Librarians Need to Stop Going to Library Conferences

Now that I have got your attention with a title that I borrowed from a post on the Undergraduate Science Librarian, “Why academic librarians need to stop going to library conferences,” I guess I should rephrase my statement to: Librarians Need to Attend Their User’s Conferences. (A more accurate but less snappy title.)

The Undergraduate Science Librarian’s post hit home with me a little bit.  She describes a general disconnect between the library world and the research world, which she witnessed at the ScienceOnline2010 conference.  At that conference two librarians held a session for scientists and researchers about available library tools.  From that session, Bonnie Swoger (the author of the blog post) noticed that “scientists and scholars aren’t aware of what librarians do, beyond the whole ‘buying books’ thing.”  Bonnie also believes that librarians aren’t spending enough time listening to scientists and scholars to figure out what they really need and want. 

Bonnie links to a post from Martin Fenner, “Scientists and librarians: friend or foe?”  which addresses Dorothea Salo’s (one of the librarians at the ScienceOnline session) dismay over the disconnect between librarians and scientists.  Fenner lists several ways librarians can be more relevant and helpful to scientists.  Most of the things he lists are services, such as provide and support an online reference manager, online user training and support, microblogging for quick help support, institutional bibliographies, institutional repositories, help with article submissions, and help with Web 2.0 tools. 

I know many of you in library land are saying, “But we do many of those things he wants, why is there still a disconnect? Do they think the online tutorials grow on trees?”  My guess is that there is a general disconnect between what librarians do and all of their users.  Whether it is scientists, researchers, doctors, nurses, students, etc. many still think we are book buyers.

I have two examples of how I felt the disconnect.

Incident 1:
A few years ago my husband and I were invited to a large get together with many couples.  While at dinner one of the women (who I had just met) asked me what I did.  I told her I was a medical librarian.  (She was a physical therapist.)  She got that glazed look in her eye and asked me “Really? So what do you do, make copies and shelve books?”  As offensive as that statement was to me, she didn’t mean it that way, she was entirely clueless as to what a medical librarian did. 

Incident 2:
My husband and I met some friends at a local bar before a baseball game.  The boyfriend (I had met once or twice before) of a friend asked me, “So why are you interested in a career in which you will be replaced by Google in a decade.”  He had too much to drink to be polite.

So how can we begin to deal with this disconnect?  Well, I like what Bonnie suggested.  “We need to start attending the same conferences as the scholars we serve.”  Bonnie is putting her money where her mouth (keyboard?) is, on her post she states, “I will not be attending the ALA annual conference this summer. Hopefully, I will head to Denver for the Geological Society of America national meeting in October. And perhaps the year after that I will make it to the American Chemical Society conference.”

I think MLA and librarian conferences are important, it helps us to connect and learn off of each other, but I think Bonnie’s idea of getting out there and attending our CUSTOMER’S conferences might be helpful.  We need to start thinking a little more like business and start marketing to our customers. For many of us, it may not be practical to go to the national conferences of our customers.  How about local conferences and meetings? How about city groups, institutional groups or meetings?  Heck try and get in on the Monday meeting at your institution.

Get out from the library and tell your customers what you have and how you can serve them.  But also listen to their needs.

17 thoughts on “Librarians Need to Stop Going to Library Conferences”

  1. Not only do I agree completely with the sentiment in the article, but we (my Co-Chair and I) are putting together a program at the International Astronomical Union General Assembly Commission 5 Working Group Libraries that features a panel discussion between scientists and librarians on the topic “The Need for Libraries, Even in the Age of the Internet” followed by a second segment devoted to shared library-operated projects and programs between observatories.
    We hope this encourages astronomy librarians to attend their users’ conference and engage with them.
    If anyone wants more information, please contact [email protected].

  2. Just reading this now. Going to our customer conferences can be a real eye-opener. I attended the SGIM conference back in 2004. I was with my Duke faculty and we were doing a workshop on PDAs. (It was everyone’s ticket to the meeting!) While there, I also attended a PubMed workshop by clinicians – and was amazed at the misinformation and it was standing room only! There is an opportunity here for us to conduct workshops at their meetings.

