22 Nov

LITA Forum 2013

LITA Forum was two weeks ago.  Since then I’ve had time to decompress and get caught up at work.  So now I’m going to write about my experience chairing the Forum Planning Committee.  I like to know how things work, so I’m framing this to help conference participants know what goes into planning a conference.

The Forum committee is one of the more active committees in LITA as we have a defined goal, or product we have to put on.  The basic structure of the conference is done by LITA staff—they  handle all of the venue details, basic marketing, registration, travel for keynotes, vendor relations, etc.  The committee handles the peer reviewing of submissions, keynote selection, and recommends vendor participants.  The committee also tries to do other things, which are really dependent on available resources.

First off, a few things I should mention.  ALA isn’t awash in money and they see conferences as a big revenue generator.  Whenever I hear someone complain about the cost of conferences and other ALA things, I understand, but having seen ALA financials, I understand why ALA charges for things.  Likewise, LITA Forum raises money for LITA.  We depend on Forum, and we depend on sponsors.  Now there are other issues related to ALA finances I will not get into here, but please be understanding about this fact.  Money also limits how many extra, cool things we can add to Forum.

Second, LITA staffers are awesome, and they do a lot without many resources (see above paragraph).  There is only so much additional work we can have them do for a conference.

The committee starts its work about a year before the actual Forum, writing up a Call for Presentations.  For the past several years, the deadline is in late winter, a drastic improvement to the previous “before ALA”.  Back in the day, the committee met at Midwinter to flesh out presentations.  We used Google Forms for submissions, but rumor is ALA will be moving to something more official that can be used year after year.  The committee talked about what they wanted to see Forum-wide for presentations, and we wanted tracks and we wanted one of those to be on the Maker movement.  We also wanted to do some crowdsourcing of topics, so we put together another Google forum asking people to rank what they were interested in.  That way, we could figure out if attendees would be attracted to presentations in areas such as UX, Drupal, metadata, etc.

Then, we get together virtually and discuss who to accept.  Committee members rated proposals, which we then averaged and ranked presentations.  We did not take the top 35 presentations, but we selected the top presentation in certain areas.  For instance, we did not want a conference that was only about the maker movement; instead we took the top 5 maker presentations, so there was one for every time slot.  For other subjects, we really did take the top 30 presentations.  This wasn’t deliberate; we just got lucky that way.

LITA Forum does not have a blind review, but it is peer-reviewed.    However, I can honestly say name recognition wasn’t a huge factor; it was the quality of the abstract.  We were interested in presentations that involved audience participation or active learning and wanted speakers from a variety of libraries.  I know there is a perception that LITA forum can be very academic (and the committee reflected that), but we wanted to appeal to other  types of libraries too.  We talked a lot about diversity, and wanted presenters that were as diverse as possible, which is difficult when you only have a form to go on.  Andromeda Yelton, a committee member talked a lot about this: http://andromedayelton.com/blog/2013/08/20/when-you-walk-into-a-room-count-diversity-and-lita-forum/

And that brings up keynote selection, which was going on at the same time.  The committee makes a list of possible keynoters, and then I, as chair, formally invite them, and when I got a yes, I hand them off to the LITA staff to work out details.  That’s keynote selection in an ideal world.  But since when in library land does everything work out to the ideal?  Making a list of keynotes was an interesting process.  There are names that come up every year in terms “it would be totally awesome to have this person”.  But then we quickly realize that that person is horribly busy or even more horribly expensive.  The committee wanted keynotes that were relatable to library technology, but may not necessarily be librarians. We also did not want everyone to be a white male.  Inviting women really made me think about how I would handle being a sought after speaker while still maintaining a work/life balance, which sadly is different for women than men.  I got responses like, “well, I’m expecting a baby a couple of months before that, so I’m needing to scale back my speaking” and “my family life will only allow me to have one out of state speaking engagement a month, and I’m taken for your month”.    The other thing is financials; we cannot afford to pay keynoters more than a tiny honorarium.  I’m seeking creative ways to change this in the future, but that was this year’s situation.  And, I learned that since there are a lot fewer female technology keynote speakers, they typically get a lot more money.

Vendors are another very important piece in the conference puzzle.  LITA Forum is small enough that we don’t do the typical vendor set up.  We have a “showcase” that has no more than 10 vendors, and they are located the same place the food is distributed, so people have to walk by.  The committee recommends vendors and then LITA staff contact them and work out terms.  This year, I followed up with some vendors, putting a more personal touch as to why we’d like them to come, stressing that they can go to sessions and see how people are utilizing their products.  But library vendors don’t have a ton of money to spend on conferences either, and they not only have to pay for the table, but also travel for 1 or more employees.  There were other library conferences the week of Forum, which makes things even harder for vendors.  I’d really like LITA to look at alternative ways to get vendors involved, like donating money for something more tangible (like the O’Reilly books we got) or sponsoring other things like scholarships, keynotes, or food events.  I’m especially excited about the possibility of keynote sponsorships, as other conferences have done this.  It would save our costs for keynotes and possibly get someone to speak we otherwise could not afford.

A few other things I don’t want to develop into paragraphs:

  • Springshare donated a LibGuides subscription so we could have a mobile site.  Several committee members contributed to it, and it was awesome.  This was one of those things that falls to the committee, as LITA staff have enough on their hands regarding scheduling as it is.
  • We had a couple of presenters drop out, for various reasons, all of them valid.  If life or funding changes and you cannot present at a conference, let the organizers know.  We expect a few dropouts.
  • Local arrangements are something we depend on.  I was lucky in that there were a couple of committee members with Louisville ties, and was contacted by someone from the public library who was eager to help.  They did an excellent job selecting restaurants and providing sources of things to do.
  • I hate talking into a microphone.  I’m fine in teaching situations and talking in small groups, but get all anxious when a microphone is put in front of me.  I need to work on this.
  • Finally, the committee has talked and we are made some recommendations for next year.  Forum is an evolving target, and we change things up in the future.

I could talk about a ton of other things, but this is really long already.  If you made it this far in the post, congrats!