Hacking the Conference Experience: The 2012 DLF Forum

Social media tools and platforms and the network effect have changed the way we work, connect, and collaborate. We have meetings with colleagues using Skype on our cell phones or iPads; we catch up on trends and new ideas via hashtags on Twitter; we catch up on news via blogs and other dynamic modes of publishing. With all that has changed in the workplace, why do our conferences, for the most part, remain static with the traditional “sage on the stage” broadcasting their message?

It is long overdue that we need to hack the conference experience. There needs to be a mashup of the traditional conference experience with the dynamic conversational tone of an unconference. There should be more realtime sharing and interaction between audience and presenter, and time for brainstorming and exchanging thoughts and ideas that result from presentations, in a way the captures and sustains the conversation long after we check out of the conference hotel.

Granted, it is common for conferences to have a Twitter hashtag, but are the questions and ideas posed on the backchannel churned up and contributed to the “live action” in the room? Sure, the sessions are live streamed, but how is virtual participation structured so that it can be a meaningful experience? Some conferences are doing a great job of this, but they are seldom professional library conferences. In this time of reduced resources to support professional development, we need to demand more of our conferences and meetings.

With this in mind, the 2012 DLF Forum program planning committee used a number of strategies to maximize interaction and dynamic participation.

First, we minimized the number of sessions that followed a traditional presentation format. In addition to panels and presentations, the Forum had working sessions, project updates, workshops, several preconference unconferences, and a community marketplace. Descriptions of all these session types are spelled out in the call for proposals. The overarching goal of these alternative session types is to create an opportunity for conversation between the presenters and the DLF community. For example, the working session Tales from the Cloud focused on sharing experiences of cloud adoption, the decisions that led there, migration strategies and considerations, and technical implications of cloud usage in a preservation context. The idea was that panel members would share their experiences in a session that was structured to have a conversation with the audience.

Second, we maximized opportunities for interaction between speakers, session leaders, and conference participants. Not only did the Forum have a Twitter hashtag (#dlfforum) and archive tweets, but we also asked that all the speakers share their presentations via SlideShare and we provided the opportunity for collaborative notetaking using an open GoogleDoc for each session. The collaborative notetaking was inspired by a recent symposium titled Take Note held by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. These notes—which can be found through a link to the original GoogleDoc at the bottom of each session page—were used to create a summary report of the 2012 Forum sessions.

Our third strategy to enhance interaction at the Forum was to offer “more room at the inn.” Digital library conversations span many topics, including data management, digital humanities, and scholarly publishing. Often, these conversations happen within “home” communities or in silos, when the issues cut across many stakeholder groups and would benefit from having a broad open discussion. So how do we encourage new voices from outside of the core digital library community to join the conversation? Our solution was to position the Forum as a hub meeting, while providing meeting and logistic support for other groups to “spoke” from. This year, preconference meetings included the METS editorial board meeting, the Taiga Forum 8, CURATECamp, and THATCamp. The Scholarly International Infrastructure Technical Summit met directly after. These pre- and post-conference meetings encouraged many who had never attended a DLF Forum to test the waters. This year we had more than 230 attendees from organizations that ranged from research universities and liberals arts colleges to independent organizations and service providers.

In planning a meeting, it is often the small details that can make a difference. This year, in addition to maximizing interactivity, we wanted to minimize our carbon footprint. The DLF greening initiative started last year as a way to reduce paper by using SlideShare to distribute presentations and the Guidebook app to post the conference schedule. This year, we expanded our efforts to include distributing water bottles in place of offering bottled water at breaks, and using recycled/recyclable name badges with compostable badge holders.

On the basis of early evaluations, it seems our efforts have paid off: attendees were pleased with our efforts to support a broader range of participation. But there is always room to improve. Next year we’d like to live stream the event, but in a way that our remote participants can feel that they are part of the Forum, and not just watching it. We hope to expand the conference by a day to avoid overlapping sessions. But most importantly, we’ll be thinking about how we can sustain those good conversations that started at the 2012 Forum in a way that carries our whole community forward until we meet again, in Austin Texas in 2013. Stay tuned … we are working on that!

Originally posted on clir.org November 28, 2012.