Unpacking the Conference: Planning, Execution, and Afterthoughts

22/06/2011 § 4 Comments

This post is a shared effort between HLS editor Julia Skinner and Katie DeVries Hassman, Sam Bouwers, and Gwen Persons, who were part of the conference planning team for Unpacking the “Library”: Exploring Works in Progress Across the Field of LIS. Other planners included Melody Dworak, Christine Mastalio, and Julie Zimmerman, who looked over parts of the post for us! To see more about the programs from that day, go to Julia’s post here.

Conference attendees

The audience waits for a conference session to start.

Part I: The Planning

Julia: Planning a conference is a lot of work. It’s fun and rewarding work, but if you’re going to hold a conference make sure to give yourself as much time for planning as you can! The idea for our conference came when we wanted to find another way to educate our fellow students and encourage them to grow professionally. Having a goal and a framework in place when we started planning was important, because it made our lives much easier when people asked ‘why are you hosting a conference?’ or ‘what do you hope people will get out of this?’

Sam: You can never budget too much time for planning. When we started laying down the groundwork in the fall, I thought we were crazy. But come March, I was so glad we had worked as hard as we did in the fall and winter. Sticking to the B Sides goal of promoting student works-in-progress and open access helped drive the planning process as well.
Gwen: My big takeaway was to start contacting speakers ridiculously early. I thought I was giving the professional panel plenty of time to get back to me about whether or not they could participate, but we still ended up scrambling a bit at the end because a potential presenter dragged her feet. I guess that just reinforced the point you already made about budgeting enough time for planning.

Part II: The Execution
After all that hard work, we were all excited (and nervous!) for the big day to arrive. When it did, we were very happy with the results. We had 57 registered attendants, with an estimated total of 83 attendants (including organizers, presenters, and volunteers.) Our last session had about 30 audience members, which meant that quite a few folks stuck around throughout the day. There was a diverse group of professionals in attendance throughout the day. We had current and former students, but also a number of people from local libraries, prospective students, and faculty (and a few community members too.) Our presenters were also diverse: we heard talks from students based on work they had done in class, but also from area professionals and alumni. We tried to make our programming something that would interest a wide variety of individuals by offering a practice poster session (students do a real poster session to graduate, so this gave them a chance to build and share a poster,) a job seeking panel composed of people in hiring positions, and panels on a number of topics ranging from technology in the library to library history.
One of the most  useful things we did as organizers was to write up feedback forms so that we could learn from attendees about how to make the conference even better. We got 22 responses, mostly from current/former students, but also from prospective students. Many of those in attendance liked that we provided job seeking advice and programming on a variety of topics. They also felt that the conference helped stoke their appreciation for the field and that the people there were enthusiastic. The areas for improvement were more mixed, with fewer people indicating the same areas. The idea of concurrent sessions was mentioned, as was a more cohesive lunch time and more time to look at posters. We also created feedback forms for poster presenters, which would allow them to bring home ideas to make their written arguments stronger. Quite a few people filled out feedback forms for poster presenters and for the conference organizers. We as planners also got verbal feedback from attendees, and those of us doing posters were able to get some verbal feedback about those as well.

Julia: One of the best parts of the conference for me was seeing presenters and attendees from a variety of backgrounds. This gave us a variety of perspectives to learn from, and meant that our sessions had a broad appeal. While the emphasis was always on SLIS students, I’m glad that we included alumni as much as we did because they were able to speak as professionals who had gone through the program and could talk about where they are now. Another bonus was seeing all these different people mingling around posters and during breaks to talk about current issues in LIS: we had originally planned to have a ‘birds of a feather’ lunch where people would learn from someone who’s in a particular field, but it turns out people just divided up, sat down, and started talking about the field on their own! It was a really organic process and fun to watch. My favorite thing was a result of having all the sessions in the same room (something I’ve not experienced at most conferences!) Because everyone could attend all sessions, many presenters (and attendees during q&a) would bring up the themes mentioned in previous talks to tie into topics that were discussed later on. That made the whole conference flow together in a really exciting way! Of course, it meant we didn’t have as many sessions, so I see the value of concurrent sessions too!
Katie: The poster session is a really great chance to try out poster designs and to get feedback for where your research may be applied. Since many of us were not used to presenting our research visually or spatially, this was a really great chance to try out our designs and to actually see a poster draft before we spent the money to print the real (often expensive) final. It ended up being helpful to not have the lunch session we originally planned. Since we had only short breaks between sessions it was also important to provide time for people to network and to discuss the day’s sessions and discussions.

