I am in the midst of attending 5 conferences in 3 weeks, for the legal, library, publishing and business industries. The conferences are for varied audiences, and yet I am seeing some good synergies between the discussions.
I therefore found David Whelan’s blog post “A Perspective on Professional Education” to be of interest. In it he compares the Canadian Association of Law Libraries conference–held last week in Windsor in conjunction with the Michigan Association of Law Libraries–to the 5th Annual Solo and Small Firm Conference put on by the Law Society of Upper Canada on Friday. As one of a very small group who had the privilege of attending both, I feel compelled to write a friendly rebuttal.
From his summary:
At its core, I expect a professional development conference to provide educational content that has some value to me. There are obviously benefits to being able to network, but the cost of getting to and attending a conference means that there has to be some value that I can turn around and say to my customers and my employer, look, we can do this better because I participated. The librarian conference I attended was lacking in that type of education. The lawyers conference was chock full of it. It comes down to different approaches for how organizations create their conference programming.
My response to this is whether you get educational value will depend a great deal on which sessions you attend when there are concurrent sessions and what your particular learning needs are. Also some of David’s impressions stem from the differing natures of the two events.
The Solo and Small Firm conference is created for a relatively homogeneous group: lawyers who practice either on their own or in a small firm in Ontario. They are members of the Law Society. While their practices may be very different, they still have to follow certain Law Society rules as to how they operate. So, it is relatively easy to pull together a conference that covers operations.
The CALL conference, on the other hand, has a much more varied audience. There are library staff members from court houses, law societies, law schools, law firms and government libraries (and probably a few others). Therefore, the interests are public, private and academic. And then those attending hold a range of positions within their organizations: technical (such as cataloguing), reference, management and director level. So how do you create a focused program for all of these? Do you talk substantive law, management techniques, technology, reference services, or training? And from which viewpoint?
Holding a conference at the Law Society’s own facilities is a great way to leverage the registration fee monies taken in. Attendees could be there in person or watch via the Internet. The Law Society staff involved are all there to help run it without traveling somewhere to put the conference on. They can use as many rooms as they have available.
CALL, on the other hand, does not own a facility. The annual conference travels to different locations across the country to give people in the various locations different opportunities to get involved. The conference fees, therefore, go largely toward the conference facility. As such, the more concurrent sessions that occur, the more cost incurred. And it also depends on the facilities how many sessions can be run at once while still providing room for the exhibit hall and lunch.
A bit of history: prior to 2003, the CALL conference sessions were simply one track i.e. plenaries. For CALL 2003 (when I chaired the Program Committee) we worked to make the sessions less general and more specific, and created 3 concurrent sessions. By all accounts it was an excellent conference program-wise. Unfortunately it was also a more expensive conference. Since then, most of our conferences have gone to 2 concurrent sessions for various reasons.
The Solo and Small Firm conference is that — strictly a conference. The program is the focus. The CALL conference is also an annual general meeting. And as such, I believe I learn almost as much in the business meetings as I do in the program. For example, in the Knowledge Management special interest group, we discussed records management and how it is tied to KM. In the Vendors Open Forum there was a good discussion about ebooks and where things are heading. As well, in addition to the Program Committee there are also contributions to the general program by the Special Interest Groups. So there should (at least in theory) be content of specific interest, although this does mean the program committee does not have control over the entire program.
And my personal impression? I learned a lot more at the CALL conference program this year. The session David helped to organize was excellent, but I also learned a lot in other sessions. But, it may be the specific sessions I chose to attend. And it may be that my learning needs are different than David’s.
There is always room for improvement. I am delighted to hear David Whelan has stepped up to the plate to work on the CALL 2012 program and look forward to seeing how he improves upon the conference. I also offer any support I might lend.