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#NYLA2020 Wrap-up: The joy of an online conference during a pandemic

Lunch in front of a laptop computer
Like many other conferences, the 2020 New York Library Association Annual Conference went virtual with broadcasted sessions on Nov. 5-6, and access to prerecorded content for weeks afterwards. This was a very different experience. There were no group lunches or dinners. No alumni events. No running into colleagues in the hallway. Instead we were each in front of our own computers as we attended the live sessions. That spot became where we had breakfast, mid-morning coffee, lunch, and snacks. For some, it was where they exercised while watching sessions!  So what stood out?
  • The conference used the PheedLoop platform, which allowed for live and prerecorded sessions, live chat, and a trade show. This is the first online conference platform I've used and I liked it. I'm sure there are a growing number of companies building platforms and it will be interesting to see what exists a year from now.
  • While the platform was easy to use, it needed an introduction. An online conference platform should have a 2-5 minute introductory video which explains its features. The video could be generic and played by any participant at any time.
  • The presenters - whether they were presenting live or were prerecording their material - needed good Internet bandwidth. Unfortunately, you likely do not know that your bandwidth isn't good enough until something goes wrong. Participants also needed good bandwidth. This is an area where a conference platform might provide a tool for testing your bandwidth or provide suggestions on how to get the most out of what you have.
  • Because of the combination of live broadcast and prerecorded sessions, I was able "to go" to more sessions! This was definitely a plus. In addition, NYLA recorded the broadcast sessions and made them available later, so more content to absorb.
  • The difference between prerecorded sessions and live sessions is the ability to interact with other participants and ask questions. Yes, there really is a benefit to being in the same "room" with everyone else  and the presenters at the same time.
  • Because I don't work for a library, trade shows and exhibit halls are a challenge. I want to go and see what's new, but I also know that I'm not a prospect for the exhibitors, so the conversations can be awkward. The virtual trade show (exhibit hall) allowed me to visit the vendors, look at their materials, perhaps watch a video about their products/services, and then only chat with a live person if I had a question. This translated into me going to more exhibitors and looking at more of their materials. 
  • NYLA does not have vendor-led sessions. However, I think conferences next year - and even NYLA - should consider having library space designers and architectural firms give programs on what they learned about library design from the pandemic. I think those could be well attended and very informative sessions.
  • The private chat feature allowed me to chat with a number of people, whom I had not seen in a while, and that was nice. That served a bit like running into someone in the hallway at the conference. The feature did take a little getting used to and I would hope that conference software companies work to make that feature obvious and easy.

Next year (2021) the Nyla Annual Conference is scheduled to be in Syracuse on Nov. 3-6.  Every 2021 conference is looking at their options and wondering if they will be able to hold their events in person. In addition, every 2020 virtual conferences is realizing that participants saw a benefit in having an online conference and likely want some virtual components to continue. 

Why go to an on-site conference?

  • While you might attend a conference by yourself, you are interacting with many people while you're on-site. That increases what information you are exposed to and what you learn. That is harder to do online.
  • You have more interaction with the speakers (including the keynoters), because you can talk with them before or after their sessions, or at another time during the conference. For example, imagine the conversations we could have had with the NY State Librarian if we had been in the same physical space as her? If possible, queuing up to see the State Librarian online would definitely be different than in person. Another example is a group gathering around a speaker after a session to talk about a particular point the person made. BTW this is all possible to do online, but requires more coordination.
  • While I liked visiting the exhibitors online, you could not see and touch their products. You need to be on-site for this.
  • It is easier to create small ad hoc discussion groups in person, whether that is in a session, on the trade show floor, in the hallways, or over a meal. This can be where the real learning and networking happens. The ad hoc nature of this is currently hard to duplicate online.
  • Association conferences are also places for recruiting people for committees, etc. While this is possible to do in other ways, you can't see who is stopping by your booth and showing real interesting in your materials when the event is online.
  • While not impossible, it is easier to do fun fundraisers in person.

I'm sure there are other reasons, but that is what comes to mind right now.  

I do want to say that I missed driving to Saratoga Springs, where the conference was supposed to be held. And I missed my favorite food places in Saratoga (Hattie's), as well as the independent bookstore. The MSLIS programs in NYS have alumni events at the conference, and I missed those too. 

Whatever form NYLA 2021 takes, I am looking forward to it. My hope is that it will be on-site (at least part of it).  If so, my plan is to create a food map for participants to use!  Maybe some dine-arounds? We'll see!

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#NYLA2020 Wrap-up: The joy of an online conference during a pandemic


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