A Conference is a curious animal. Its life is created in full, expectant detail through planning documents and draft schedules, and in the minds of its committee members. This conference-in-waiting may not bear any resembnlance to the conference experienced by those who attend. Further complicating the issue, the conference that attendees"A" experiences is not the same conference that attendee "B"experiences.
I have been involved in six VLA annual conferences from the inside: three as a conference committee member, two as the conference committee chair, and one as the VLA President.This experience affords me an insider's perspective on our conferences that, combined with 25 years of VLA conference attendance, may qualify me to offer the following personal views of what conferences tell us about ourselves as librarians and as individuals.
- We plan and implement very successful conferences. Careful budgeting,alterations in format, bidding for basic services, and careful contract negotiation have allowed our conferences to experience revenue returns over expenses at a rate which has helped to stabilize the organization financially.
- We appear not to trust ourselves as professional, knowledgeable conference planners. Reading through the conference evaluations, I was more than a little distressed by the tone with which individuals chose to express their frustrations. Based on the comments, one would think either that we had planned and agreed to the incredibly unacceptable conditions at the Scope Convention Center, or that we were completely unaware of them. With three weeks to react to the startling news that the space we had expected to use would be unavailable, conference committee members worked ceaselessly to demand and cajole reasonable accommodation to our needs. Extraordinary efforts were made to improve the situation, including additional VLA expense for extra draping to create the illusion of private space. In the end, success was impossible, but conference committee staff continued to attempt to make improvements throughout the conference. All were well aware of the noise, rude staff, uncaring employees, and more. VLA conference staff understood and shared your frustrations. We experienced even more frustration as we worked to speak to the complaint sand resolve unexpected issues. Wouldn't it, then, have been comforting to have read evaluation comments that acknowledged awareness that what we experienced was in fact a hard fought improvement over what Scope had offered to provide and that we had continually done the best we possibly could have done for the attendees?Several people commented that VLA should have planned better, as if we felt that conditions had been acceptable. I know we can communicate more effectively and more constructively among ourselves: one harsh comment always overwhelms the several written in praise or congratulations.
- We want to have our exhibits and meetings in one facility. We're not fond of walking between venues. There are so few conference sites in Virginia large enough to allow all of our functions to be in one building that this desire will be met only occasionally. Tight schedules and bad weather makes travel between two separate buildings difficult and members may have walking difficulties. It is clearly an issue that will require additional planning attention by future conference and conference site selection committees. The extent of the comments about this issue surprised me as I found I welcomed the breath of fresh air and the opportunity to stretch my legs between sessions. I will admit that rain or other inclement weather would have dampened (no pun intended) that particular enthusiasm.
- We are too serious. An alternative statement might be that we don't know how to party. Now I know that we don't go to conferences to party, but we do go for social interaction with our colleagues. Anyone who has attended the social at the Paraprofessional forum Conference can attest to just how enjoyable and relaxing such interaction can be. Yet as soon as the formal program portion of our social was over, folks left-perhaps tired, perhaps for alate dinner. I think we learned that the awards are a good addition to the social, but that a speaker is perhaps not. The elimination of the speaker would provide more time for social interaction and thereby more completely meet the goal of that particular event.
- We don't fully grasp the vulnerability of the preconference program schedule. On a beautiful sunny day late last spring, Linda Hahne, Morel Fry, and I reviewed the concurrent session proposals that had been received. It was a challenge to construct a schedule for a two-day conference for the first time. We juggled room availability and size, academic versus public programs, children's versus adult programs, special events, walking distance, the need for a no-conflict time for the exhibit hall, attendee needs versus vendor needs-a whole host of variables. Several pads of sticky notes later, we had a schedule that offered a wide range of meeting choices (a consistent request in conference evaluations), balanced for the type of individual who might attend, balanced with the perceived number of attendees, room size, room location, etc. That preliminary schedule forms the preconference program schedule.Needless to say, there is no hope that this schedule will not require change. Speakers cancel or request day or time changes, topics change, rooms become unavailable, etc. Touch one program,and the threads unravel quickly. The next-to-final schedule is printed as the final program-then more changes happen.Clearly, the changes between the preconference program and the final schedule need to be communicated to those planning to attend. The VLA web site is a logical choice to make such information available and future conference committees can refine this communication plan.
- We don't like to be crowded into meeting rooms. Because we don't register for specific sessions, rooms are assigned based on our best perceptions about interest in a topic. It is always a guess-we will always be wrong. Several years ago, we attempted to gauge interest in sessions by asking people to circle the sessions in which they were interested when sending in registration forms. Almost no one did so, and without the addition of a major clerical registration process, there will inevitably be surprises of too many people in too small a room, or too few people in too large a room.
- We like free food, even when it isn't the greatest in quality. The size of the Scope Convention Center allowed the opportunity to provide a free box lunch and at least some space within which to eat it. We commented on how much we liked it and the exhibitors loved having the high level of traffic at their booths. The table talks idea, a companion piece to the free lunch, was successful past the committee's expectations, but space was not sufficient. The entire idea may not be possible in some conference venues because of space limitations.
- We have an incredibly talented and diverse membership. The idea of concurrent sessions is only a couple of years old. It is a very successful modification of our former conference program process. Concurrent sessions yield more program choices, share the knowledge of our members, and highlight what is truly important to us as library staff in any given year. The number of sessions has reached that delicate point where we will soon receive more proposals than we can accommodate in the schedule and we will have to develop criteria for selecting programs from the total number of proposals received.
- We appreciate our vendors. It is difficult to balance the needs of attendees with the needs of vendors. There is either too much free time to visit the exhibits (and therefore too few programs) or too little; there are either too many programs (hence no one in the exhibit area) or too few. One of the central tensions of conference planning is establishing the balance. We do, however, appreciate our vendors and anticipate learning about new products and services-and we love to shop at the Library of Virginia booth.
- We continue to recognize the VLA Annual Conference as a substantive, essential continuing education opportunity for our membership and for library staff throughout Virginia. It's the best return for our training dollars that can be found. The attendance at the 2000 conference was the highest in many years. We need to encourage more participation and share the wealth of our knowledge and expertise.
Thank you for all of the helpful conference evaluation comments, only some of which are reflected in my personal conference musings. See you at the 2001 conference in Richmond!