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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 7

Virtually uncertain

As I write, I'm just back from the American Library Association (ALA) Annual conference in Chicago, Illinois. Well, actually, I'm all the way back to my home in the Chicago suburbs, but McCormick Place in downtown Chicago really did feel worlds away – in part because of the opportunity it afforded to chat face-to-face with colleagues from across the globe, some of whom I was "meeting" for the first time.

I'm only able to attend ALA every few years when it rolls through Chicago, and this got me thinking about the recent push for virtual participation and my own mixed emotions on the subject. Plenty of commentators have pointed out the barriers to full participation in ALA (and other large associations) posed by requiring people to attend large expensive conferences twice a year, an argument to which I'm naturally sympathetic. Like most public librarians in the US, I've never had an employer who would, or could, fund national conference attendance. Now that I'm an independent, I generally only attend two national conferences (Computers in Libraries and Internet Librarian, both funded by Information Today, Inc. (ITI), because of my work with them) – and the occasional conference at which I'm an invited speaker.

Virtually the same?

So, I've been watching these moves towards virtual participation with great personal interest. During ALA Midwinter, for instance, I watched a good chunk of ALA-Library and Information Technology Association's (LITA) Top Tech Trends panel via streaming video on Ustream, and appreciated both the opportunity to watch and the opportunity to comment via live chat. The same as being in the room? No, but a good supplement to reading bloggers' post-conference recaps, which can't capture all the asides, facial expressions, or audience reaction.

Following conference events through FriendFeed, Flickr, Twitter, and other social networks also provides a way to tap into some sense of the immediacy of an event – so many comments and photos come through in close to real time, and the use of common tags (like cil2009) lets both attendees and virtual participants benefit from the wisdom of the conference "crowd".

I've also had the opportunity to give webinars and other virtual presentations, and always do these gladly – because doing so allows organizations to bring in a speaker without the added burden of paying travel costs, and allows attendees to participate without having to travel to a central location. Especially in the current economic climate, removing these sorts of barriers to participation becomes ever more important. When it's a question between virtual participation or no participation, the choice is simple!

Virtual reality

I'm decidedly in the camp that sees online communities as valid communities. I've been online and active in various communities in one form or another since 1985, and the interactions I've had online are as valid and "real" as any of my offline interactions. However, I'll freely admit that they're not the same as my offline interactions. While the ability to follow a conference virtually opens up opportunities to benefit and participate that simply didn't exist before, it doesn't open up the same opportunities as afforded by face-to-face interaction. There's a reason people still attend conferences, even people who are about as immersed in the online environment as it's possible to be.

While I do – and enjoy doing – virtual presentations, I find them more difficult and less fun than in-person talks, simply because you miss out on so much of the audience reaction and interaction. It's harder to avoid doing a canned speech online, and harder to avoid the feeling that you're simply talking to yourself. And, as a virtual attendee, I have a similar reaction from the other end – I find it much more difficult to pay attention to a screen than to a live speaker, and find myself multitasking (don't tell!) and sometimes missing chunks of information.

Virtual vacillation

Of course, my personal attention problems may be peculiar to me. (In all honesty, I multitask in conference sessions as well, but try to limit that largely to live blogging!) I wonder how much of the "different" in virtual participation is due simply to its being newer and therefore less familiar. I don't know how much I got out of my first ALA conference (being overwhelmed and not knowing anyone), but any conference is presently rewarding now that I'm into that conference groove – I know how they work, I know how to talk to people, I know how to maximize my time. I don't necessarily know how to maximize my virtual conference time, and think many of us are still feeling our way.

It's interesting also to think about the future potential of virtual worlds like Second Life as they become more widely used and accepted. The fuller immersion in (and necessary concentration to participate in) 3D virtual environments might make them a more viable alternative to face-to-face conference attendance. This, however, does present new technical barriers to inclusion, both because of the higher-end requirements of Second Life and because of the time involved in becoming familiar with the virtual environment.

Last year, I edited a manuscript on libraries in virtual worlds for ITI (Lori Bell and Rhonda Trueman (Eds.) (2008), Virtual Worlds, Real Libraries, ITI, NJ, see: http://books.infotoday.com/books/VirtualWorlds.shtml) that discusses a number of existing, and fascinating, virtual world projects – including the use of Second Life for meetings and discussions. Other resources for those thinking of planning an online meeting or encouraging virtual participation, include ALA-LITA's useful collection of resources on virtual meetings (see: http://wikis.ala.org/lita/index.php/EParticipation_Task_Force_Recommendations).

As of now (and as usual), I'm firmly in the camp of both/and – both virtual participation and face-to-face conferences have their place. I can easily envision ALA eventually moving to eliminate Midwinter and move to one annual conference – but can't envision it giving up conferences entirely. I can easily envision myself continuing to explore online participation and virtual extensions of physical conferences – but can't envision giving up the opportunity to travel, if I can. While the virtual doesn't replace the physical, it enhances what our associations and organizations can offer, and allows more librarians to connect to the larger community. That, in itself, is priceless.

Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster, LISjobs.com, author of What's the Alternative? Career Options for Librarians and Info Pros, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (www.lisjobs.com/blog/).