March 21, 2018

Did You Miss the R-Squared Conference? It Was a Barn Burner | Office Hours

About a year ago, I received an e-mail from a colleague sharing a URL for a new conference. “Do you know anything about this?” he asked.

The Risk and Reward Conference (R2), focusing on creativity and innovation in libraries, was planned for September 2012 up in the mountains in Telluride, CO (where the local tourism board won the bid to host the conference). The initial placeholder webpage was mysterious, lacking a lot of details one usually finds on conference pages. As more details about R2 appeared in the spring, I was intrigued and decided to attend in spite of relatively high travel and boarding costs, using conference funds made available to me by the Provost’s office at San Jose State University.

The R-Squared Conference turned out to be a barn burner, and worth the expense. The organizers—from the Colorado State Library, the award-winning Anythink libraries, Wilkinson Public Library in Telluride, and other Colorado institutions—had worked 18 months on this conference, a quick timeline for such an undertaking. They had put heart and soul into the planning and implementation.

I could tell how important this was to them by tears shed at the conference closing and the incredible attention to detail across the two and half days we spent together: spray-painted conference logos on the streets of Mountain Village, interactive stations around the venue to challenging assumptions and promoting creative engagement, t-shirts displaying the slogan: “’Better safe than sorry’ maybe the most dangerous thing ever said.” I don’t think ever has there been a library conference where somebody has stuck their hand into a box that could potentially contained spiders, worms, or snakes as part of the learning.

Over two days we explored creativity and curiosity, heard from keynoters such as Josh Linkner, author of Disciplined Dreaming, and each of us chose and completed our own immersive group experience. I chose Customer Curiosity, though other options included Creative Spaces, Culture, and Abundant Community. With John Bellina and Tasso Stathopulos from the Denver marketing firm Ricochet Ideas. Ricochet is the design group that helped create Anythink and transformed services such as the Anythink summer reading program through disruptive innovation—our group worked at turning the conventions and assumptions about Banned Books Week on its ear. Ideas in the form of action briefs flowed (an action brief is a framing statement used in planning that includes who we want to convince about a service or product, how we will do it and what the service will be that makes the change). Bellina challenged us with: “If we are not offering people something new, are we really doing our jobs?”

This was unlike any library conference I have ever been to, a sentiment echoed by other participants, across Twitter, Facebook, and in the hallways of the conference center. What made the difference? I believe that active engagement promotes learning and transformation more than sitting in the room and watching PowerPoint or Keynote slides go by. We were up, we were talking, we were writing and sharing. We were walking around the room answering questions. .

Beyond “Best Practices”

It also got me thinking about how many of our conferences in the library world are focused on sharing tips with little context, listening to a track of people tell you how they “did it good” and sharing the best practices for the technology of the day. By contrast, I would call R2 a “conference up on its feet.” We were sent out of the conference center looking around the physical world for ideas about how we can make changes to what we do and what we offer.

I would argue that the best practice presentations and technology of the day talks might find a better home via online learning programs and online conferences and events like the Library 2.012 Conference, where participants can listen, learn, and come away with new knowledge from their home base. This would ideally free up our physical conferences to offer more active engagement in the model of R2.

Our profession is ripe for a shake-up in this regard—I think we’re getting a little tired of talking heads conference models and the classic format of walking to sessions and sitting for 45 minutes, lather rinse repeat. I have a hunch that this might explains the uptick of the unconference movement as well. Just taking the pulse of the room via Twitter with the hash tag (#rsq12) that we used for the conference, I could tell that people were feeling the same way, that this was something to think about, that this model is one that needs to be propelled forward. Echoed in the halls and at break: “Are you doing it next year? Is this happening again? Are we going to do this again?” R2 should do it again, certainly, but state and national conferences would likewise do well to take a page from this immersive experience program.

Outside the echo chamber

I also believe that involving those from outside LIS is a key factor to the success of R2.

I love the fact that we had advertising and design thinkers coming in and talking with us: not standing up and telling us what we should do, but actually engaging and answering questions and giving us assignments and then saying come back in 20 minutes with this and we’ll talk about it and we’ll experience it together.

We’re going to look back at this and note that there were conferences before RSquared that were a certain way and conferences that come after R-Squared will be more of this active on your feet, looking to shake things up and talking with people outside of our field to do so. Writing at Tame the Web, Mace Ojala, a librarian from Finland, echoed my thoughts about his own disruptive experience with the cycling for libraries event: “We need more ways to learn, share, and work together. A lot of new and different ways.” I’d add to R-Squared to the list and urge everyone to watch for news of another R2.

My plea to conference organizers: I would like to see more regional conferences in the R-Squared mold. I want to see more LIS professors and students in attendance, participating as well. It’d be wonderful if librarians and LIS folk could have access to meetings like this all over the U.S., if not all over the world.

Talking heads and flipping slides will give way to active thinking and challenge-based learning experiences. One of the last things we did as a group at R2 was read aloud a statement prepared by the organizers: “You are not just an employee, volunteer, or board member. You do not merely catalogue books, organize periodicals, and manage resources. You are the gateway into the mind of the idea people who come to our facilities to find or fuel the spark, part wizard, part genius, part explorer. It is your calling to trespass into the unknown and come back with a concrete piece someone can hold on to, turn over and use to fuel their mind and soul.” I kid you not, there were people shedding tears by the end of the reading. It was a beautiful moment.

This conference was not for the faint of heart or the passive “let me sit in my chair and listen and take notes” type. At one point, we were standing on our chairs about to take a great leap of faith (at the behest of a speaker urging us not to wait for three, but to jump on two), looking beyond our fears toward the risks and rewards and the potential for innovation and disruptive service. But once you’ve done a conference this way, you can never go back.

Photos and captions courtesy of R-Squared

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA



  1. We loved having all of you! Thanks for coming to Telluride!

  2. Stephanie DeClue says:

    Agreed! R2 was the best thing I’ve done with conference funds in a long time. I’ve told everyone who will listen that they need to go next year, although I’ll admit I was tempted to keep it a secret in fear that it will grow too quickly and lose that start-up quality that made it so wonderful! I’ve re-thought so many of the things we do at my library. (I talked to my provost after my return about eliminating due dates and overdue fines for students) Let’s be disruptive!!

  3. I’m still reflecting on the experience! I’ve been talking about it at recent presentations as well.

  4. Jen Stencel says:

    I am following the progress of R2 since hearing of it near a year ago. I tell you my breath caught in my throat. It sounded like the Galts Gulch of creativity. The categories and line up was incredible. How I wanted to go. I could not attend but by the R2 participation in FB, youtube, and tumblr, I am able to see, watch or read my way through the event, and everything inspired thereafter. Sure, it is not like the real thing of being in the moment, but feel so fortunate to get what I can out of it by the social sharing process of the attendees.
    I appreciate the mention of trying to make this regional- with mini R2’s all across the country, and would love to see that happen and I don’t think it would lose the start-up feel. Your comments about conferences that make you get up and do something are spot on. I was at a Take 5 conference at the Columbus Museum of Art 2012 in which participation, involvement, doing, moving was the name of the game- and boy! that made a lasting impression.
    I think we have reached a plateau- and now is the time to usher in a disruption for participatory learning.