Part III: Afterthoughts
A few things that worked really well for us:
-All sessions in the same room (no concurrent sessions) meant that speakers were able to refer back to earlier sessions to create broad themes across the whole day; however this also meant that the day got a bit long. We’ll have to work to more of a balance in the future!
-Using the conference both as a place to share ideas and a means to educate students meant that we were able to include a variety of programming beyond research papers, and allowed us to cater to more people.
-Having the posters up all day in the back of the room was great because people could look at them during breaks and browse throughout the day. It also meant we only had to set everything up once!
-We’re hoping that some of our presenters will publish their slides and talks with us, both because we love highlighting great work and because it would be a great way to archive conference materials.

Take-Aways for Other Students Planning a Conference:
Julia: It’s less intimidating than it seems! Planning a conference was plenty of work, but we had a unique opportunity to organize and run a conference that was centered around our experiences as students, and it gave us a chance to help other students who hadn’t been to a conference before feel more comfortable with attendance and participation. This is a great way to help encourage our graduates to be active and engaged with the field, and definitely something I’d love to see more students do (and if you have planned a student-led conference, I’d love to hear how it went!) Also, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Our faculty, department director, and students were all supportive, and were there to help us host pre-conference talks and organize logistics (we even got some funding!) 


Sam: Also I would say to cater to the strengths of your program. We were able to have faculty help us with pre-and post-conference sessions. We also took advantage of the vibrant library community in the Iowa City area by inviting representatives from all types of libraries–public, academic, and special. This allowed students a chance to network with professionals from across the field.
Post-conference we also had a chance to follow up with our faculty advisor who gave us some wonderful suggestions to improve future events. It was also good to get an outsider’s opinion on our conference–everything from structure, to logistics, to panel content. I had been so caught up in the apparent success of the day, it was a bit jarring to receive Jim’s honest opinion about some of the panels, but still I’m sure it will help us out in future.

Katie: Aside from offering a structured professional opportunity to gain experience and practice in organizing, attending and presenting, the conference was also about supporting student involvement. What I think was most important about the day, was that as students, we were able to feel a sense of ownership and the chance to explore and express our ideas, to take chances, and to develop a stronger sense of who we might be as professionals. The more we can do, and the more chances we can take and follow through with while in school, the more we can do when we get out.
When the day was finally through we left feeling both exhilarated and exhausted. After organizing and managing the day it was really important to have a day to decompress. In fact, I spent most of the next day lounging and catching up on my blog reader subscriptions and my favorite television series. It is important to decompress a bit after the big day. Give yourself some time and just a bit of distance so that you can approach the post-conference assessment and reporting with a clear head.
Don’t just let the conference float. Make sure you plan post-conference activities and make room in your timeline for assessment, organizer debriefs, and stakeholder/supporter presentations. Since our conference was the first of its kind at our school, we knew it would be important to gather formal feedback and provide attendees a venue to assess the success of the conference as well. Melody put together some really amazing formal feedback forms that prompted pointed feedback and gave us some great insight into the overall success of the conference.
Assessment is extremely important. If you set clear conference outcome goals near the beginning of the planning, make sure you also plan for assessment.  Assessment is not only an important professional skill to adapt, but it is a really great way to record, reflect and gain professional (and maybe even financial) support for any successive conferences or programs your organization might wish to plan.

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