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« Wishful thinking WON'T save libraries | Main | BFTP: A little learning »

Library conferences - fading away?

If you aren't afraid, you aren't paying attention. - Bumper sticker

This past week I was fortunate to participate in the North Carolina School Library Media Association conference in Winston-Salem. My old friend Rusty Taylor was there, and along with Deanna Harris, I was given a real dose of Southern hospitality. Wonderful working with these lively and involved people.

The NCSLMA conference attendance was down this year, according to Rusty. Quite a bit down. He reported Virginia and some other states' conference numbers are also sagging. Our MEMO conference here in Minnesota seems to be about half the size it was only a few years ago. Is this a national/international trend?

Since conferences tend to be one of the THE major revenue generations for state associations, it might be wise to spend a few minutes thinking about the reason behind dropping conference attendance by school librarians. Among the possible causes:

  • Fewer practicing school librarians
  • Fewer staff development dollars available to educators
  • Irrelevant conference programming
  • Changed staff development needs/expectations by newer practitioners
  • More non-F2F staff development opportunities (virtual conferences, online seminars, etc)
  • Technology conferences bleeding attendees from library conferences
  • Professional learning communities actually work

Should the diminished attendance be of concern to school librarians? If so, how do we reverse the trend?

If you, dear reader, did not attend your school library association's state conference this year, why not?



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Reader Comments (23)

I wanted to. It was even held in my hometown. But ... administration chose to interpret district leadership statements in a manner unlike every single other campus in the district and I was not allowed to go. None of the "specials" were allowed to go anywhere last year. Here's to hoping things change 'cause even with all of the virtual learning opportunities I still like attending things in a physical space.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAngie

I don't belong to my state association - I needed to choose (financially) between ALA and NYLA, and NYLA lost.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlazygal

The registration and program details for the OLA (Ontario Library Association) Superconference just came out. I won't be attending. When I looked at the offerings, there were just too few selections specifically geared to School Librarians to warrent me wasting my ONE professional development opportunity for the year. In our board, you are only sponsored for ONE professional development leave per year, so I always try to get bang for my buck. I also teach math, so I've decided to go to a math conference instead of the library conference.
The short answer to your question is that by combining all the different libraries, the conference didn't meet my needs specifically enough to attract me or persuade me to use my PD opportunity on that offering.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJanice Robertson

Hi Doug,

I attended our state conference, the Massachusetts School Library Assoc. The conference planners do a great job of seeking feedback and giving participants options, so the conference is always worth my time and money (I pay for myself). However it looks as if numbers are declining.
Yet our state educational tech conference is growing, and needed to switch to a bigger venue. (This conference is now held at Gillette Stadium - home to the Patriots, which is incredibly cool.) Part of the reason for the growth is the partnership struck between the state ed tech and state school administrator conferences. This merging of conferences hasn't diluted either organization but seems to have energized and elevated both. It is this conference where visions are created, because the key players are hearing the same message and eating the conference lunch around the same table. (The Patriots put on a great spread, by the way.)
I'd love to see school library organizations included in these conference partnerships. I don't think it will lessen our memberships identity. I think it would elevate our stature.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobin Cicchetti

Hi Doug,
The money piece is hard. Conferences do get expensive, but for me it is the best way to network with other likeminded people. I simply HAVE to go! I get so much out of the sessions and the networking. The only reason I know people like Sara Kelly Johns, Doug Johnson, Cathy Jo, Buffy, etc. is because I am there, at the conference with them. I pay for my own Minnesota conference nearly every year. I am lucky in that I do not need to get a sub in my high school library, so I can attend the entire conference without having to pay for a sub teacher. As MEMO president this year, I will be going to ALA in Jan and June of 2011 as well. My school will not pay for any of that. MEMO offers $500 to pay for one conference for the president. I love my work, it is a big part of who I am at this point in my life. I invest in myself. I was going to conferences like the International Board on Books, ALA, MEMO before I even had my library degree. It is very important to me, so I go.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTori Jensen

WOW. SCASL looked at partnering with NCSLMA this year, but most members in a survey regarding a partnership conference shot it down. Biggest reason? Many are struggling to get funding for travel inside the state and said that out of state travel would never be approved--even if it was held right on the state line in Charlotte, NC. Oh there were other reasons for sure, but travel in general is becoming a problem for many.

I must say I frown on the funding issue as nothing more than an excuse. I join SCASL, AASL, ALA, and ISTE each year. Yes it's a hunk of change but for me it is about professionalism. I cant criticize them if I haven't become a part of them, can I? And in my criticism, i have made a quest to become an active part of them and not just a paying member. (But I won't fault those who claim it as their reason or rationale. It's just my opinion which only matters to me.)

In the last five or so years I have stopped asking for funding of any kind to attend professional development opportunities (be it conferences, webinars, workshops, or whatever.) All I ask is professional days as a courtesy so I am not charged with personal leave. But I will and have used before personal days as a bargaining tool to get the time to go. Our tax system allows us to claim this expenditure, and so I do guilt free every year.

