Online Conferences: The Good, the Boring, and the Unmuted

For Academic Law Librarians, June and July are the conference season. Many law schools don’t have summer classes, and so what would otherwise be a slow part of the year ends up turbocharged with preparing presentations, finalizing travel arrangements, and taking care of other professional development. This summer, of course, most of us will not be attending any conferences in person. The silver lining is that I’ve been able to attend conferences I would not necessarily have been able to attend in person, such as the CALL/ACBD (Canadian Association of Law Libraries/L’Association canadienne des bibliothèques de droit) conference, the LLNE (Law Librarians of New England) Conference, the CALI (The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction) Conference, and the BIALL (British and Irish Law Librarians) Conference. Because I am only one person, and because of a few ill-timed student research requests, I was not able to attend all of the sessions of these conferences, so in lieu of a proper review, I am going to share a few insights about online conferences.

First, anyone who presents online to strangers should be applauded. It is hard enough to give a presentation to an in-person audience of members of an organization to which the speaker belongs. I have given presentations with sweaty palms and shaky hands in front of live audiences. But at least the in-person speaker may see familiar faces and be reassured by their nodding, smiling, or continued state of consciousness. Online speakers speak into a void, forced to stare at their own face while hoping they are heard. It must be terrifying, and I am grateful for the presenters who worked through this unpleasantness to bring their information to me.

As an attendee, it was liberating to turn off the video of my own face. Instead of staring blankly at a speaker from an uncomfortable conference-center chair, I was able to make tea, run to the bathroom, and once even unload the dishwasher, all while listening to online presentations over my headphones. I wouldn’t suggest trying to do anything mentally taxing, because we humans are not very good at doing two things at once, but doing something physical helped me to focus, and being able to take a quick bathroom break without being rude to the speaker or missing any of the speech was wonderful.

It’s important for conference organizers to remember that Murphy’s law still applies online. A number of presentations featured background noise or the unmuted musings of someone trying to get the technology to work. In one session I attended, the meeting room inexplicably renamed all of the attendees with the name of one of the organizers, leading to a number of chat messages asking us to please change our names back. One of the CALL/ACBD sessions unfortunately had to be cancelled due to the untimely failure of the speaker’s internet connection. I was impressed when the organization’s president, Shaunna Mireau, came on screen and told attendees about the technical difficulties and then set a clear goal that they would attempt to fix the problem until 12:30pm and then the session would be cancelled. She then proceeded to make announcements about upcoming sessions and to thank the sponsors, information that presumably would otherwise have been given at the end of the session. When a BIALL session at the end of a day’s program ran into similar difficulties, the president, Renate Ní Uigín, gave her closing remarks early, and then after a short time trying to fix the technical issue, called off the program. Having seen Shaunna and Renate rise to the occasion admirably, I would suggest that the moderators of all future conferences have a small library of remarks to draw upon and a clear timeline of when to cancel a program in case of a similar technical difficulty.

While technical problems can hamper online conferences, the online format liberates us from the time constraints of typical conferences. Normally the average session is between forty-five minutes and an hour, with some sessions going for two-hour blocks and even half-day or full-day workshops. But I believe that most presentations could, and should, be completed in fifteen minutes. I understand why that may not be feasible for in-person meetings. Can an organization really pay for a hotel room and transportation for a presenter who only speaks for fifteen minutes? Will persistent latecomers now miss one-third to one-half of the content? Will this sort of presentation be considered robust enough for resume-building? I have no answer to the pay or resume-perception issues, except that perhaps conferences could require speakers to give four fifteen-minute presentations, or two thirty-minute presentations, to take care of the cost and resume-perception issues. But in response to the tardiness question, should the rest of us be forced to sit through hours and hours of additional and unnecessary content just because some people can’t be bothered to show up to shorter presentations on time? I think that conferences should be more flexible in future planning, and consider whether the average length of presentations could be 15 minutes instead of an hour.

Online conferences are also freed from the necessity of packing as much content as possible into a few days. Instead, online conferences can choose their own timing, and I was particularly impressed by the spread-out schedule of CALL/ACBD, which (unlike other conferences) did not leave me completely exhausted. Schedule changes can also remove the opportunity cost of going to programs outside my area of specialization. I found myself in a CALL/ACBD session about cataloging, a subject in which I did not excel in Library School. In an in-person conference I would have been the first to give the advice that everyone should go to a mix of sessions including those about other subject areas, and then I would have concluded that too many good sessions were held in parallel timeslots for me to follow my own advice and branch out. Because there was no opportunity cost to attending this session (except that my libguide updates will have to wait for another day) I found to my delight that the session wasn’t about cataloguing so much as how cataloguing can fight injustice—something I had never before considered.

The best part about these online conferences is that I was able to attend them because they were free. I know that some people are inclined to mentally devalue anything that they can get for free. And I understand that these conferences are not free to run, even if they’re much cheaper than in-person conferences. But I think that the attendance at these conferences shows that law librarians do appreciate value. I overheard someone at CALL/ACBD mentioning that she’d gotten up at some unholy hour in Edmonton to attend the BIALL conference which began at noon GST that day. I don’t think that these conferences will or should ever replace in-person conferences. The value of interpersonal interactions is too high to give up. But during this uncertain time, these conferences were exactly what I needed.

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