Why don’t English conferences make you feel like this?

16 Dec
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Creative Commons image by Michael Porter (aka Libraryman!) – click to view the original on Flickr.


Back in 2006 when I got my first position in a library, in a job-emergency and with no intention of staying in the profession, one of the many many things I didn’t expect librarianship to involve was exciting foreign travel. But so far it’s taken me to Philly, to Latvia, to South Africa, and next year to Vancouver.

In part 3 of my posts about Cape Town (part 1, including a presentation on professional brand, can be read here; part 2 about the trip itself can be read here) I wanted to discuss something that the LIASA 2013 conference made me think about: English conferences have something missing. They don’t seem to make people feel inspired and uplifted like other conferences do. Why is that?

NB: I originally, erronously, entitled this post ‘Why don’t UK conferences make you feel like this?’ – but one thing which came out of the Twitter discussion I had about this subject while in SA is that there are plenty of people who’ve been inspired by conferences in Ireland, Wales and Scotland; this is borne out by the Storify embedded below. Apologies, rest of the UK…

English reserve

LIASA in Cape Town was on a pretty large scale – several hundred librarians from several countries. Here’s how it made me feel: excited, uplifted and optimistic. This is exactly what I want from a conference: you come together with your peers, you share ideas, you go away not just with practical ideas to apply to your job, but feeling inspired about librarianship. This is how I felt after SLA2011 in the USA, too. Interestingly, this is how I felt after the New Professionals Conferences I’ve been to, and this is how, judging from the Twitter reaction to them, people feel after attending LibCamps. But this is not how I’ve felt after, for example, Umbrella, or LILAC, or various JISC-related things I attended as part of a previous job, or smaller events I’ve been to organised by ARLG or CDG. That’s not to say these events weren’t good events, or weren’t useful to me – they were mostly both of those things (LILAC particularly). They just didn’t send me home beaming on the train / plane with optimism and uplift.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that English reserve and cynicism is what stops some events reaching the heights I’m describing. The events I’ve been inspired by have either been on foreign shores where English reserve and cynicism aren’t applicable, or for New Professionals conferences where the delegates haven’t been around long enough to become cynical or reserved. People seem to get very inspired by unconferences such as Mashlib and Libcamp, and Radical Libcamp – and by definition unconferences should be populated by a self-selecting group of engaged and non-cynical (about the profession, at least) delegates. So basically in situations where the English reserve and cynicism can’t get a proper foothold, the conference can flourish and leave everyone feeling reinvigorated – is it that simple?

Now, I’m aware not everyone agrees with me on this. Colleagues of mine, my boss for example, have been to English conferences and come away inspired, so maybe I’m either a: going to the wrong conferences, or b: approaching them in the wrong way? If you have time to leave a comment, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

What’s the most inspiring library event you’ve ever been to? Storify time

Finally, I conducted a brief and unscientific poll on Twitter this morning, so you can get some other perspectives on peoples’ most inspiring library events. Thank you to all who took part and RT’d my request for input. I was going to total up the ‘traditional UK conferences versus other types’ votes, but the waters are murky there as there’s plenty of responses from people not in the UK in the first place. So I’ve attempted to categorise the answers but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. If nothing else, make a note of these as events to try and attend in the future (be sure to press the ‘read next page’ button at the bottom – there’s loads of good stuff here)…


This will automatically update here as I add things to the Storify. (Storify is great, by the way.)

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  • John Kirriemuir December 16, 2013 at 12:56 PM

    Short answer: Prevailing attitude.
    Long answer: That’s going to take several thousand words and a bunch of examples :) Gimme a while and will link from here.

  • Tom Roper December 16, 2013 at 1:10 PM

    Fascinating work, Ned, well done. I nominated an overseas conference, as did many. Could it be that we are more prepared to suspend disbelief when far away from home, made so very welcome, as conference organisers do, and overcome by glamorous locations, with a pinch of jetlag thrown in?
    Certainly there are negative features to foreign conferences I have been to. Awards ceremonies with gushing citations that go on for hours, without the solace of an alcoholic drink, for example. And sometimes enthusiasm is preferred to hard thought.
    Speaking of drink, can I change my nomination? I’d now like to say the 3rd International Conference on Animal Health Information, Copenhagen, 1997. Why? Free beer at lunchtime.

  • […] answer wouldn’t fit even across loads of tweets. So with that in mind, and following on from the previous post on inspiring conferences, here’s my personal opinions based on conferences I’ve […]

  • thewikiman December 16, 2013 at 1:57 PM

    Thank you John! I very much look forward to reading the full, mega-version… :)

  • thewikiman December 16, 2013 at 1:58 PM

    Tom that is an excellent comment, thank you. I agree with you on all points and appreciate the insight.

    (Although if I drank beer at lunchtime at a conference, I can only imagine the lethargy it would induce in me for the afternoon session.

  • John Kirriemuir December 16, 2013 at 2:15 PM

    Frankly, all award ceremonies at library (and some other) events, whether in the UK or overseas, are a complete and almost shocking waste of time. They serve only as a PR exercise for the conference organizers and award sponsors.

