ACRL 2013: a first timer’s review in five words

This post written by David Beales.

“A waste of my time”

It comes to something when the most I learned from a 3 day conference was what Henry Rollins looks like nowadays. Rollins is not alone in getting angry every day. I spent pretty much the whole of ACRL 2013 sitting through presentation after presentation with absolutely nothing new to offer; thinking about the hundreds of dollars it was costing to be here and the time I was wasting.

In one of the presentations I went to, the panel were sharing best practices in building a retro gaming library. I was looking for a discussion about servers and emulators and how to deal with obsolescent technology . What I got was the advice that Amazon is a good place to buy computer games and that I will need CD cleaning cloths. Thanks for that. I’d been planning to rummage through dumpsters and clean what I found with a wire brush and Dettol.

It’s unfair to pick on one set of speakers though. Some of them were so bad, they could have saved themselves the trouble of preparing a presentation by just stepping down from the podium and slapping each of us individually across the face.  The effect would have been the same.

Maybe this is why so many librarians drink

It wasn’t all bad.  I went to a preconference workshop on “Planning, Assessing and Communicating Library Impact”  by Debra Gilchrist (Pierce College) and Lisa Hinchliffe (UIUC) which left me enthused and impatient to get back to work and try out what I’d learned. And every now and again someone stood up and talked about something new or provocative (I did think that  Tabatha Farney was particularly good). I’m sure there were plenty of others. But, as these awful presentations carried on day after day, I passed the time wondering why everyone was so relaxed about wasting my time and money.

Time for some disclosure: coming from the UK, where librarians are not faculty, and where we are not under the same pressure to publish and present, I can tell you that we have a natural suspicion of colleagues who present too much. If you’re out gallivanting around the country, you had better have something worthwhile to say. Otherwise, get back to making your library better.

What I see in the US is thousands of librarians being judged, not just on whether they are making their libraries better, but on whether they are published or have given a presentation. This would be an impossible task for most of us, particularly as we often have no training in how to do research and no time in which to do it. But as a profession, it seems we’ve got round that tricky obstacle by setting the bar very low indeed and applauding uncritically whoever stands before us. Because we know we’re all in the same boat and next time it will be us.

Are we helping each other by being so uncritical? Last year I watched a TED talk by Margaret Heffernan in which she suggests that we should “dare to disagree”. It doesn’t seem that amazing an idea when you look at it; that if you want to be sure that you’re right, you should invite people to try and prove you wrong.  I’m not sure what she would make of us librarians, but one thing I’m confident of; if she gave the same talk at ACRL 2015 we would all give her a warm round of applause.

Photo: Kurt Vonnegut mural on my way back from the Chatterbox, Indianapolis
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6 thoughts on “ACRL 2013: a first timer’s review in five words

  1. Ruth says:

    While all the college and research librarians were converging on Indianapolis, I was on my way OUT of Indy to Vancouver, B.C. for the Evergreen International Conference (for our open source ILS). Some of my favorite things about this conference are (1) librarians are included but do not dominate the attendee pool – there are also software developers, IT staff, project coordinators, students as well as both current and prospective EG users; and (2) the conference is directly about making libraries better and nothing about all the normal “catch-phrase topics” that seem to inundate so many “library” conferences.

    • David Beales says:

      Hi Ruth
      I think that’s the way I need to approach it. I’ve got to make a choice between the American Society of Engineering Educators conference and the Society of Scholarly Publishers conference in June. If anyone has been to either conference before (or any non-library specific conference) I’d be really interested in your recommendations

  2. Theindielibrarian says:

    ” This would be an impossible task for most of us, particularly as we often have no training in how to do research”. This is a concerning phrase as we are researchers by trade, no?

    I attended and I will say most things tipped toward a robust staff and instruction (I’m in collection development) But there were plenty of ideas in those sessions I could scale down or inspired me to do something unrelated but it reminded me of something else.

    I am at a university where I am not required to publish or perish for the exact reason you laugh at us. I want to be able to focus on the students and faculty needs rather than my research requirements. But it doesn’t mean there weren’t things I could learn from the conference. Perhaps it was the sessions you were selecting?

    • David Beales says:

      Hi Indielibrarian,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Straight off the bat, I want to say that I’m not laughing at anyone. One of the reasons I moved to the US is to learn different ways of doing the job.

      I would say that our trade makes us natural experts only in desktop research; most of us don’t have training in conducting focus groups, survey methodology or statistical analysis, for example.

      As for conferences being a source of inspiration, I agree with you wholeheartedly, but in this case I wonder how much of that was down to the speakers and how much of it was down to you bringing your own creativity with you and having the mental space to think about your library in a different context.
      You are not the first person to suggest that the problem may be in the sessions I was selecting, but I think that gets to the heart of the issue; quality control.
      I don’t doubt that there was some good stuff being talked about, but it was hidden by the huge amount of low quality presentations which should have been weeded out at the review stage.

  3. diego says:

    While I enjoy conferences, I’m glad you said what you said. There have been many a time I’ve read a scholarly article or attended a conference that I’ve scratched my head and said well that’s not new or pretty obvious. And I think you nailed it by identifying the culprit of faculty status and the necessity of publishing. My first Masters degree program was in the 90s and was in the hey day of post-colonial studies and other post modernists theologies. There, too, was a surplus of academic writing that was leading to deconstructed, disembodied scholarship that everyone was having trouble understanding and putting into practice. I hope librarianship and information studies does not go this way.

  4. Lisa Whatshername (@pnkrcklibrarian) says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve been to probably a dozen conferences (mostly library related) in the last three years and it is rare you get a presenter who is not only engaging but also is bringing fresh content to the table. Sometimes it’s not always about the content, but about the design and the presentation that is awful. One session I attended at a conference earlier this year, the slides were grey text on white, and were jammed with content like a paperback novel on steroids. The speaker, considered an expert in his field, spent the session more or less reading off the slides and the content he was presenting on was not as advertised in the session summary. Half way through, I concocted a massive headache and left.

    ACRL was no different.

    Everything about the conference annoyed me – from being ignored by vendors to the badly designed posters (a poster on a specific social media platform to woo your patrons did not contain information to connect to that library on said social media platform), to the tired, rehashed presentations I popped in and out of all day.

    I was even more frustrated going through the THATCamp MOOC session because people wanted to build off of ACRL’s incomprehensible five rules of information literacy but got so bogged down in the details of being “right” within ACRL’s modes that if I were a student taking this MOOC, I would have bailed on that class long ago.

    I knew going into ACRL I was paying $380 to see Henry Rollins and I am okay with that. I’m also okay with the fact that most of my inspiration, networking, and professional development all came from social events and after session chats. Were those worth $380? I got more value out those over the presentations themselves, so the answer is yes.

    -Lisa

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