Saturday, January 22, 2011

Feedback Needed: White Paper on ALA Midwinter Meeting

On December 30, 2010 Keith Michael Fiels and Mary Ghikas distributed the "White Paper on the ALA Midwinter Meeting". The background cover information notes "the combination of technological change and economic stress has caused many members to question the way in which ALA groups accomplish work. In particular, they have raised issues related to the continuing viability of the ALA Midwinter Meeting." It further notes "that Midwinter must be "repositioned" in our conversation and shared understanding to reflect the current, not past, practice and a new understanding of "the business of the Association"."

The document is available as a PDF from the ALA Governance Office website.

As a member of the ALA Executive Board and an ALA member, I am interested in your feedback on this document and the concepts presented. I encourage you to read the document and either post your comments here on my blog or email them to me, cly11 AT Thank you in advance for your input and assistance in helping me serve the membership and lead the Association.


  1. I disagree with the premise of this paper. I would like to see Midwinter kept as is. It's bad enough that Annual and Midwinter have now been shortened by one day. I was always opposed to this change and know many people on Council who feel that same way.

  2. A possible repositioning of Midwinter could be a conscious limiting of size and scope. I know that already some attendees come in just for their meetings, not "for the conference." That is to say, they are in for a day and out the next. I suspect such participation might not really require conference registration which might be an interesting consideration. Could we become "just business meetings and discussion dinners?"

    There are still 8,000 to 12,000 attendees. Do you shape the conference for them, or are you targeting those who don't attend (keeping customers or recruiting customers).

    The white paper articulates benefit in face-to-face meeting, but acknowledges that some business can be handled virtually. Were the meetings to happen in rooms that permitted virtual participation perhaps both benefits could be gained.

    Another stake holder group to consider is the vendors. At what point of re-focus or right-sizing Midwinter would they lose interest? Perhaps they can sponsor the branded online access instead of an exhibits hall. At what point does the conference not make money or, at least, break even.

    In light of the white paper, I guess the ultimate restructuring would be a small comprehensive conference with free parking and hotels with refrigerators for those who find fiscal benefit from regional accessibility of the smaller venues; a two-day job fair between the days airfare is cheapest; planned meeting tracks for executives who want to get in and get out; and virtual meeting access for those who want to attend meetings and discussion groups remotely. I'm not sure what sort of funding model would work for that.

    I, personally, feel I gained something from each Midwinter and Annual that I attended but have become a member that has skipped a couple of years because of travel funding. Sadly my general participation has correspondingly dropped. I guess I'm a face-to-face librarian. There are many librarians who have truly capitalized on the expanding web venues, separate from conferences. There is such a variety of us, it will be hard to please everyone.

    I am reminded of a Dilbert cartoon wherein he designed an office building to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of every employee and it was so expensive to build that they had to rent it out instead of work in it.

    Perhaps we clear our minds and focus on what work is to be done and (hypothetically) start from scratch.

  3. Aaron the LibrarianJanuary 22, 2011 at 1:04 PM

    Start offering official programs at Midwinter to cater to folks who prefer a "smaller" (compared to Annual) conference.

    Regional attendees are still a major draw - but the real potential is in streaming all programs (at midwinter and annual) - and maybe encouraging units/divisions to hold "all committee" meetings at a specific time and place (similar to how NMRT does/did)

    I dropped a comment on Will Manley's blog with a few more suggetsions:

  4. As you know, I'm an extra $400+ in plane tickets away from EVERY conference (except those that actually happen in Alaska, which is never ALA), but the Internet works just fine up here. I would strongly support dropping to one physical conference a year, but maybe making that conference a day longer, to allow for more in-person meetings--maybe a dedicated "meeting" day, even.

    I'm luckier than some: my workplace can support my attendance--or at least the bulk of it--to one ALA a year, though they certainly can't do two. I only have to pay part of the first and all of the second out of pocket. But the public librarians, or librarians at smaller colleges, are prevented from full participation (or at least the credit for full participation, as I discuss below) in ALA because they must pay for *both* conferences out of pocket. I hate to frame it in the light of a class issue, but I think it is: the people advocating for two conferences must somehow be able to afford them. How many of us can't do two conferences a year, or would have to undergo significant financial hardship to do so? (We have great scholarship programs. But there are so few scholarships, split between so many potential participants.)

    It would be easy to do: each teleconferenced* program could have a sponsor, and that sponsor could be allowed to talk for a couple of minutes at the beginning, sort of like Mango did in the Midwinter Tech Wrapup. Similarly, committee meetings could also be run that way--maybe without sponsors--but with less active moderation. It's not 100% as efficient as an in-person meeting, but, having worked with both kinds of committees at work, I think it's around 80% as good. What are we asking people to pay, for that 20%? Is that reasonable?

    *It's important that we do NOT go with passive streaming! Something like WebEx or Elluminate Live would work nicely, because in both programs the moderator can control the "noise"--people can type questions into the chat window, or even be allowed by the moderator to discuss with microphones, but it's all at the moderator's discretion. Pure streaming is awful, because, unless someone's monitoring the Twitter backchannel or something, the distance "participants" aren't really participating.

    I disagree about the "smaller" Midwinters, on the grounds of fairness: those of us in Alaska, Hawaii, and other states without large enough population centers to house everyone for ALA Annual or Midwinter will never be close enough to participate cheaply just by virtue of being "regional." But we pay the same dues to the organization. And we're held to the same expectations as our peers.

    More to the point: as long as conference has a physical component, the virtual will be a side offering, not as useful or fun an experience. The push to improve it will never be all that strong, so distance attendees will continue to be a second class of citizen. We see it in library schools (at least at Pitt), and I can definitely see those same people who advocate for two physical conferences saying "if you don't care enough to participate in person, you shouldn't complain that the virtual side isn't perfect." Even if they don't say it out loud, I feel pretty sure some people already think that way: we seem to hold conference attendance up as the standard of how committed someone is to ALA, and, as a new [read: still paying off student loans] librarian from an outlying state, I think that's unreasonable. Let's modernize, respect people's financial and locational situations, and offer a strong virtual conference, instead of doing it in a (please forgive me) half-assed way.

  5. Having Midwinter as a national conference is expensive (and we all pay for it, whether we attend or not through higher prices for products), anti-environmental and excessive.

    How many other professional organizations in the US have two national meetings annually?

    IF we continue, let's keep it in Chicago, stop having programs, and do it as a business meeting + job fair. Everything else can be more cheaply and greenly achieved in other ways.