I have met some of the most wonderful professionals in our field through networking and online avenues, but NOTHING beats hanging with them face to face at these venues, in both sessions for professional development or just having dinner or relaxing in the lobby of a conference hotel. I would not trade these opportunities for anything. I have forged quite a number of good friendships this way!!

Yes it is a financial struggle, especially since I have two in college still. But I have made cuts in other areas of my budget just to attend. I do not have the newest clothes or fashion right now, and I don't expect expensive Christmas gifts and the like. As a matter of fact, one of my Christmas presents the last few years has been registration and lodging for ISTE, and this last summer ALA. No, I may not be able to show my friends or family a tangible gift, but it is a gift that keeps on giving to me professionally.

And yes, I've had to pick and choose--it is hard to pass up some opportunities (like Educon the last two years) but in the long run I am happy with my choices. It's a price I'm willing to pay, and I guess it also shows where my priorities are at this point in my career. I would not be the professional I am without access to these opportunities. And I am ever thankful for what they have provided me professionally and personally.

Comment moderation? Spammers were getting pretty bad, huh?

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCathy Nelson

It's almost entirely a financial thing. Our school has no money for professional development this year (and NO money for libraries either). I can't afford to pay for these expensive conferences myself. That's the bottom line.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBroke

I just attended Georgia's COMO a few weeks back and I heard from some regulars that it was a bit leaner than previous years as well. I think it's the economy right now. Our district apparently used to send us every other year but now they only offer us one paid sub if you foot the bill for the rest of it. As a first year school librarian, I have to take about a day a month for training/mentoring so I just couldn't go more than one day of that multi-ay conference. I got a chance to have a conversation with some great librarians and friends: Buffy, Andy Plemmons, Holly Frilot, Kristi Michalowski, Mary Barbee and more.

I will definitely be going to the Georgia Children's Literature Conference in the spring. After that I'll have to see. ALA in New Orleans is tempting if it can double as a family vacation, but I've heard from some people that AASL is the best one for SCHOOL librarians. But that's in the fall, far away for the next one, and would require more time off school.

What I need to do is come up with a schtick so I can present and defray some of the costs, but I don't have my own "thing" yet to present on. Thinking about it, though.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJim Randolph

This past Ocober, the Manitoba School Library Association held it's annual conference and actually had to turn people away because our venue was full. Seems if you can hit the right topic and give the people what they want, they will come.
Our conference theme was "The School Library: Your Human Rights Center." Whereas we are struggling to keep our library numbers strong in Manitoba, the universality of the theme helped to draw teachers from other disciplines. Did our library personel feel that this diminished the quality of their experience? Absolutely not.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJo-Anne Gibson

We just held our MAME conference here in Michigan a week ago. Numbers were down, but we had a lot of great sessions. The non-attendees that I talked to had many reasons for not attending - One of the biggies that you didn't mention was that many people are now in multiple buildings and attending a conference means that they might not see a building again for another week.



November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTim Staal

I can only speak for myself. It sort of bothered me at the conference when the panel, Doug included, stated that we need to get rid of the dead wood. That comment in itself didn't bother me. What bothered me were the commentsthat followed about the people not there not being dedicated to their profession. My grandmother used to say that "circumstances alters cases." We don't know the circumstances as to why attendance was down. Doug has offered great questions to consider, but don't think for a minute that just because someone was not there that they were dead wood. I happen to know that several people in my professional learning community were not there due to professional obligations.

I became a media specialist in 2004. I attended the conference in 2004 and have not attended any other conference until this year. Why? 2005--Book Fair was scheduled (my fault, bad timing, I was still new); 2006--flooded media center and high risk pregnancy; 2007-2009--Could not leave baby/toddler since it took so long for me to have him (21 years!) AND no funding. Last year, my school actually had a drawing to determine who would get to go to a professional development conference. I'm sure other places are having to decide who gets to go and who doesn't such as the person who said that "specials" didn't get to go anywhere.

My point is that there are certainly circumstances that prevent folks from attending conferences. Please don't think of everyone not attending as dead wood. However, the handouts that are posted online are great and APPRECIATED! This year was the first time since I've been a media coordinator that ALL the librarians in my county attended the NCSLMA! We advocated as a group and won! Maybe that's what others need to do that also.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJanice Askew

Hi Doug,

First of all, it was great to meet you in person at NCSLMA - we were a small but mighty group.:) Secondly, I think all of the factors you mentioned have impacted, and will continue to impact attendance. I hope library associations will continue to keep their eyes on the prize, recognizing that organized opportunities for networking, learning and advocacy are an important part of our continued survival.

Thank you again for coming to NC and for sharing your wisdom with us. You are a true gem.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLibrary Girl

I unfortunately didn't attend the NCSLMA conference this year and dearly missed you, Rusty, Deanna and so much more! I recently switched school I'm at a new school for me learning the community I serve which is so very important. While money, obtaining subs has always been an issue even in better times (we can't forget that). I have also been noticing that I'm participating in more webinars and I attended the E*book summit, which was totally online and virtual (even with vendors--of freebies--boohoo). I do admit that although some of the conference (NCSLMA) hand-outs are online...after viewing them, I wonder what I missed.

