Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Is the Face-to-Face Conference Still Essential?

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Is the Face-to-Face Conference Still Essential?

Article excerpt

Face-to-face conferences entail hundreds or thousands of flights and use up many other environmental, organizational, financial, and personal resources. Some librarians have argued for phasing them out in favor of virtual conferences, while others have said that in-person conferences still provide valuable opportunities that cannot be replicated online. In this final installment of "Taking Issues," our authors consider the question, "Can 'green librarians' justify the face-to-face library conference?"--Editors


It seems like we've been rooming together at ALA conferences nearly every year since we graduated from The University of British Columbia's MLIS program in 2002 (yikes!). I remember that back then--when we were 'green librarians' in the other sense--we were both very interested in getting involved in professional service beyond our places of employment. We also held faculty status and academic librarian positions that exerted a certain amount of cultural pressure to both serve and conference. Those expectations naturally took us to ALA conferences, where we could befriend other librarians, keep learning, and become engaged with our profession nationally. I really feel that I've been amply rewarded on all those counts over the years.

Until only recently, that kind of service and professional involvement typically demanded a commitment to attending conferences in person. As technological developments have increasingly facilitated virtual conferences, we've acclimated to meeting and working virtually, and opportunities for professional service that don't require in-person conference attendance have expanded. I wonder how those developments have changed new librarians' experiences. Our early years in the profession featured regular conference attendance that really fostered my sense of a larger community of librarians and libraries. Has the next cohort of librarians lost something worthwhile by increasingly replacing that experience with a virtual substitute?


Right, we came of age (professionally speaking) in the early 2000s, in a slightly different era of conference attendance and communication technology. It's amazing to reflect now, in 2014, and realize how much has changed in twelve years. ACRL started offering its virtual conference in 2005, with its platform getting more robust every year since then. (1) Their elearning offerings have grown by leaps and bounds. When we started out, I remember that serving on an ACRL committee automatically meant committing to attend both the Annual conference and the Midwinter meeting, usually for two years. Now, more and more ACRL section committees--including the Instruction Section, on which we both served for several years--have reconsidered their requirements for in-person meetings. Without that built-in professional reason to attend, the 2014 Annual conference was probably the last one that you and I will both attend in person. We'll both continue to work with the section, but we no longer have an automatic reason to see each other once or twice a year! This makes me very sad, which says something about the importance of face-to-face conference attendance.

But since I'm arguing the opposite side of the question, I want to focus on how much has changed in twelve years. If we've come this far this fast--from a commitment to attend two in-person meetings a year, to no in-person commitment at all for most members--then where do we think we'll be in another ten or twelve years?

We're both academic librarians, so we have a limited view of this topic. We should really be talking with ALA staff and other folks like vendors and public librarians, who make up significant chunks of the audience for a conference like ALA and I'm sure have great insights into attendance trends. But I'm going to jump in and be iconoclastic anyway, and say that in another ten to twelve years, we'll see our largest national conference, ALA Annual, scaled back to about half or a quarter of its current in-person attendance. …

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