How to Hack the Academic Conference
13/03/2012 § 8 Comments
This post was collaboratively written by Quasi-Con planners and School of Information Master’s candidates Kelly Davenport, Peter Timmons, Ilana Barnes (ALA chapter president), Kim Miller (vice president), Katy Mahraj (treasurer), Ryan Clement (webmaster), and Mariah Cherem (social media coordinator).
The DIY Library Conference: A Quasi-Guide
It was an experiment.
When Ilana Barnes pitched the idea of a student-led library conference at the University of Michigan School of Information (SI) during her tenure as ALA Chapter president, she chose the following theme: “The Future of Libraries?!”
Ultimately, we didn’t need the question mark. More than 70 students, professionals, and alumni gathered in January for the first Quasi-Con, a hybrid unconference and professional conference. We’re here to tell you how we organized it, and why we think you should plan your own Quasi-Con, in three easy steps.
Step 1. Dream It: Or, Quasi-What?
It’s a truism at SI that students here need to be “comfortable with ambiguity.” Quasi-Con was an experiment – and one that seven SI students planned in six weeks. We started with what we knew:
- We wanted to give students a low-pressure chance to present their work to a library-friendly audience.
- We didn’t want to put anyone to sleep – fewer “talking heads,” more dynamic discussions.
So we put the two ideas together and made a Quasi-Con. The morning would be an unconference; the afternoon a scheduled set of lightning talks and presentations.
We formed a steering committee to join the ALA officers in planning – what we now consider a key step in producing the event, as it allowed a small group of us to focus entirely on Quasi-Con while the officers helped juggle other activities.
Then we got to work.
Step 2. Plan It: Timing, Money, and the Nitty-Gritty
Each planner played to his or her strengths, grabbed a piece of the event, and shepherded it through to the end. Marketing and fundraising were key components.
Marketing: We reached out to the professional community of public, academic, special, and school librarians through our personal networks and with the help of faculty, extending invitations for a handful to join us as special guests. We wanted to show respect for the collective expertise around us while also cultivating interest and buy-in from professionals. The rest of our outreach centered on staying in touch with SI students and nearby Wayne State University through listserv posts and social media.
Fundraising: ALA Treasurer Katy Mahraj put together a budget, broken into categories of anticipated income (registration fees of $5 a person – and sponsorship) and anticipated expenditures (food, venue, multimedia, marketing, printing, parking, and swag). A tip: Search online for free budget templates and then play with the numbers in Excel.
Next, she headed to the SI development representative for guidance on identifying and contacting sponsors. The letter to sponsors spelled out the value of our event, the number of predicted attendees, and opportunities for the sponsor to gain props for their support. The contribution of our sponsor, Gale Cengage Learning, helped pay for most of our expenditures. We featured their logo on our conference materials, and a company representative attended as a special guest. We were thrilled at the support shown by our university and professional community, and surely could not have pulled it off had we not asked for help.
Step 3. Do It: Live-Tweeting, and Lessons from an Unconference
We knew the unconference would be organic, but we wanted to ensure success by putting together a plan to guide the morning. So, we wrote a minute-by-minute outline for the day’s proceedings.
For the morning unconference, we asked participants to break into small groups and write down and discuss provocative questions and topics related to current issues in librarianship. We took their ideas, jotted on sticky notes, and displayed them throughout the day for everyone to read – our “quasi” art installation. This brainstorming task stimulated discussion and generated excellent unconference topics in just 20 minutes’ time.
We also encouraged everyone to live-tweet with the hashtag #quasi12, and streamed their tweets on a ticker in the main event room. These tweets and photos crowd-sourced a record of the day’s thoughts, humor, and happenings that we later collected and republished using the social media curation tool Storify. (Read the stories here and here.)
Takeaways and Advice
There’s so much more to say – and we encourage anyone to contact us with questions! – but we’ll end with a few reflections on what we learned and what we’d like to do better next time.
- Asynchronous collaboration is your friend. Our team of seven planners was never in the same room together until after the event, when we met to debrief. We met regularly in smaller teams, with ALA chapter president Ilana acting as the go-between. We used Google docs to share ideas and keep track of to-do lists.
- Communication with presenters and special guests is key. Next time, we would start planning earlier to finalize the schedule sooner for presenters’ benefit.
- Make your event modular and scalable. We started this process thinking 30 people would come. We had more than 90 register, leading to some last-minute rejiggering for rooms and food. Think about how your event can expand or contract to be flexible.
- Trust in experiments! On feedback forms, participants consistently rated the unconference one of their favorite parts of the event. The discussions were fresh and authentic, and invited us to step out of the student role and into the role of librarian, to try on our new professional identities and hone ideas.
Uncertainty – about being a student, about where we fit into a rapidly changing profession – can feel intimidating. But we drew inspiration from the DIY spirit and worked to create a simple yet meaningful experience that challenged all of us to stretch, dream, and claim a little piece of the future.
Do you have experience attending or hosting a student-run conference at your school? Tell us about it!