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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 20

From Battle Decks to Pecha Kucha – or, what's up with professional conferences?

Instalment 19 discussed some lessons drawn from this year's ALA (American Library Association) Annual conference – a convention from which I learned a lot, even though I didn't actually attend. Here, I want to talk a bit more about the ways in which professional conferences are evolving to battle for our increasingly fragmented attention. In an era where even reading a short online column takes a bit of concentration (Hey! I saw you click away!), where are we headed? And why might it be worth your while to check out some of these odd-sounding events at your own conferences?

Battle Decks

I saw my first Battle Decks competition at an Information Today conference, but now even large organizations like the American Library Association are jumping on the concept ( Here's the idea: several presenters battle it out as they are challenged to give a coherent presentation, given a random theme and a random unrelated set of PowerPoint slides they've never seen before – in front of an often-rowdy audience and a panel of judges.

Most of you can probably think of quite a few things you'd rather do than get up in front of an audience and perform library-related improv. But, as you watch a Battle Decks presentation, try to forget about the public speaking aspect of it for a moment and think about the connections you'd make and what you'd have to say about the same topic and slides. Recent articles argue that librarians' unique strength lies in their abilities as integrative thinkers (see "What makes us professionals? From the Bell Tower"), bringing together different kinds of knowledge in order to quickly assist those in different fields and with various kinds of requests. Our conference presentations too seldom display this type of integrative thinking, but Battle Decks demand it, even in the playful and sometimes goofy spirit of these events. So beyond the obvious entertainment value, Battle Decks hits on some core elements of our profession and demands that participants demonstrate the ability to bring in their previous background and think quickly on their feet – good qualities for any information professional.

Pecha Kucha and the backchannel

Pecha Kucha panels, a Japanese term meaning "the sound of conversation", have also become popular at a number of events. At a Pecha Kucha presentation, a number of presenters each run quickly through their slides (one popular timing being 20 slides and 20 seconds per slide). Time limits are strictly enforced, and these sorts of lightning sessions are meant to force presenters to focus on their core messages and get their point across with a minimum of extraneous information. Some conventions use a similar format called "lightning talks" that consist of a number of sequential five-minute (or so) presentations within a single conference time slot.

Pecha Kucha demands unprecedented focus from its presenters, but also plays to its audience's continuous partial attention in the Internet age. When we're used to getting short bits of information online, when we can disengage from any event via laptop or smartphone or iPad, the concentrated burst of information in a Pecha Kucha event helps draw its audience in and demands their attention.

Ubiquitous Internet allows us to disengage from less-than-engaging presentations, but also allows us to engage with both presenters and audience members in new ways. Smart and social media savvy presenters deliberately engage with the backchannel, or the ongoing online conversation about an event, by posting a suggested twitter hashtag and responding to the conversation in real time. When technology allows, some presenters even display the live backchannel conversation on a separate screen. This encourages the entire audience to engage and helps integrate the online conversation with the real-time presentation – again, that integrative thinking at work!

What's next?

Apparently I live in the online equivalent of a cave, because I never until recently heard of such a thing as South by Southwest's (SXSW) PanelPicker ( Here, potential presenters submit their ideas, and the community votes (and is free to comment) on those they feel will be the best fit for the event. The community's input counts towards, but doesn't entirely determine, the final slate.

The PanelPicker is a two-step online system that allows the SXSW community to have a significant voice in programming interactive, film, and music conference activities (panels, presentations, discussions, demonstrations, etc.) for 2011. Step one encourages the community to submit proposals for programming at SXSW. Step two allows the community to browse all of these ideas – and rate which of these proposals they think are the best fit for the March event.

Fascinating! How different might our conferences look if some of our programmes were voted on by the community rather than scheduled by conference planners and committees? Would the topics differ, faces differ, level of participation differ?

Step out of your comfort zone

What's interesting in watching events like Battle Decks and Pecha Kucha is that they tend to attract many of the same presenters (and even the same audience members) across conferences. Why is this – why do so few people seem to be interested in trying out one of these new types of conference events?

At ALA, this in part involves the inherent attenuation of information in a conference of this size. But at smaller conferences, funny-sounding names and an emphasis on participation can also scare off new conference goers, as well as those who have an idea on how their conferences "should" go that doesn't necessarily match up with the unscripted nature of these types of events. Further, these type of less standard events can seem like "in-group" events in the same way that lobbycon (the ad-hoc conversational groups in the hotel lobby) and some of the other in-between, unscheduled connections at conferences often appear to be.

It's worthwhile, however, to break out of your comfort zone and give it a chance – just as it's worthwhile to join the backchannel conversation and the after-hours conversation at lobbycon or the hotel bar. Not all of us will battle it out in Battle Decks, but all of us can contribute to the conversation and to these alternative events in our own ways, and all of us can use new ways of integrating our conference experiences, online experiences, and own background.

Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster,, author of What's the Alternative? Career Options for Librarians and Info Pros, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (