Librarians’ Survey Addresses the ‘Virtual Reality’ of Conference-Going

empty hotel conference room
Not a lot of networking opportunities here. (Photo: Marko Milivojevic /Pixnio)

Thanks to COVID-19, the world of higher education went virtual early last year, whether students, faculty, librarians, administrators, and other staff liked it or not. A year and half later, it turns out a lot of people do like many aspects of the online ecosystem they suddenly inhabited. That’s one of the takeaways from a survey focusing specifically on librarians and library conferences conducted by Sarah Dennis at the Texas A&M University, who surveyed just under 600 “library stakeholders” to understand how they were adapting to virtual reality and what could improve the experience going forward.

Sarah Dennis

Dennis joined Texas A&M as an electronic resources librarian in the May of last year – in other words, in the teeth of the pandemic. She noted in her analysis of survey responses that “there has not been one virtual conference format or platform identified as the best for library conferences,” nor that “in-person conferences should be a thing of the past.” Instead, her aim is to find “multiple ways to make conferences better for everyone, in-person or virtually.”

Contrasting the responses from those who won’t attend virtual conferences and those who will reveals that those two groups’ conference priorities are … the same. The top two responses from both camps are “Learning about developments in the field” and “Connecting with the librarian community.” The two camps’ third priorities do diverge – won’t-go’s cite “networking” (or the presumed lack of it), while will-go’s cite “presentation opportunities.”

In her analysis, Dennis called on conference organizers to improve the opportunities for spontaneous networking, but at the same time not making networking a chore. “Innovative networking solutions for virtual conferences will be the next hurdle in creating an environment that rivals the in-person experience,” she writes.

You can download a free pre-print of Dennis’s survey results, which include specific recommendations for making conferences better, at the Texas A&M Libraries repository. Social Science Space caught up with Dennis via email and asked her a few questions about the survey and what she expects to see in future conference-going.

I certainly understand the interest in understanding how people feel about gatherings these days, but what exactly was your goal in doing the survey?

I serve on a conference planning committee for one library organization and workshop planning committee for another library organization. I, like most people, attended many virtual conferences with varying degrees of success over the past 18+ months, too. So, this subject was on my mind for a variety of reasons. I really wanted to know what worked for different organizations or people and why. In exploring this topic, it was found that there is more than one way to make a virtual conference successful. Finding those ways and then sharing them out so that the gains made in providing virtual conferences are not lost is really the main goal.

In addition to you, of course, who conducted the survey? Did any institution or organization sponsor your work?

​I conducted the survey myself, but before I went beyond the idea of the survey, I consulted my mentor about the idea and the questions I was thinking of asking. I got some very good feedback and direction. I did receive institutional review board approval from Texas A&M, but no other sponsorship was sought.

Was there anything that greatly surprised you as you analyzed the responses? (And if not greatly surprised, anything that raised your eyebrows?) In that vein, do the results make you wish you could go back and re-do anything in events you’ve been a part of in the last year and a half? And if you have a story, what’s the biggest mistake you have witnessed or heard about that these results could have been useful in avoiding?

​I was surprised by how many librarians reported that they lacked funding for conferences. The importance of lower costs of virtual conferences was very prevalent throughout many responses. Some respondents said they paid for conference attendance out of their own pockets. I think this is another aspect of librarian professional development that should be explored. For instance, how much has funding shrunk and why?

As far as going back and re-doing anything regarding conference attendance, I wish I would have been more proactive in preparing for conferences. Recently, while researching to write a literature review for the paper based on this pre-print, I ran across the article “Getting the most out of your conference experience” by Stephen Abram in Information Outlook (2008). This article was based on in-person conference experiences but there were many tips that could be altered to fit the virtual conference experience. I think the one tip from the article that struck me as being most useful is having questions ready for vendor exhibits and interactions, which can be awkward in a virtual environment. Being prepared as an attendee for the virtual conference experience may make it a more useful and enjoyable experience.

I see lots of positives in the survey for virtual events that suggest in-person events will have an uphill road to full resumption. Do you believe virtual will be the new normal, or at least the default, even after COVID is just a bad memory?

Truly, I think that in-person and virtual will have to find ways to live together and I think that is going to look different for each organization or even field. ​What the pandemic has shown everyone is that virtual events are a possibility and improve accessibility options for many people who were left out. In the field of librarianship, accessibility is an important part of everything we do and bringing more accessibility to conferences shouldn’t be over when COVID is gone. Although, there were just as many people who loved virtual as hated it and there are drawbacks to each. So, in-person will still be a component for most of the big conferences, but virtual will become much more prevalent.

What will you do with the survey results?

​In the short term, the survey results will be deposited in the Texas Data Repository when the paper is submitted for publication. In the long term, I plan to use these survey results as jumping off points for further research into librarian professional development.​

How generalizable do you believe the results are across the academic landscape? Are there things that librarians routinely grapple with, or are free from, that you do not see elsewhere in the conference ecosystem?

​I think the results can be generalizable to a degree. There may be more vendor relationships and user group meetings (for instance, groups of librarians who use the same electronic resource management system) that are considered during a library conference as compared to other academic conferences.​Another aspect is the sheer number of conferences available to librarians in a variety of specializations. In conducting this survey, I was amazed at how many conferences there were listed in the “other” section.

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