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Virtual Conference Going: A Mixed Blessing

One of the conferences I go to for a quick and painless technology update is Computers in Libraries (CIL) held in Washington, DC in the spring. I first came to it in 2000 when a friend of mine loaned me her press pass for the last day of the conference. At one of those sessions I was pleasantly surprised to learn about virtual reference service at Northwestern University Library, only a few miles from where I was working at the time in Chicago. I was hooked and have been to almost every CIL since then. 

After I retired, however, I wasn’t on the CIL email list any more so lost track of the exact conference dates. So I was grateful when one of my DC colleagues sent me the link for a free exhibit pass to the 2013 conference held April 8 through 10. After she also sent me the link to the three keynote speeches, I decided to combine an afternoon at the exhibits with viewing the streaming video feeds of those speeches. I was hoping for a big picture update and spring tune-up. I got some of what I wanted, but not everything.

CIL 2013 was the 28th annual conference put on by Information Today, Inc., a major publisher of books and magazines about information science and the use of computers in libraries. Information Today also presents a variety of conferences on a variety of related subjects and in a wide range of venues. This year’s CIL drew 1,423 participants from 48 states and 13 countries, however there were 150 fewer government librarians attending, probably due to budget constraints. There were over 50 exhibits in the large and well laid out exhibit hall. I was able to cover the exhibit hall on Monday afternoon and also attended one of the many 15 minute Cybertour talks given there.

But I was most intrigued with the opportunity to view the keynote speeches at home for free. The Monday morning speech by Brent Leary, co-founder and partner in CRM Essentials was titled Evolving Community Engagement: What Would Amazon and Google Do? He has both an accounting degree and an MBA in Information Management and consults with major companies. His main point was that people buy because of good experiences with vendors. This does not have to be a personal experience anymore as virtual services, like Amazon, are winning over customers. He also used examples of the services provided by Zipcar and the Tie Society. This service model, based on data analysis, efficiency and customer service, can and should be used by libraries and other public services too. You can view this video yourself by following the link above.

I skipped the Tuesday morning presentation by Storm Cunningham, the CEO of ReCitizen, on Libraries as Community Revitalizers and viewed it later. It is well worth your time to view it at the link above. Then on Wednesday morning I hit a major snag. I had been looking forward to viewing the presentation by Daniel Rasmus, an author and futurist, on Uncertainty & Imagination: Evolving Libraries Through Technology. Unfortunately after the first ten minutes or so, the audio feed deteriorated so much that I could only get a small portion of each sentence. Other viewers were commenting on this as well so I knew it was not just my problem. I kept on listening to the entire presentation, hoping the feed would improve, but it did not.

In hind sight I should have given up sooner because a few days later I was able to listen to the entire presentation and view the power point slides as well. Rasmus first stated that he is actually an anti-futurist because he does not predict the future, but rather expores scenarios of different future outcomes. He also proposed a retail model for libraries since they are competing with online providers such as Amazon, Half Price Books, Netflix and Google Books. He urges us to not think about the future in a linear way. Following the scenario process, one can identify scenarios and possible trends and follow them out in a range of possible ways they may work. I recommend viewing this video too.

My experience with virtual conference going was not exactly what I had planned. I wasted some time due to faulty technology, but when I was viewing the videos I was able to concentrate more fully and take good notes. And, of course, I can go back and view some parts again if I wish. Since I did get an onsite experience with the exhibits, I also realized that I would miss the networking and social aspects of an entirely virtual conference. However in these days of disappearing travel and training budgets, to be able to sample even a small part of a good conference for free is a major plus. I commend Information Today for making these videos and a variety of Powerpoint slides freely available and I urge those interested in these topics to take advantage of their availability.

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