Library Camp East photo courtesy of Darien Public Library.

Library Camp East photo by Flickr user Darien Public Library (CC BY-ND 2.0)


Earlier this month, I presented at a one-day conference. Everything happened ordinarily. My submission of an abstract was accepted and I was scheduled in a session with two other presenters. Preparing for the presentation, I worked up my outline, gathered images, and put my slides together. The night before, I practiced my session by making a recording on my Mac. On the day of the conference, I was delayed and showed up late, so I missed the first presenters, arriving in time for the last part of the beginning session. Following that, I participated in a round table discussion. I grabbed a drink and a quick snack during the break and chatted with one of the other presenters as I set up my slides.

My presentation went well. It was not without some technical difficulties that forced me to cut my talk a little short, but I’m satisfied with how it went. The organizers tell me it was well received. I joined the audience to listen to the two presenters who followed me in the session. Later there was more chatting and another session. I had to leave early, so I missed some of the last presenters.

All in all it was a interesting day and a novel experience. You see, I was presenting at Met@Morph, the first annual Web Comics Comic-Con and Conference and it was held in Second Life–my first conference presentation in a virtual world.

Derik presenting in Second Life. Screenshot by Sean Kleefield.

Derik presenting in Second Life. Screenshot by Sean Kleefield.

I tend to stay on top of the latest tech trends, but I’d been avoiding Second Life. I’m not interested in having another life, I’m happy with my first life, and I got my fill of avatars in all the years I played role-playing games (the ones with paper and dice). My impressions of Second Life have been so colored by the use of it as an alternate world/life that I neglected its use as a social communication tool. This experience convinced me of the potential for virtual worlds as virtual conference sites.

With the economy tanking and travel prices increasing (I don’t want to think about how much it’s costing to get me across the country to ACRL in March), large national conferences become ever more problematic for a larger number of librarians. There has always been a (perhaps large) group of librarians who have neither the personal nor institutional funding to attend conferences, a group which has been mostly shut out of ALA (see Emily’s post).

Why do people go to conferences anyway? Anecdotally, the majority of librarian attendees go for: a) continuing education/keeping up, b) socializing/networking, c) presenting and sharing information and experiences, and d) committee work and other activities involved in making the content of the traditional conference that offer an opportunity to pad the resume. I’ll leave off: e) free stuff, though a perk, I doubt that is a main draw (I did enjoy my free trip to a game at Dodgers Stadium while at Annual this year (Thanks, EEBO)).

All of the aforementioned reasons can be replicated (with different levels of success) in other contexts. I’ll focus on two models, the virtual conference and the unconference, specifically considering reasons a, b, and c above.

Most virtual continuing education opportunities have, more recently, stuck to the webinar model. A presenter uses audio over slides to offer his or her information to a group of users watching from their computers. Typically, the presenter’s talk is supplemented by a chat channel where users can comment and ask questions. Attendees log in, the presenter speaks, questions are taken, and attendees log out. While this model can be effective for conveying information, it is not any more effective than just posting the presentation prerecorded and is severely lacking in any social aspect. Other attendees are names on a list and perhaps an occasional chat comment. Webinars are also visually dull (especially if the presenter is not skilled in slide design) and offer little interaction for the audience. One is easily pulled out of the moment, distracted, bored. I’ve never managed to sit still and attentive through a whole webinar. At the least, a live conference offers people to talk to before and after the presentation and people to look at during the event itself.

Participating in the Second Life conference was very different than any previous experience I’ve had with virtual presentations. A presentation in a virtual world allows for the same slides and audio presentation with chat commentary (equally prone to many of the failures of webinars), but it also opens up other opportunities. First of all, it’s more visually engaging and socially immersive. With more visual interest and movement–and unlike every webinar I’ve attended–I remained engaged by the presentations in Second Life. The virtual world also gave me a greater sense of the presence of other attendees. They were more than names on a list. They took up space. This alone improved the experience, but the medium provided an extra bonus of social interaction. I could chat (publicly or privately) with other attendees before and after the main presentation. Sure, it wasn’t like hanging out at the hotel bar with a bunch of colleagues, but it was better than nothing.

