Friday, October 19, 2007

How to Make a Conference

I've finished my second day here in Ottawa, Ontario with the ATLA Education Committee working on planning the next annual conference scheduled in June, 2008. Breakfast was at 7:30am, and we finished our working supper at 8:30pm. Tomorrow morning we will review what could be called the first draft of the conference program. There is a lot of work yet to be done, and there will be many changes between now and the final version of the program, but tonight we were able to see for the first time all the many pieces start to come together in the recognizable shape of an ATLA conference.

Compared to the annual ALA conference which can draw over 25,000 delegates, the annual ATLA conference is not very big. It is not tiny, though, either -- attendance can be between 300 - 400 depending on the year and the locale. Planning has to begin three to four years ahead of time in order to identify sites and sign the necessary contracts to ensure adequate space for the conference. Members of the local host committee start attending planning meetings two years prior to the conference to learn how the conferences are planned and to begin preparing for their turn to be hosts. The content of our conferences is member-driven, and the program we have to offer is whatever ATLA members are interested in and willing to share with others. Proposals for papers, panels, interest group meetings, and roundtables are collected every summer and fall. (And starting last year, we have also begun to add poster sessions.) In October, the Annual Conference Committee and the Education Committee meet at the site for the conference to select the program content from out of the many proposals and to preview the conference facilities.

I have found it to be difficult work to select the best proposals that will create the most balanced program. We try to arrange all the sessions so that there will be a minimum of conflict between simultaneous sessions, but it is impossible to avoid all possible conflicts. Attenders will always have to choose between breakout sessions that are scheduled at the same time; a full schedule with a maximum number of choices makes for the best conference. And we always have to keep in mind the logistics of moving 350+ librarians between rooms and buildings while making sure that everyone has time to go to the bathroom. Be it trains, planes, boats, buses, or elevators, most of the conference stories that members like to retell year after year have to do with locomotion or the lack thereof at some point during the conference.

Barbara Kemmis, the Director of Member Services for ATLA, compares our conferences to a big family gathering. This is the one time of the year when we all get to see each other, share food and stories, and spend time as theological librarians thinking about how to do our jobs a little bit better. The program for ATLA 2008 is not perfect now, and it probably never will be. I am amazed by the vast creativity and resourcefulness of the proposals that we have received and humbled by the willingness of ATLA members to share what they have with others. I am grateful for this opportunity to be part of the making of ATLA 2008.

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