIT see http://www.cilip.org.uk/about/special-interest-groups/multimedia-information-technology-group.

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