Some might object to virtual conference participation based on the technical and training requirements. Attendees need fairly modern computers, there’s no way around that. But considering how much it can cost to go to “real life” conferences, the cost is not prohibitive (I could buy a compatible computer for the price of a plane ticket across the country, and I could re-use it many times). This won’t open up opportunities for those lacking technology or money for technology.

Virtual world use also requires training. I’m not an active video game player. I had an Atari and a Commodore 64 when I was a kid (that dates me somehow), but never got further along than that. Since then my game playing has been sporadic and social. I had to learn Second Life for my presentation–my first experience with a virtual world and I was going to be standing in front of an audience trying to talk and advance slides. However, I found it surprisingly easy to make an avatar, dress him up, and get used to moving/looking around the environment. Admittedly, I’m good at picking up these things, clicking around and inferring what different options will do, but I did this primarily on my own (I did get training for doing the actual presentation and slides). With a little bit of training (and that would have to be part of any virtual world conference), most computer literate users could pick up enough to attend a presentation (if not necessarily have a great looking avatar).

Virtual world presentations open up a space for synchronous interaction at a distance. A great potential here would be micro-groups dedicated to librarianship, bringing together scattered librarians with common niche interests. For instance, I’d be interested in a small conference with librarians working at integrating their libraries into a Blackboard environment or a small conference about comics in libraries.

While virtual world conferences can offer geographically disperate librarians a greater sense of social interaction, the increasingly popular unconferences make use of social systems to create local in-person conferences.

Library Camps are a good example of unconferences which have become ever more numerous over the past couple of years. In the fall of 2006 I attended Library Camp East, hosted by the fine people at the Darien Public Library in Darien, CT. The event was a one-day, informal gathering of a few dozen people. We met in the morning, brainstormed ideas for discussion, and created a multi-track schedule for the day. The discussions were informal and without any pre-planning, covering topics such as mash-ups, web design, and communication between techies and non-techies.

The unconference offers an agility not found in a formal conference. Attendees make the decisions of what the discussion topics will be, allowing for not only a greater sense of participation (how very 2.0) but also a greater chance of currency. The smaller nature of these conferences means they can be put on for less money, offering a cheaper (or free) alternative for budget-strapped libraries/ians. Localized, one-day conferences would obviate much of the expense of travel and lodging associated with conferences. These types of events also enable attendees to network on a local level, building social relations amongst librarians which could lead to further collaboration and sharing.

My primary personal disappointment with the unconference I attended was a result of the conference’s form. The topics decided upon by the group, on the day of the conference, ended up being mostly not of interest to me, and the time spent deciding upon topics ate up too much of the day. My unconference improvement suggestion is to start the conference online prior to the event. If attendees start planning the schedule collectively online, not only would time be saved at the event itself, but attendees might spend more time in consideration of topics and organizing the conference schedule. Knowing some part of the schedule might also attract more attendees because it would eliminate fear of the unknown and potentially attract those who specialize in the pre-selected topics–attendees who could help facilitate discussions and provide a richer experience for everyone involved.

Both these alternative types of conference can fulfill the continuing education function of conferences without much argument. The socializing and networking function is less sure in a virtual world but is undeniable at an unconference. People are increasingly accustomed to making friends online. Communities grow around message boards, listservs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social tools. The idea of a virtual world conference starting some kind of deeper social connection between participants is not that unusual. Sure, we may feel we know someone better after spending a few hours with them at the hotel bar, but a virtual connection can become just as ‘real’. After all, when the conference is over, we go back home and connect with our new conference friends on our virtual social networks, don’t we? The major part of this blog was planned virtually after a few brief connections at ALA Annual this summer.

So, this post is a call to action, or maybe just a call to continued action. Let’s find ways to increase our continuing education and networking outside of the large annual conferences. Unconferences have been popular, and I’m going to start making plans for an unconference in my area (Philadelphia area librarians, let me know if you’re interested in either helping with planning, have a location, or just want to attend). So far, virtual world conferences have seemed to focus on virtual worlds themselves (like the recently announced “ALA SLymposium on virtual worlds and libraries in Second Life”), but the potential is there for an increase in more varied events.

Thanks to Lianne Hartman, for editing services and coming up with the title, and to Emily Ford, Erin Dorney, Brett Bonfield, and Ellie Collier for comments and edits.