  3. Marlene: I remember being at an AHA (Hospital) meeting about 20 years ago and I was shocked at the size of the Exhibit area. I remember thinking it would be a great place to have a booth

    Absolutely. When first reading this post and the comments, I was thinking about how impractical attending a professional conference outside of your profession for the most part would be. How much would a doctor really get out of attending a health librarian conference? But librarianship should have a presence at patron conferences in the form of our associations. In a way, we are vendors for them, albeit usually those that don’t charge anything, and so we need to “sell” our services in general.

  4. As library liaison and adjunct faculty for our School of Nursing, I agree that we learn much by getting out of the library and attending non-library conferences. When I have done that, I’ve come back with many new ideas. However, I believe you can start closer to home. There are regular lectures, CE events, local and regional conferences in all the disciplines. I’ve attended many, and sometimes have a faculty member mention they are pleased to know I am interested in a given topic. Attending these activities, and working closely with faculty or staff on planning committees or presentations, gets you viability and invitations to speak. These closer to home activities also fit into our almost nonexistent travel budget.

  5. Michelle, that’s a good point about advocacy such as for hospital libraries/librarians – I hadn’t been thinking of that one yesterday. I do like the notion of bringing ideas back and being more visible generally. How often do librarians get on the CE programs of other conferences? Would there be interest at other conferences in something like getting the most out of databases like the NLM tools, finding data, etc. – workshops on finding information more efficiently?

  6. I can agree with the philosophy of the post – librarians have to get beyond the boundaries of their own professional literature and conferences if they want to be more knowledgeable and innovative. That’s a philosophy I’ve promoted for quite some time with the Keeping Up Web Site. It’s more focused on non-library resources than library content. We have librarians here that do attend the conferences of their disciplinary specialties and I think that’s not a new thing in academic librarianship. I would argue that to really understand your users it might not be necessary to go to disciplinary conferences. That’s a great way to immerse yourself in the discipline and current trends and issues. But there’s no saying the people you meet at the conference will accurately reflect your users. There’s probably greater advantage to making an effort to study your local users – and those who want to get better at doing that should pay more attention to the literature and practice of user experience. The real issue is that many librarians either have lost funding for conference attendance or can only attend one major conference. Those that need to present for tenure can’t do that at a disciplinary conference in most cases – so they may have no choice but to go to a library conference. If we have unlimited funds, I’d encourage academic librarians to not only go to disciplinary conferences – but higher education and teaching/learning conferences. As educators we can learn much more about improving our skills in those areas than we can at disciplinary conferences.

  7. Thinking about incident 1 & 2 above, hasn’t this response always been the case? With over 25 years in the profession, I have always found that others tend to believe our profession is only about shelving and stamping books. Being a librarian has always been about management of collections (in whatever format they exist) and making those collections accessible to the clients. I think there is a common misconception out there that librarians are somehow made obselete by technology rather than being early adopters of it. There has been no moment of my career I have not used computer & telcommunications-based technology to deliver services. I cannot think of one form of digital technology librarians have not used early (and often) to enhance service and collection access.
    I was chatting to an academic recently who said she couldn’t imagine there would be any work in university libraries, because few of her colleagues actually go to the library. The fact that librarians create such easy access to electronic information on campus through combining a sophisticated mix of buying, negotiation, planning, creative software use and navigation design skills is invisible to her. That’s probably as it should be, but seamless access and invisibility should not always go hand-in-hand.
    The conversation between client & librarian should be never ending. If attending (or perhaps actually presenting papers at) conferences is a way of enhancing the conversation, then by all means do it. But the engagement of librarians with clients must be a constant – and the difficult trick is turning the client from passive recipient to active user.

  8. I remember being at an AHA (Hospital) meeting about 20 years ago and I was shocked at the size of the Exhibit area. I remember thinking it would be a great place to have a booth. Maybe there were librarians there – I don’t recall seeing any. But, I think it’s a great place to have a presence. Administrators aren’t always the ones who use our services (I know – there are many exceptions out there and many librarians who have great, supportive administrators). But, they control the purse strings and if they don’t know what we do, much of the rest won’t matter. But, having been in the profession for 35 years (Yikes!) I can definitely say “deja vu.” I remember many “campaigns by the Hospital Libraries Section of MLA, in the 80s and 90s, to try to reach out to hospital administrators. And, for my own rant, I’d like to go to a book publisher convention and scream at them for putting copyrights on books that are years in the future. I couldn’t believe we received a book with a 2011 copyright date in 2009.

