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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Conferences as a business

I was speaking with my boss, Mary Ghikas, about the recent ALA conference in Orlando. She said some things I hadn't heard of or thought about before.

Many people, particularly their first time through an ALA conference, get totally overwhelmed, particularly if they find themselves traveling to a mix of programs and committee meetings. In that case, they find themselves dashing around a city in cabs or buses. They wonder, "Why can't we put everything in one place?"

The answer is pretty simple: we have way more concurrent meetings than most associations. While ALA works hard to get all the programs in the conference center (where there is a speaker, not just a discussion group or committee meeting), ALA typically has between 350-370 meetings going on at the same time. Nobody has a conference center that big, so we have to team up with hotels to get the necessary rooms. That adds costs, too, because hotels love to tack on charges for wifi, projectors, cords and cables, and so on. In fact, we find that it's not a bad rule of thumb to triple anything you check off on an AV list - because there will be inevitable staff charges on top of it.

Other associations tend to cluster their committee meetings on the first day: let's say a Saturday morning and afternoon. Then they're done: the official conference begins Saturday night, and then they're just booking a few larger program spaces. Everybody gets to attend programs instead of committee meetings. This makes not only for a cheaper cost to put on the conference, but far more shared experiences of the members.

To make that happen at ALA would take a couple of significant shifts: first, way more committee work would have to be done between conferences, probably electronically (conference calls and webinars). Second, ALA members would have to whittle back the number of committees they serve on. Right now, there's a general guideline of holding yourself to three. But then you can imagine the scheduling conflicts when everybody has three meetings not only scheduled against programs, but against each other.

This isn't to say that committees aren't important. They are. But they're also an expense that could be better managed. And that management might allow for conferences that were a little more fun and a little less frantic.

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