19 Responses

  1. I’m hugely comfortable in virtual worlds (I used to chat in MUDS, if we’re taking turns dating ourselves), but have been resisting the call to move more conference stuff online. I like to travel and see new places and meet people in person and do the chit-chatting thing. I have placed a moratorium on tote bags, but enjoy free pens, and want to talk to you about how to get in on that EEBO swag next time. (Dodger tix? Really? Where was I??)

    But we just this week got our first of what I imagine will be many budget cut memoranda. The travel budget has been slashed in half. And I bet it gets slashed again. My visions of ACRL are fading in front of my eyeballs. So bring on the virtual and local conferences! As the ramifications of the collapse of late capitalism begin to settle into our bones, I bet most of us won’t have any other choice.

  2. Derik, I want to thank you for validating my avoidance of webinars. I always feel like I should support them as something of a “public good,” but once I get in there I just can’t stop my brain from wandering off.

    I’m intrigued by the online alternatives. I’ve never done more than create an avatar and flop around in Second Life, but I’d definitely use it for a conference. Like Emily, my travel budget’s shrinking this year, and I’m also looking at canceling my ACRL plans in favor of the two ALAs.

    Your post doesn’t explore the committee work possibilities related to taking our conferences online, and I think that’s increasingly becoming a no-brainer. How much of our committee work (and even our regular jobs) already gets done online? If we scheduled our committees to meet in Second Life twice a year (instead of at ALAs), couldn’t we accomplish just as much? I’m starting to think so.

    Even if we could cut ALA down to one physical meeting a year, that would have tremendous impact on our finances, the ability of members to participate more widely, and the environmental effects of our mass travels. I say, “Onward to Second Life!”

  3. Emily: While I was working on this post, coincidentally, my travel budget potential was also reduced.

    Kim: I was going to talk about the committee issue, but this one was getting out of hand, so I had to reign it in a bit. But, yes, I think with concerted efforts in training, a lot of committee would could be done in SL or some other virtual space.

    (Found the tux for free. Way nicer than my default avatar clothes.)

  4. I’ll be starting the SJSU online MLIS program in January. One of the computing requirements is to have a machine capable of handling the SL interface. On the downside, I’m going to have to buy a new computer. But on the upside, I’ll be wandering into SL for the first time. Like you, Derik, I’ve had the same reservations about virtual worlds: I always found them to be over-wrought and giving back to the user less than what he/she put in. But after managing to get into the SL world for a few moments (before my current PC gave up the ghost), I realized the real potential it has for collaboration. I look forward to helping create better conferences in the future!

  5. Hilary Davis

    Amen to Kim about the committee work being redirected to non face-to-face settings. This is certainly one of main functions that would benefit from virtual meeting venues.

    I’m in the same boat as others who have commented that their travel budgets are being cut. However, while I’m open to virtual conferences (and have participated in one a couple of years ago, which was kind of a let down), I think that the conference experience on the large scale (e.g., SLA, ALA, ACRL) demands a face-to-face setting because of the impact that it can have in terms of making connections and engaging with colleagues. I landed my first professional job in libraries in large part, because of a networking opportunity at LITA in St. Louis. While my resume and cover letter would have hopefully been convincing enough, having networked with folks from my prospective employer was that much more convincing.

    On a smaller scale, I tend to agree that the non face-to-face setting might actually work in that smaller crowds make conversations easier to strike up and ideas/conversations easier to follow. I asked my husband what he thought about this topic – as a chemist, he feels that face-to-face conferences are the only way for researchers to be truly accountable for their work. I don’t know that this applies to our profession as a whole. Just out of curiosity, I looked around for other professions where virtual conferences are popular – hospitality and tourism, marketing, networks, education, for example. I think I’m due to try another virtual conference, but I’m not yet giving up on real, in-person conferences.

  6. Derik & others – Everyone here makes excellent points. I just want to add one thing: in my opinion (based on my experiences and observations), some libraries may be taking the wrong focus with SecondLife. I’m just not sure how SL specifically relates to our patrons (in terms of getting them to use/embrace it or meeting them “in world” to provide reference service). I mean, in public libraries, you may be dealing with digital divide issues hindering people from logging in. In the academic environment, students don’t seem to be THAT into SL… and if they aren’t already there, who are we to try and lure them in? I think that SL has much more potential as a collaborative tool within our profession, for things already mentioned here (conferences, committee work, networking). Also, I’m totally interested in unconferences/camps, so count me in!

