Rewarding conference speakers? What about doing it for “the kids”?


Photo source.

The fabulous Kathryn Greenhill recently blogged about rewarding conference speakers at Computers in Libraries 09, or conferences in general. It was an interesting and thought provoking post. Instead of a gift bag of sponsor shwag, Greenhill would prefer:

I wonder whether we could replace the Speaker’s Gifts at some of our conferences with sessions just for the presenters. While I appreciate that I was given a copper-coloured stainless steel water bottle of challenging design, I wonder whether it would be more of a reward if the money spent on this was pooled for something to stimulate the presenters’ brains and challenge them. What if as a speaker’s gift, speakers only could attend a good, high-tech level session or track of people from outside of librarianship? If this seems elitist and unfair (and carrying around a copper coloured water bottle isn’t?) then I think it would be a real incentive for new people to step up to the plate and start presenting.

This has stuck with me for a week since I originally read it. Is it elitist and unfair? I think she recognizes it. Does it really encourage more people to submit proposals to these conferences? I don’t really think that’s the problem.

Anna Creech, aka eclectic librarian, wrote a nice response:

I like the idea of this, but I also worry that it has the potential to widen the gap between creators and consumers. I benefit greatly from being able to listen in on the discussions between the speakers in LobbyCon/CarpetCon settings. And, even when I am in sessions that challenge my skill set, I am motivated to expand that skill set, or at the very least, I know more about what I don’t know. I’d rather have that than continue in ignorance.

The idea of creating a divide between the creators (the speakers) and the consumers (the conference attendees) is difficult to ignore. That’s something that has never sat quite right with me since I joined the library profession. It seems that a lot of librarians are quick to lionize conference presents and bloggers simply because they are deemed authoritative. It’s a positive feedback loop. If somebody presents and blogs about a topic, they are deemed an expert, and then expected to keep presenting and blogging about that topic. It’s difficult to break in and stop being a consumer and become a creator when people are slow to look towards others. That’s not to say that unless you’ve been deigned by the library blogosphere or ITI as being worthy, that people won’t listen, but it is an obstacle to overcome.

In my first Uncontrolled Vocabulary I called in to, 61: Define successful, I said that I was tired of the same people presenting the same stuff at Michael Sauers, challenged me to submit something. Well I had, and it was seemingly ignored by ITI. That didn’t stop me from submitting a few proposals this time around, but I’m also less than optimistic that anything will be picked. Does it mean that my work is pointless or somehow less important? No, and I don’t think that any of the “creators” would say it does, but at the same time people expect you to present something to make it seem more legitimate. That’s a problem with the system that starts with individuals.

Another issue I have with the idea of rewarding speakers only, is that it really reinforces the divide between the “creators” and the “consumers”, making it an even greater obstacle to move from being an attendee to being a speaker. If the speakers’ reception/LobbyCon/bar crawls are where the real action is, how can people who are new to the scene get involved in that? My first Internet Librarian was a intimidating because I didn’t know anybody and I saw all these people milling about and having lively conversations, but it was hard for me to join in. Of course, a lot of this was me being awkward but I think some it also stemmed from people being happy to see old friends and not necessarily paying attention to the lost people new on the scene. I’ve since tried to overcome any shyness (don’t scoff, I am socially awkward), but it hasn’t always been met with great results. I’ve tried to have conversations with people whose blogs or presentations I respected and am interested in only to be given the cold shoulder. You know that situation… it’s very high school. “Oh, that’s nice…” (awkward pause) “I have to go.”

This situation really reminds me of the punk scene I grew up in. I was sort of a groupie. I would spend hours talking to bands at the merch table about their music, life, or whatever. I was very fortunate that my favourite bands, The Hi-Fives, were nice enough to take the time to actually talk to me. I think we all gained something from that relationship. It reminds me of an interview I once read with Dr. Frank, I guess now Frank Portman, of the Mr. T Experience (or “King Dork”), where he said that he feels the need to connect with fans because they’re what keep him in business. They buy his records, or books, and keep him around. I know I tended to be happier to give my money and time to bands who seem invested in their fans, or “the kids”, as much as we were invested in them. Why isn’t the library world like that?

From my somewhat young upstart view of it, there’s not as much mutual admiration as I’d like. Or… there’s not as much mutual admiration between the “creators” and the “consumers” as I’d like. I know most of the people who speak at conferences love speaking with each other and learning from one another, but the attendees and other passive consumers need to be a part of that equation. Otherwise, we’ll have to wait for some trickle-down effect which doesn’t seem democratic. Also, how are we to get the next generation of “creators”? Through luck, networking and nepotism? I’d hope not.

4 thoughts on “Rewarding conference speakers? What about doing it for “the kids”?

  1. as someone new to the field, i think this post is dead-on. and i pretty much always feel like a groupie!
    i think this is why unconferences are so great. gone is the sage on the stage – everyone must participate!
    and as for those “creators” that gave you the cold shoulder? to hell with them. if they can’t see that you are genuinely interested in learning for them, i worry about how they treat the users of their library!

  2. Amy, thanks! I think the participatory nature of unconferences will really help break the cycle. I tried something like that recently, and I realized that some people just don’t know how to or don’t feel empowered to speak up. This needs to change.
    As for the people who snubbed me, I really wonder what it’s like to work with them or use their library. That’s a whole other post, though.

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