    Think about it. Hundreds of people, often journeying hundreds (or more) miles, often at significant expense and time given up, to do … what? Sit, mute (apart from applause) in a room and watch someone awkwardly being given some mis-shapen trophy and stand embarrassed as they listen to some speech. How dumb is that?

    This isn’t to say awards themselves are worthless. Far from it; they are often valid and worthy and deserved. The *ceremony* itself though, is a huge waste of everyone’s limited time at library events, a relic from a previous age where communication was much more limited. Now, there’s a wide variety of social media tools that can be used by the awarder, the awardee, and a network of peers to show their appreciation at times that are much more convenient, and less costly, to all.

    Or think about it another way. You’ve traveled by train and plane to get to a place. You are there for a limited time with your peers, people you want to talk to, learn from, connect with. And you can’t do any of that because you are all mute, listening to speeches. It’s a colossal waste of time, human resource and opportunity and seems, actually is, absurd and ridiculous in this age.

  • thewikiman December 16, 2013 at 2:20 PM

    “The *ceremony* itself though, is a huge waste of everyone’s limited time at library events, a relic from a previous age where communication was much more limited.”


    For some reason this reminds me of a mini-rant I had about the idea, from a family member (on the wife’s side, of course) of needing something specific to get people ‘mixing’ at our wedding. I basically paraphrased you:

    “You’ve traveled by train and plane to get to a place. You are there for a limited time with your peers, people you want to talk to, people you love but probably ONLY SEE AT WEDDINGS. And you can’t do any of that because you are being forced to ‘mix’ – to make new sodding friends when the ones you really miss are sitting right there talking to other strangers… It’s a colossal waste of time, human resource and opportunity and seems, actually is, absurd and ridiculous in this age. So, to sum up: no we will not be going with your whole mixing idea.”

    I am nothing if not miserably pragmatic at heart. :)

  • John Kirriemuir December 16, 2013 at 2:23 PM

    …with the exception of the winner of the best cake award at Library Camp. Because that was an unconference award thing and therefore informal, barely a minute or two so no significant time loss, the gathered people were quietly chatting, and rather than being a PR exercise was genuine. Also, fantastic Moomin cake.

  • Rosie Hare December 16, 2013 at 4:21 PM

    I missed the Twitter activity this morning, but Library Camp London in March 2013 was the best event for me. Not too many people (as I think ‘big’ Library Camp suffers from this) and excellent facilitation in sessions and lots of engagement. That’s probably the last event I went to that really uplifted me. As you may be aware from my post after Library Camp 2013 in Birmingham, I wasn’t really ‘feeling it’ as much as I had previously. This was probably my problem, but I did feel like the atmosphere wasn’t quite right.

    I think Umbrella would be mint if it was organised by us, Ned, if I’m honest. ;) And people like Penny and others who want to drag the profession into the 21st century and take more risks. I’m not really sure if the reserve and risk-averse behaviour is particularly English or is it perhaps more to do with the individuals/groups that organise the events?

  • Penny December 16, 2013 at 8:28 PM

    As ever, Rosie is right…

  • thewikiman December 17, 2013 at 10:15 AM

    Rosie, yeah it’s a good point (about englishness versus just organiserness). I was involved in organising the CILIP New Professionals Day in 2010 and our group was led by Kathy Ennis, who is not inherently conservative. The whole organising committee was her and 3 new professionals, which is risky in itself. We got a great programme, we did it twice so that it wasn’t just a London thing, people were enthused. I think it was really good. But the kinds of people attracted to Umbrella, I dunno… I don’t want to generalise or say something sweeping which offends anyone. I’m just not convinced that even we (even us Rosie! :) ) could make it work, but I can’t put my finger on why exactly.

    On my long list of things I’d love to do if I had more time and drive, is The Real Library Conference™. Where everything that is said has to be completely real and grounded in reality, and you get gonged off if you lapse into cliche or nonsense or say things which everyone says but which don’t actually stand up to scrutiny. I think it would be awesome.

  • Rosie Hare December 17, 2013 at 1:28 PM

    I just had to Google ‘The Real Library Conference’ because I didn’t know if it was already a thing, haha. It sounds like a really good idea though. That was one of my gripes with Library Camp this year, because I’ve been to so many it seems like it’s the same things getting debated again and again for two years in a row now, and as much as I love a good chat, I was getting a bit bored. I mainly only go to stuff like that for the socialising anyway, and not in a ‘professional networking’ sense, in a genuine catching up with old friends and making new ones sense. I think anything where networking is forced or taken too seriously is not a fun experience.

    I’ve never been to Umbrella so I don’t know what it’s like. Is it something to do with old-school hierarchy within the library world do you think? Perhaps the ‘new generation’ of librarians will change things?

  • thewikiman December 19, 2013 at 8:54 AM

    Rosie totally agree about forced networking. Why does anything need to have networking in the title, really? If you put a bunch of people from the same profession in a room for a coffee break / lunch break / pub break than they are pretty much going to talk to each other…

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