  7. Hilary: I agree with you about the large scale conferences to a certain extent. Certain things cannot be replicated. One of the reasons I wrote about both virtual and un conferences is to think about the balance we can have. I should have made that more explicit.

    Erin: I agree about uses of SL. It’s interesting how much library related events in SL seem to be about SL. It’s all so meta. It’d be like having an in-person conference about conferences. That has shaped my lack of interest in SL to a certain extent. “Be where the patrons are” is well and good, but if they aren’t there, then what?

  8. You wrote:

    “While this model [webinars] can be effective for conveying information, it is not any more effective than just posting the presentation prerecorded and is severely lacking in any social aspect. Other attendees are names on a list and perhaps an occasional chat comment. Webinars are also visually dull (especially if the presenter is not skilled in slide design) and offer little interaction for the audience.”

    I can defitely agree that some webinars I’ve attended can be a snoozefest with a speaker droning on over bullet points. But the responsibility for creating a participative webinar depends on the organizers, speakers and attendees. We’ve done tons of webcasts at the blended librarians online learning community (http://blendedlibrarian.org). We’ve had some clunkers but we learn from the experience and work hard to make them interesting. First, we make every presenter go through a practice session and we coach them on how to present in the elluminate platform, what works visually and what doesn’t (not all listen well), how to integrate techniques to keep participants involved (polls, web tours,etc) and how to use the tools to make the session more interactive. This helps to an extent. Many first time webinar presenters are nervous and want to keep things simple. We encourage and support them as needed. We also try to keep a lively chat going with the use of a “model citizen” – that’s someone who works the chat room to get attendees engaged in the discussion. This works pretty well to keep chat on target and get people asking questions. Attendees can be more than a name on a list – we see this at all of our webcasts – folks who know each other, regular attendees, etc. You will see them interacting in the chat. Finally, we’ve found that the vast majority of librarians who attend our webcasts do not use a headset. Without that you can’t take advantage of the VoIP features. Why won’t librarians invest $20 in a decent headset they’ll use regularly? When you have attendees with headsets all of sudden you’ve got real conversations going on. It makes a huge difference. So if a webinar is dull, it may be because the attendees won’t get involved despite our efforts to encourage (then again the vast majority of librarians who attend F2F presentations won’t say a word). Webinars have their drawbacks, but I know the folks who attend our BL webinars truly appreciate them because for many librarians connecting to a webinar is the only opportunity they have for professional development. I would argue, that done right – with some advance planning, thinking about how to get the attendees activated, and a involved group of participants – a webcast can be far more dynamic than a prerecorded presentation.

  9. I think my only problem with presenting something in Second Life is that your presentation can only reach a very particular elite audience, an audience that I suspect might agree with or even already know a lot of whatever you plan on presenting. For example: I live in an area heavily supporting Obama. If I gave a public presentation in First Life on Obama’s policies I am guaranteed to feel good at the end of that presentation because EVERYONE will agree with me. Nothing WRONG with it, it just might not be that useful. If I presented in a swing state though…

    I’m not really into Second Life myself, and I certainly don’t hate on it or want to judge it, so don’t misunderstand me. I do think its important to consider your audience when using any media for communication, especially if you are trying to educate or sway opinion. If I had a particular library-related topic or initiative that I wanted to promote and truly communicate with a group, I try to use a ‘least-common-denominator’ approach when choosing my medium for knowledge transfer. I know you aren’t posting an argument that Second Life conferences should replace First Life conferences. But make no mistake- a Second Life conference is audience exclusive, not audience inclusive- regardless of the price of gas and travel.

  10. Thanks for the comments, Steve. Maybe I’ve gone to all the wrong webinars, but I’m not convinced it’s a very effective format. It seems more like a transitional format.

    Nate: “your presentation can only reach a very particular elite audience, an audience that I suspect might agree with or even already know a lot of whatever you plan on presenting”

    I don’t follow the logic. While users of Second Life do require some amount of technology, they are not necessarily “elite.” And your argument that everyone would “agree” is illogical. If I do a presentation in Second Life about integrating library resources into Blackboard, what is there to agree with and why would the audience necessarily already know about my topic? Are all Second Life users automatically well versed in everything? Is there no potential for new users to come to the presentation?

