How to Close Down Conversations

tsktskKnowing library culture, I probably should have known better.

Two weeks ago I posted some “thoughtful questions” about library conferences and accountability. Nothing wrong with that. But then I went to a library conference.

Went with a dozen or so graduate students to discuss professional socialization and trend-spotting. Invited association leaders to speak to them about leadership life in our field. Oh dear.

First up. The conference chair.

Called my “thoughtful questions” mere “grumpy musings”. Now that is a show stopper. Wonder if labeling ideas with demeaning comment is how one engenders dialogue back at the ranch. Nothing addressed except the good news below…

Seems the conference is sold out. Turns out that that means the dining room at the resort hotel can’t accommodate anyone else. Forget the kids, partners, grandkids, siblings, parents running around because it is after all a resort hotel. But sold out.

Seems they pride themselves on not making money. Great. Keep costs low for the mainly senior leaders who attend with their families. They even sit in the same chairs year after year. Then raise money for the association in other ways off the backs of the less well off.

Who's here?

The executive director? (I did suggest accountability here.) School people no longer attend. Technicians no longer attend. We asked about enticing technicians. Seems they feel excluded. Now there is a surprise. What about a day of programs for them? Well, it is apparently not like they have 50 staff! (Give me an hour. It is not rocket science.)

The association president discussed her career and the two year project integrating a circulation desk and a reference desk. Interesting, but I had to explain to the students why yes, in any other field this would take two days, but we are sensitive, and vulnerable, and victims and… so two years to put two desks together.

One of the three major employers in the state does not fund anyone to attend. Why not? They don’t know. They never asked. “Their” problem.

While my table was discussing the interesting but somewhat irrelevant message of the keynoter the conference committee tweeted that it was excellent and everyone loved it. (Why bother filling in evaluation forms later?)

The students had to assess sessions for use of evidence. Not. For generalizability. Not. For better than “how I run my library good”.  Not. But the social events were terrific!

Attended an honouring ceremony for a colleague. All listed on the conference app so very current. Information changed but no one thought to change the app. Postponed. Fingers pointing at everyone else.

Thanks – but No Thanks

I was actually a conference sponsor (money on the table). More fool me. Thanked by the person who asked me for the money… but not by the president, the executive director, the conference chair, no reception or event for sponsors. Last time giving money away here. No ROI or even graciousness. (And my comparison is only to other conferences where I donate and the good manners they exhibit.)

But it was all summed up when a couple of my critical students tweeted that it was just great and they looked forward to next year

Library culture.

Gotta love it – even if I am now no doubt crossed off the conference list.

Grumpy musings indeed.



About Ken Haycock

Ken Haycock is currently Research Professor of Management and Organization at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, where he coordinates graduate programs in Library and Information Management.

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8 Responses to How to Close Down Conversations

  1. Sarah May 8, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    Hello Ken,
    I have followed this discussion with interest. I think that part of the problem with conveying this message to a wider audience is an absence of understanding of what it means to have a conference planning committee of members who are not professionally responsible (other than potentially looking bad in front of their colleagues) and being responsive to members. I have heard people say they read your comments as meaning programming should not be responsive to members.
    Another issue is that being responsive to members in programming is interpreted to mean collecting topics from members, which doesn’t necessarily collect a list of things people should be learning or that are important.
    Thank you for posting about this. I am grateful someone has started the conversation.

    • Ken Haycock May 8, 2013 at 2:02 pm #

      Of course programs should be responsible to members, or what is an association for? I did suggest that there should be a program advisory committee to the executive director. My primary point was simply that we need accountability and only the executive director, as the board’s one employee (any other staff answer to the executive director), should be responsible overall for the conference, including approvals, exhibits, data collection and analysis, trends analysis and so on. Thanks for putting on the table what you have heard people say, another part of our culture problem, but for another day!

  2. Robin May 8, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

    Over the past few months I’ve been involved in helping to organize a conference, and I’ve been thinking a lot about these types of issues. To my mind, there exists a tension between the “formal” conference trappings (program, venue, vendor showcase, schedule, etc.) and the “informal” aspect (drinks with colleagues, chance meetings, BOAF meetups, etc.). My impression (backed up, incidentally, by the findings of a research project that a colleague and I have been working on) is that the “informal” aspect of a conference is where its real value lies. When I talk of enjoying a conference, it typically has very little to do with the sessions, keynote, etc. It has everything to do with the number of personal connections I made. This, however, may be difficult for conference organizers to accept. They have a great deal of effort invested in the “outward” success of the conference; therefore, it may be hard to admit that most of the value that delegates derive from the conference lies between and after the carefully-selected sessions and presentations. So my guess is that many delegates might well indicate that they enjoyed a conference without specifying the why or how, leading organizers to continue on the same tack, under the perhaps false impression that they’re offering something of great value, when in reality the critical piece is simply getting a bunch of like-minded people under the same roof so that they can chat and drink beer with colleagues old and new.

    • Ken Haycock May 8, 2013 at 11:26 pm #

      Indeed. If we recognize this, however, then we find ways to ensure that all delegates have opportunities to network (including a session at the beginning on networking), ensure that there are invitations to get started (receptions for different environments, career experience) and ensure inclusion rather than closed vendor sessions and closed private parties, as useful and important as these too can be.

  3. Pat May 8, 2013 at 10:29 pm #

    I share your thoughts on library culture. It is very infuriating and a large part of the reason I have stopped paying library association dues and going to conferences. It’s always the same old thing. I did my part years ago to shake things up as part of the program committee, then chaired the committee, then became section president. I asked the questions and brought in outside leaders and speakers. Everyone thought that was nice but now they’re back to reorganizing and talking about all the things they talked about 10 years ago.

  4. Diane May 9, 2013 at 1:00 am #

    I find that library conferences no matter the continent have the same content — I have not been in libraryland long but it is the same thing hashed over in the sessions whether it is a paper or a panel. When an interesting paper or panel comes up and being on the conference panel trying to give it some traction, no one is interested. I find that frustrating because there are better, newer things to discuss. The clique environment or culture of conferences and associations but particularly the extremely large one excludes the desire to become a person who wants to be part of the solution. I would like to see some of the old guard that keep running for office to step aside and let the younger folks have a chance – to run the associations and conferences.

  5. Janet May 9, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    I have been following this discussion with great interest. Your current post nails it. To say that I am frustrated with the profession and the attitudes among those in the profession is an understatement. Unfortunately, the people who embrace the “we are sensitive, and vulnerable, and victims and…” are many and are allowed to have great impact on their organizations and the library profession. They are calling the shots either by holding leadership positions or by holding those in leadership positions hostage. Anyone who dares to challenge that culture does so at great personal risk. I haven’t yet given up…but am getting close. I believe that libraries have much to offer, but as long as current attitudes prevail and conferences, etc just rehash what has been talked about endlessly, there is a great risk of complete irrelevancy.

  6. Bri May 9, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

    I agree – and as a recent graduate of an MLIS program, I think a large part of this attitude/culture begins in library school. I can’t count the number of courses that I personally felt could have been more rigorous, more challenging, and more innovative. For anyone new to the profession, I think your educational experience has a huge impact on setting the tone for your future career. I think the way LIS education stands now, it’s pretty clear what the status quo is in the field, and as a profession, we seem to have become complacent with challenging this status quo. And as much as I agree that networking at conferences is incredibly valuable, I find it ironic that as ‘information professionals’ we seem to struggle to put together interesting, relevant and engaging conference sessions. So I guess that leaves me wondering one thing…what can us new professionals do to enact some of these changes? How can we challenge existing library culture?