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At ALA Midwinter, Or Not

Submitted by Tom Peters on January 14, 2011 - 9:56am

As usual, ALA Midwinter was exciting, informative, and exhausting.  I was able to attend in person, but I know many colleagues who were not able to make the trek to San Diego, which was generally sunny but a tad chilly.  I’m looking forward to the post-Midwinter webinar that ALA TechSource will hold on Wed. Jan. 19th (http://www.alatechsource.org/blog/2011/01/register-now-for-our-free-webinar-midwinter-tech-wrapup.html). 

In this blog post, I want to concentrate on just one cluster of interesting developments.  The long simmering issue of whether (and, if so, how) ALA members should be able to participate in and contribute to Midwinter Meetings and Annual Conferences seemed to come to a boil at this Midwinter.  Here’s what I noticed directly and heard about indirectly, which I’m sure is just a small part of the larger trend: 

  1. There was a whole lot of tweeting going on.  Many distant colleagues expressed their appreciation at being able to get an experience of Midwinter without actually being there.

  2. At one meeting I attended, a librarian in the Midwest was able to listen to the conversation and contribute to it via Skype.  That seemed to be the result of a one-to-one agreement with the meeting facilitator. 

  3. At another meeting, there were more librarians attending virtually from a distance as avatars who had congregated on ALA Island in the virtual world called Second Life than librarians attending live as real humans in San Diego.  The ability to participate via Second Life had been announced informally (i.e., not by ALA) prior to Midwinter. 

  4. At yet another meeting, which I facilitated, there were more people attending online via the OPAL webconferencing service (full disclosure:  I coordinate OPAL) than were physically attending in San Diego.  The ability to participate via OPAL was announced informally prior to Midwinter.  A recording (audio, text chatting, and co-browsing) was made of this open meeting.  I didn’t ask anyone at ALA for permission to do this.  The fact that a recording would be made was announced to the in-person attendees prior to the meeting, as well as to all participants (online and in-person) at the beginning of the recording. 

  5. Ustream was used to stream video and audio of various Midwinter events, such as Jason Griffey’s interview with Vernor Vinge, and of the beginning of the LITA Board meeting, until the Board decided to dam the stream.  Michelle Boule’s blog post about this incident is informative (http://wanderingeyre.com/2011/01/09/an-almost-streamed-meeting-causes-a-ruckus/).  This sentence from Michelle’s post really resonated with me, “We must get over this idea that everything that is produced should be polished to a high shine before being sent out to members.”   Most of these tweets, videos, photos, webcasts, blog posts, and other utterances emanating from Midwinter have an impromptu, informal aura. 

On December 30, 2010 Keith Michael Fiels and Mary Ghikas from ALA issued a white paper (http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/governance/officers/eb_documents/2010_2011ebdocuments/ebd12_17_%20mw_future.pdf) that addresses this and several other issues about the future development and configuration of the ALA Midwinter Meeting.  These lines from p. 8 of the white paper address this point, “Other changes that would make Midwinter more effective and which are already being aggressively pursued are:  More “hybrid” meetings combining in-person and virtual participation and extending the conversation beyond the immediate in-person attendees;….”

Three cheers for hybrid meetings, because they give participants choices.  Release your inner Mendel.  Record and archive with abandon, too.  Hybrid meetings that are recorded and archived give everyone the option to time- and/or place-shift.

I like the idea that the hybridization of Midwinter has grown organically in a grassroots fashion.  Of the making and refinement of technologies that enable us to time- and place-shift, there is no end.  There’s also the challenge of making these hybrid participation options open and discoverable by anyone who may be interested.  A more concerted, coordinated effort by our association to help with the discovery of these options would be beneficial to all entities -- individual and corporate -- no matter where they are. 

Traveling to professional conferences can be difficult and expensive.  For several reasons, the type of professional travel that many of us engaged in during the final quarter of the 20th century will not be sustainable.  Shrinking budgets, rising travel costs, time constraints, and a growing awareness of the huge carbon footprint of tens of thousands of people descending on a city for a large in-person conference all are tugging at my natural human inclination to meet in person.