Conferencing: Computers in Libraries and Evergreen 2010

By Kate Sheehan |

What makes for a good conference? It’s tempting to reduce it to a simple equation: C+P+L=E. Content plus people plus location equals experience. I’m just back from three consecutive conferences and in addition to my annual sense of wonder at the librarian obsession with conferencing, I’ve been mulling over conferences in general, and technology-oriented conferences in particular.

Content, people, and location are all important, but I’d add expectations, technology level, format, and focus to that equation. Computers in Libraries was one of the first conferences I attended and it is, in many ways, my mental model for a conference. However, every year (and this year was no exception), I talk to an attendee who expected more “under the hood” tech. I’ve come to think of CiL as if it were a more tech-focused section of a large conference like ALA. The daily keynotes give big-picture “state of libraries and technology in the world” talks and the sessions focus on presenters’ projects and pet passions. It’s not a good venue for detailed technical discussions – the shorter sessions don’t lend themselves to it and even if the sessions were longer, the audience’s diversity is a complicating factor.

Attendees at CiL range from heads of IT to tech enthusiasts without official technology responsibilities at work and hail from every kind of library with every ILS imaginable. It’s nearly impossible to get into the nuts and bolts under those circumstances and CiL has done well with its broader focus. It’s a friendly, tech-oriented conference, focused on the exchange of ideas and it facilitates the exchange of business cards for nuts and bolts stuff later on.

Many of the sessions I attended at CiL this year focused on change – preparing for it, encouraging it, making it happen, managing it. Technology and change have become nearly synonymous in libraries, though much of the advice given and ideas proffered at these presentations could apply to change that’s not driven by technology. Meredith Farkas gave a wonderful talk “Achieving Org 2.0” about the time and people management required to make new technology initiatives successful. Her tips and thoughts were helpful for libraries working with any kind of technology, from a new ILS to an internal blog.

The vibe at the Evergreen conference was decidedly more focused. All of the attendees had some kind of relationship with Evergreen already. Some were just considering and looking, but most were either in the process of migrating or already live with Evergreen. Nuts and bolts were on the offing in almost every presentation. Even the keynote sessions included information about features coming out in upcoming releases (audience favorites, for those who are curious included a revamping of the patron registration screens, “true” faceting, nested Boolean searches, truncation, patron self-serve password reset, and the acquisitions and serials modules).

Broadly, my point is that the world of library technology is vast enough that the only reasonable way to get into the nitty gritty of a project or technology is to have very focused conferences. In order to have more “under the hood” tech talk, we have to know which hood we’re looking under. Not only does that create smaller groups (which makes it easier to present on the finer points of code without boring half the audience into a stupor) but it also creates focus.

Specifically, the Evergreen conference could easily be subtitled “Viva la Resistance!” Keynoters talked about their realization that they could change their organizations to suit their software… or do something else.

I was fortunate enough to get to the conference in time to attend the holds hackfest/roundtable/group therapy session. Consortial holds can be mind-bendingly complex and every consortium has a different way of dealing with holds. While led by some of the fine folks from Equinox, participants discussed their particular hold needs (short answer: artificial intelligence) and offered ideas for future functionality. The tone of that session  - open, egalitarian, and forward thinking - carried throughout the conference.

Previews of Evergreen enhancements came from users and developers who approached development with a goal of (to quote King County Library System’s Jed Moffitt)“moving away from ‘sucks less technology.’” The whole conference was permeated with a powerful combination of big-picture goals and ideals and day-to-day specifics. The #evg10 tweets range from fist-pumping agreement with Moffitt’s exhortation to break the cycle of guilt and blame that has developed between libraries and their vendors to swooning over the functionality of the forthcoming serials module.

This is not to say that one conference is better than another, just that expectations and focus have a lot to do with how much we get out of our conference attendance. There’s no real way to compare the ILS track at Computers in Libraries to two days spent discussing and learning about one ILS. So, the equation looks a little more like this: Focustechnology(Content+People+Location) = Experience.

I’m not suggesting that we form small tech cliques in order to get the most out of our conferences. The cross-pollination of ideas between Koha and Evergreen folks was wonderful to watch at Evergreen 2010 (I’m sure plenty of Evergreen developers would love to go to KohaCon this year, too). Conferences get us out of our libraries, our ruts and routines. They ward off tunnel vision, giving us an opportunity to see what other organizations are doing. The wider a range of perspectives and experiences a conference draws, the more general it will be. A librarian interested in learning to use Drupal to manage her website might look for an unconference on Drupal, where she’d only have to find content to suit her level of expertise, but chances are she got the idea to look at Drupal from a conference like Computers in Libraries.

Still, every year, I hear (and find myself thinking or saying) the same thing: we need a conference that’s somewhere between Computers in Libraries and Code4Lib in technical difficulty. I found that the Evergreen conference fit the bill, so I’m inclined to think the key is focus – it’s impossible to hit that in between level without picking a technology to focus on. But I’d love to hear from our readers about their conference experiences. Have any of you found that middle ground at a conference? What makes for a good conference experience for you?