  9. That’s an excellent point, Rachel. It’s very difficult to advocate for medical librarianship in any kind of general way. So much depends on the skills and interests of the individual librarian, and those vary widely. We’re dependent on medical librarians to step up and advocate for themselves.

    NLM does have a presence at many national healthcare and health administration meetings, but I’m not convinced that a presence limited to the exhibit hall is all that effective. I always have a better idea of how librarians can “fit” when I’m able to attend sessions and hear for myself what’s on peoples’ minds.

    The Sewell Memorial Fund has been sending librarians to national public health and pharmacy conferences for several years now. I highly recommend applying for a stipend:

    If you’re at all interested in public health, you should definitely try to attend APHA or a state/regional meeting. You’ll be amazed at the energy and ideas.

  10. These are really interesting points. I work in a public library and am active in the ASTD and ISPI chapters here. I’ve heard the same comments about Google replacing librarians, etc. I take that as an opportunity to educate people about what it is we do. I’ve also presented at their meetings about what we do and what we have to offer them. It’s really helped. I see more of these same people in the library now. I think on we really need a worldwide campaign to rebrand and remarket libraries of the 21st century–public, academic, etc. We’re so much more than buns and books 🙂

  11. Sarah, great ideas on how going to a user’s conference can also help with your own library development and generate ideas to better market your services.
    I don’t think we should give up our own conferences and meeting but your examples show how diversifying can be just as helpful.

  12. I work in pharma and I’ve occasionally attended user’s conferences and it’s amazing what I learn. I hear about specific information pain points in the industry and get ideas about what users would like to see. What is often most important to me is that I hear about (and sometimes test-drive) specialized information tools, services and resources from companies that don’t generally advertise to libraries. These things tend fall into two categories: 1) something truly unique and useful that I’d like to bring in (which can make me look like a hero) or 2) things that are similar to services that the library/company already provides. Knowing about these can really help out when I get questions about specific tools, etc. I also get to see how these companies are trying to appeal to their potential customers and that can give me ideas for internal marketing. I’d like to think that others standing at the booth and listening to my questions learn something about how to evaluate a product but that seems unlikely :-). I don’t generally do a lot of talking up about what the library can offer – as Rachel says, it’s hard to know what is available at their home organization. On the other hand, knowing what one organization offers their scientists may inspire people to go home and see what their organizations offer. I wouldn’t want to give up on library conferences but the occasional subject conference has been valuable too.

  13. I was at the ScienceOnline conference, and I agree with Bonnie’s suggestions. Not so much to heavily & overtly promote what we librarians can do (when as Rachel points out, we don’t necessarily know what other scientists’ librarians can do for them). Instead, I think we should go to demonstrate that librarians (in general) are interested in scholarship, and that we don’t just shelve books. I like to think that the small number of librarians at the ScienceOnline conference had a big impact on the more formal science-types, as evidenced by the librarian & scientist blog posts on this very topic.

    “Our” being with “them” generates discussion and understanding on both sides. And yes, Martin, we’d love to see more scientists at librarian-focused events. 🙂

  14. I think there is sort of a two pronged approach, a national approach and a local approach.
    Those more equipped to go national can speak and market us nationally.
    But that doesn’t always make the immediate local impact so ther also needs to be a local effort.
    At the AHA (hospital not heart) meeting packed with hospital adiminstrators we need a vocal and active pressence. (for the record I don’t know if we do or don’t have a pressence at that meeting.)
    Those are hospital administrators and their peers and it is a great oppotunity to get us out there. Some of our library vendors are there selling there stuff/services.
    It also needs to a repetitive thing too. One meeting or conferene does not solve the disconnect.

  15. You could also turn this around: scientists (like me) should go to conferences where they meet librarians. ScienceOnline2010 and Science Online London are obviously such conferences, and I will attend a BibCamp in May.

  16. I like the idea of going to other conferences in principle. I wonder, though, what I can find out at those conferences that I couldn’t find out by talking to the physicians, researchers and such here on my campus. Not that we’re always good at that, but I’d be hesitant to talk up librarian skills to folks from elsewhere at a conference because I don’t know what their own librarians actually offer them. I’d like to get better at reaching out to my own community of providers and researchers here – if I do that, and librarians at other institutions do that, the conference issue is kind of minimized, I think.

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