A Lean, Mean Conference Machine

I almost titled this entry “Why I Am Not Going To ACRL This Year” but then I realized that my point was not that I wasn’t going to ACRL despite having enjoyed several ACRLs in the past and wanting an excuse to go to Portland, and I have no beef with ACRL that would last for more than one sentence, i.e. “It will take a little too much time and money.”

I could have also titled this entry “Newborn Twins Will Change All Your Plans” but that seemed a little on the nose. So here we are with a Stripes reference and an attempt to disentangle my personal and professional reasons for ditching the big conferences this year.

The personal reasons are easy to define:

1) With a smaller amount of travel money my library can provide, I would be paying for part of my conference trip. I could justify this expense if it weren’t for the kids and house and van payment and all my other suburban money complaints.

2) There are only so many miles you can be away and days you can be gone when your spouse is alone at home with a toddler and newborn twins before you start feeling like a rotten person.

So, okay, but let’s be frank: neither of those personal reasons are more important than keeping the job and continuing to flourish in the job so that we can afford a life with the kids and house and van payment. So what are my professional reasons?

1) Despite the energizing effect of a national conference, there is also a numbing anonymous and monolithic quality to being one of thousands and thousands of conference attendees.

2) The grand and vague conference themes can ring hollow and seem to have little to do with the sessions that are presented. “Imagine, Innovate, Inspire” and “A Declaration of Our Interdependence” are (to me) well-meaning but ultimately useless guiding conference themes.

3) In my most cynical, arrogant moments, I think that conference sessions are often just a gloss on what’s really interesting or important. The good stuff of collaboration and communication are lost in our attempts to fit the mold of “conference presentation” and in blandness that is meant to avoid vulnerability, embarrassment, or ridicule.

Last year, I attended THATCamp Southeast 2014 and felt immediately that I’d found the answer to my conference woes. This small, loose unconference started with 40 or 50 people in a room deciding what they want to talk about for two days, scheduling sessions that we were refining as we spoke, and then creating conversations in an almost completely democratic way. Some of the sessions didn’t get off the ground, some were excellent, and all were thought-provoking and challenging.

When a pair of Knoxville librarians discussed The Collective on Lost in the Stacks, Episode 235: “Professional Development” (I wasn’t there that day because  I was on paternity leave — “twins, yo”), I decided that I was done with big conferences for a while. Even COMO might be too big for me. I attended The Collective last month and had one of the best conference experiences I’ve ever had. I connected with more people in a serious, collaborative way; had more fun with the social events and the playful side of the conference; and I was locked-in and focused for both days of events, attending a session in every time slot (which never happened at larger conferences).

So now I’m hooked. Small groups, short conferences, playful natures, and narrow focus. The kind of thing you can do yourself, if the conference you really want doesn’t exist yet.

 

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Author:Charlie Bennett

Charlie Bennett is a librarian, a podcaster, and a radio host. He was born in New York and raised in Virginia before moving to Atlanta to study at the Georgia Institute of Technology. After earning degrees in Science, Technology, and Culture (STAC) and Economics, he stayed with the school and became an academic librarian at the Georgia Tech Library. He co-hosts the “one-and-only research-library rock’n'roll radio show” called “Lost in the Stacks” on WREK in Atlanta, and produces the irreverent podcast “Consilience With Pete and Charlie” about the intersection of science and the humanities.

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