I think it's more the digital age.......I used to have my gas pumped for I don't even have to see a clerk; I used to have to go to the bank to cash a it's rare that I see a bank teller. I believe the same shift is happening for conferences. I'm able to sit at home with my cup of coffee and learn what I want, when I want.

Of course, computers won't replace you or Rusty! Julia Hendricks

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Hendricks

As a sorta-retired school librarian (not currently employed or in a school library), I still attend my 2 favorite conferences - Texas Library Assn & International Assn of School Librarianship - and both completely 'on my own nickel.' Keeping up with what's going on in the school library world is worth it to me, and (as Cathy Jo said) these brain-engaging sessions are my big gift yearly (especially the trip to Australia for IASL this fall - amazing!).

There are more virtual & online training opportunities all the time, and I do see them as potentially good ways for folks to get their continuing education hours when time, money and clueless administrators conspire to keep us from face-to-face meetings.

But often the non-presentations - chats over coffee, email addresses exchanged after sessions when common threads were discovered - are the most valuable part of our conferences. Meeting other school librarians who share our burdens and battles (multiple campuses, anyone?), even connecting in person with the vendors who can help us stretch our diminishing budgets for the benefit of our students - not quite the same when done online (but I wouldn't trade the LM_NET community for anything!!).

When it comes to maximum bang for my buck, ALA/AASL can't compare with what I get from IASL & TLA for the same investment in time & money. IASL connects me to school librarians worldwide where I'm on a team which developed a free international student writing & literacy project that involves kids in many countries - . TLA lets me keep up with library leaders in our state as we try to advocate for our students (my grandkids!). Although it's an all-libraries conference, there are so many great sessions offered for school librarians at TLA that cloning myself would be the only way to attend them all. I may be back in a school library someday, and if so, it would be in Texas - I'm keeping my certification current with my TLA hours.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKaty Manck

I will definitely be going to the Georgia Children's Literature Conference in the spring. After that I'll have to see. ALA in New Orleans is tempting if it can double as a family vacation, but I've heard from some people that AASL is the best one for SCHOOL librarians. But that's in the fall, far away for the next one, and would require more time off school. .replica watches|

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersuan

I attended my state library conference this year, and the one word I would use to describe it is "old-fashioned." It had a 20th century feel to it. Unless a lot changes by next year, my money and time will be better spent pursuing other avenues of professional engagement and growth.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarie

I have never worked for an institution that paid my way to a library conference. I attended a few on my own. However, since I started reading over 600 blogs, I feel that I am totally tuned into trends and feel connected to colleagues (not just in library science) and therefore no longer miss conferences.

November 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJude

I attended the Mississippi Library Assn. conference a few weeks back, but was the only SCHOOL librarian from my district that attended and the conference was held in our city. School librarians in our state have felt somewhat unwanted by MLA for the past several years and as a result, attend the wonderful Children's Book Festival at the University of Southern Mississippi and LAMP. School librarians will go where programs are relevant and they don't feel marginalized by the membership. Money has never been an issue for my district, I've never been refused for any travel expenses. I realize that is not true for other districts in my state, but know I will only go where the program is relevant.

November 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTY

As part of the vendor world, I keep tabs on state conference attendance in many of the states I "cover" in my current job. I pay particular attention to Kansas, where I served as president of their association of school librarians and was informed that their attendance was down this October, not unlike the many others mentioned. In the past Kansas had its most successful conferences when it was held in the spring and affiliated with the state library association (KLA). Negotiations between the two organizations broke down a few years ago and the conference was moved to fall at which time KASL partnered with the Kansas Reading Assocation, which turned out not to be match made in heaven. I personally feel conferences can be more robust when they involve more than one like-minded organziation and I know many vendors see this can be an advantage as well. Finances, of course, are now a bigger consideration than ever but I think buildings and districts who do choose to send attendees have the right to see what librarians are bringing back as a result of attendance. It will be interesting to see how state conferences fare, partioularly those traditionally held in the fall, when AASL/ Minneapolis rolls around next year. I attended an initial conference planning meeting and much time was devoted to discussing how members can participate virtually next year. Fortunately, the very capable Buffy Hamilton will be at the IT helm for this conference. It would be terrific if something akin to the SLJ e-book virtual summit format could be implemented.

November 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Mansfield

I haven't attended a library conference in years and I don't belong to any professional organizations. I'm at a poor school, we have no PTA and what little conference funds we get goes to our Math and Science lead teachers cause Math and Science are tested. Professional memberships and conferences come out of my own pocket and the pocket can't afford $1,500 to attend a conference. The few times I've attended because it's in my own home town I've felt totally disconnected because I can't afford to be active so I don't know many people. Being active means traveling to attend meetings and paying travel and hotel costs and those again come out of my own pocket. And the pocket can't cover it, the pocket is paying off the college expenses of the the offspring of said pocket.

It is very, very expensive to be active in a state or national organization unless one is fortunate enough to have a PTA or a district wiling to help with funding.

November 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGuusje

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