March 16, 2018

Conference Call | Office Hours

msapplestorenyc-170x170An early morning drive south from Loveland to the Denver airport gave me time to reflect on the evolving nature of library conferences. I delivered one of the keynotes for the Colorado Association of Libraries annual conference (CALCON) this year and was thrilled to be invited to attend the entire event. What I discovered in the meeting rooms and hallways and at the receptions and dinners with Colorado librarians was a spirit of innovation and inspiration, a renaissance of the state-level meeting. The sessions were interesting, useful, and engaging. The atmosphere was welcoming, inclusive, and vibrant.

The same could be said about this year’s California Library Association (CLA) meeting. CLA president Robert Karatsu posted an overview on Facebook. CLA offered a traditional 9–5 conference schedule but added a “night track” with edgier programs and more networking opportunities. Ignite sessions ran the gamut from youth services to “Haters Ball ($%&# You Hate About Your Library…).”

“Obviously, there was more to the conference than this, but we needed to try something different—and more relevant to the next generation of library workers. I think we hit on something,” Karatsu wrote.

Some of the conference buzz seems to center on meetings outside our field. There’s a strong library contingent annually attending South by Southwest (SXSW). Others hit conferences focused on their area of work or passion: Maker events, comic cons, and fan-based gatherings come to mind. There is a benefit here: instead of listening to librarians talk about these topics, go to the experts. Want to talk security? Go to an IT security conference—there are tons. Want to discuss marketing your library? Attend a marketing conference for government agencies and ­nonprofits.

“Wither” the tote bag?

Has the golden age of big library conferences passed? Attendance at larger American Library Association (ALA)–style gatherings has fluctuated, perhaps because of attendee funding, perhaps because of location. Conferences offered by private companies have changed as well. A colleague noticed this even before the economic downturn, saying, “Speakers used to get fruit baskets in their rooms and were paid to be here. Now, not so much.”

Have you noticed these changes? Some people have been struck by fewer vendors in the exhibit hall or lesser quality tote bags. Others note a more inclusive feeling. Jessamyn West, community technologist from Randolph, VT, and author of Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide, said, “I feel like conferences may be less fancy—less formal galas, especially at state conferences—but they’re more accessible and egalitarian, at least the ones that I’ve been to.” CALCON felt this way, offering to all manner and stripe of library folk sessions on ethics, information literacy, unique program ideas, and more. Engaging panels transcended sitting and taking notes.

Participatory and active learning take center stage at events like these. ­R-Squared, the Risk and Reward Conference, also created and hosted by Colorado librarians, was like no other meeting I have ever attended. (See “Did You Miss the R-Squared Conference? It Was a Barn Burner,” It has not been replicated, but perhaps some seeds were planted there.

State of the art

R-Squared may have been a touchstone or flashpoint to inspire others to turn things on end. A new way of professional learning may be replacing the “filling a ballroom and quietly taking notes as a speaker speaks” model and seems to have its genesis in a more localized fashion. At a state meeting last spring, a library administrator noted, “My new professional hires are much more interested in doing regional and state stuff—super into the state stuff.”

Is this the rise of locavore learning? Budgets may be more robust for travel closer to home. There’s something wonderful about meeting up with colleagues once a year (or more) and commiserating. As a friend said at CALCON, “I’m with my people.” Local and state conferences make collaboration more possible. It’s easier to learn from one another when you can actually visit one another’s libraries and see how programs and services are working out. People extend themselves more when they are with colleagues who are also “neighbors,” even if they are three hours away. Chances are you will also find colleagues working with similar demographics or facing similar political/funding realities—all of which make “going local” more compelling.

There is something in the air, and I would urge all conference planners to take note of this energized atmosphere. Consider flipping your conference, trying something different, and offering more ways for regional librarians to network, collaborate, and share. With a networked profession, and so many online learning opportunities, perhaps we don’t need to attend huge conferences all the time—our F2F fix can be filled locally.

This article was published in Library Journal's January 1, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

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



  1. Dale McNeill says:

    As much as I love state and regional conferences (I’ve learned and presented at Rhode Island’s and at Texas’), I also think there’s a value in national and international conferences. The small conferences (Urban Libraries Unite is a great example) give an intimate atmosphere that encourages collaboration. But IFLA or ALA provide opportunity for a broader view and to talk with colleagues who are having quite different experiences. I feel the same way about type of library conferences, like PLA’s conference. They’re wonderful, but I wouldn’t want, over time, to be isolated from academic, school, or special library workers.

    Galas, swag, those kinds id things can and should change.