    I can see how you might get to your point, the majority of library related SL presentations I’ve heard about were about SL itself, which might lead to the situation you mention (and is the only way I can see your Obama example being analogous). My point is it doesn’t have to be that way. You could talk about anything (the presentation I mention in my post was on comics).

    I’m not sure what the “least common denominator” would be. Talking to everyone in person? Writing? Sure, all those are great. I’m offering some thoughts on alternatives. I’m not sure any format would necessarily be inclusive for everyone. That’s why we should be trying different options and formats.

  11. Yes- we should be trying lots of different options and formats… I totally agree with that.

    All I’m really getting at is that virtual worlds like SL remain exclusive rather than inclusive, and ‘meatspace’ conferences are still better at feeling inclusive. My real, physical being as opposed to an avatar remains a better interface for information sharing. By “elite” I was getting at “exclusive”. I can stumble into a conference, but I can’t stumble into SL.

    Re: familiarity with topics for presentations- well, with the Blackboard example, no you can’t expect everyone to be familiar with the topic, no. True. What I’m trying to say is that if you gave that same presentation to a room full of people using as few bells and whistles as possible, you are likely to communicate well with a wider audience. Now perhaps a wide audience is not what you want- perhaps a specialized audience congregates on SL that is appropriate for this discussion. More power to you then- good decision to do it there.

    Maybe I flew off the handle with my comment. I’m really not a luddite at all, but I fail to see how a SL conference can compare to a real conference. If webinars are transitional, SL is most certainly transitional as well. No?

  12. Oh one other little bit…

    As far as the “inclusive” thing is concerned, this is why I support things like RFID, mobile phone projects, QR codes, sensors, and really anything that is about dispersing information technologies in our real world environment and linking to a virtual environment. Not that there aren’t issues with this as well, but ubiquitous or peravsive computing of that nature is “inclusive”. In a conference setting, presentation software, the public address system, the very architecture you sit in is “inclusive”.

    In an immersed environment, it is all “exclusive”. When the day comes that SL offers an overlay of info during a conference in my real life through an earpiece and eyepiece (which is sort of creepy), then it is “inclusive”.

    I suspect there might be some disagreement, but I wanted to put it out there… tell me why I’m wrong… help me refine my opinions…

  13. “I can stumble into a conference, but I can’t stumble into SL.”

    After you (in most cases) pay a registration fee and travel there. I don’t want this to be an either/or. There are always advantages and drawbacks.

    “What I’m trying to say is that if you gave that same presentation to a room full of people using as few bells and whistles as possible, you are likely to communicate well with a wider audience.”

    True, but they would have to be a local audience, that is people near me in space. Which costs money and time.

    That’s the whole point of my post, alternatives.

  14. Emily Ford

    First things first, you picked a super name for this post.

    To echo many of the voices that have commented here, I am also wary of the use of Second Life. Like Erin, I had always heard it touted as a place to provide reference and other library services, which I feel is as waste of time, unhelpful to patrons, etc etc. However, when I read your post I thought, why has all the hype been about the patrons? Why can’t it be about us?

    I agree that seminars hosted on the web are terrible. (I absolutely HATE the word, webinars.) At least most that I have attended are BORING, not because of their content, but because the format of these online presentations simply mimic the presentation format of a slide show at a conference. We, librarians of the world, instructors and teachers of the public and of the student, are terrible presenters. Take a terrible presenter to an online seminar forum and things just get worse.

    This is something that I have noticed at MLA, ALA, and various other conferences. What is it going to take to get presentations to step away from the 4 person panel format wherein participants don’t really participate? They are rather just passive actors on a stage. In general, we need to come up with ways for more pro-active presentation and conference formats. You pointing to that tangible part of interaction in Second Life might be a stepping stone to our re-thinking of conference presentations and participation.

    Thanks for making me think about this one! I don’t hate the mention of Second Life in libraries anymore.

  15. All credit to Lianne for the title.

    Presenting skills is a big problem for most people I think, particularly when it is not something they on a regular basis. (That some of these poor librarian presenters are also doing instruction sessions is worrisome.) It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past year, as I’ve ended up doing more and more presentations. (Maybe that’s another post.)

  16. Pingback : Presentation = Speech + Slides | In the Library with the Lead Pipe