How to Hack the Academic Conference

Planning Quasi-Con

This post was collaboratively written by Quasi-Con planners and School of Information Master’s candidates Kelly Davenport, Peter Timmons, Ilana Barnes (ALA chapter president), Kim Miller (vice president), Katy Mahraj (treasurer), Ryan Clement (webmaster), and Mariah Cherem (social media coordinator).

The DIY Library Conference: A Quasi-Guide

It was an experiment.

When Ilana Barnes pitched the idea of a student-led library conference at the University of Michigan School of Information (SI) during her tenure as ALA Chapter president, she chose the following theme: “The Future of Libraries?!”

Ultimately, we didn’t need the question mark. More than 70 students, professionals, and alumni gathered in January for the first Quasi-Con, a hybrid unconference and professional conference. We’re here to tell you how we organized it, and why we think you should plan your own Quasi-Con, in three easy steps.

Step 1. Dream It: Or, Quasi-What?

It’s a truism at SI that students here need to be “comfortable with ambiguity.” Quasi-Con was an experiment – and one that seven SI students planned in six weeks. We started with what we knew:

  • We wanted to give students a low-pressure chance to present their work to a library-friendly audience.
  • We didn’t want to put anyone to sleep – fewer “talking heads,” more dynamic discussions.

So we put the two ideas together and made a Quasi-Con. The morning would be an unconference; the afternoon a scheduled set of lightning talks and presentations.

Peter Timmons, one of our planners, designed a logo to embody Quasi-Con's quirky, informal ethos.

We formed a steering committee to join the ALA officers in planning – what we now consider a key step in producing the event, as it allowed a small group of us to focus entirely on Quasi-Con while the officers helped juggle other activities.

Then we got to work.

Step 2. Plan It: Timing, Money, and the Nitty-Gritty

Each planner played to his or her strengths, grabbed a piece of the event, and shepherded it through to the end. Marketing and fundraising were key components.

Marketing: We reached out to the professional community of public, academic, special, and school librarians through our personal networks and with the help of faculty, extending invitations for a handful to join us as special guests. We wanted to show respect for the collective expertise around us while also cultivating interest and buy-in from professionals. The rest of our outreach centered on staying in touch with SI students and nearby Wayne State University through listserv posts and social media.

Fundraising: ALA Treasurer Katy Mahraj put together a budget, broken into categories of anticipated income (registration fees of $5 a person – and sponsorship) and anticipated expenditures (food, venue, multimedia, marketing, printing, parking, and swag). A tip: Search online for free budget templates and then play with the numbers in Excel.

Next, she headed to the SI development representative for guidance on identifying and contacting sponsors. The letter to sponsors spelled out the value of our event, the number of predicted attendees, and opportunities for the sponsor to gain props for their support. The contribution of our sponsor, Gale Cengage Learning, helped pay for most of our expenditures. We featured their logo on our conference materials, and a company representative attended as a special guest. We were thrilled at the support shown by our university and professional community, and surely could not have pulled it off had we not asked for help.

Step 3. Do It: Live-Tweeting, and Lessons from an Unconference

We knew the unconference would be organic, but we wanted to ensure success by putting together a plan to guide the morning. So, we wrote a minute-by-minute outline for the day’s proceedings.

For the morning unconference, we asked participants to break into small groups and write down and discuss provocative questions and topics related to current issues in librarianship.  We took their ideas, jotted on sticky notes, and displayed them throughout the day for everyone to read – our “quasi” art installation. This brainstorming task stimulated discussion and generated excellent unconference topics in just 20 minutes’ time.

We also encouraged everyone to live-tweet with the hashtag #quasi12, and streamed their tweets on a ticker in the main event room. These tweets and photos crowd-sourced a record of the day’s thoughts, humor, and happenings that we later collected and republished using the social media curation tool Storify. (Read the stories here and here.)

Takeaways and Advice

There’s so much more to say – and we encourage anyone to contact us with questions! – but we’ll end with a few reflections on what we learned and what we’d like to do better next time.

  • Asynchronous collaboration is your friend. Our team of seven planners was never in the same room together until after the event, when we met to debrief. We met regularly in smaller teams, with ALA chapter president Ilana acting as the go-between. We used Google docs to share ideas and keep track of to-do lists.
  • Communication with presenters and special guests is key. Next time, we would start planning earlier to finalize the schedule sooner for presenters’ benefit.
  • Make your event modular and scalable. We started this process thinking 30 people would come. We had more than 90 register, leading to some last-minute rejiggering for rooms and food. Think about how your event can expand or contract to be flexible.
  • Trust in experiments! On feedback forms, participants consistently rated the unconference one of their favorite parts of the event. The discussions were fresh and authentic, and invited us to step out of the student role and into the role of librarian, to try on our new professional identities and hone ideas.

Uncertainty – about being a student, about where we fit into a rapidly changing profession – can feel intimidating. But we drew inspiration from the DIY spirit and worked to create a simple yet meaningful experience that challenged all of us to stretch, dream, and claim a little piece of the future.

Do you have experience attending or hosting a student-run conference at your school? Tell us about it!

Read more about Quasi-Con on our website, Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook.

8 replies

  1. Hey UMSI Quasi-Con planners! First of all, I’m so glad you shared your conference planning experience on HLS. I was involved with planning the 4th annual Society of American Archivists-Student Chapter conference for students and new professionals this year at Indiana University-Bloomington so it’s great to be exposed to what other library students are doing in this role. Our conference (‘Back to the Future’: Reconciling the Past, Present, and Future in Archives and Special Collections) took place the first weekend in March here at IU-B. Unfortunately that was the same weekend that tornadoes ripped through Southern Indiana/Kentucky/etc… quite a few of our presenters were traveling from the south so our conference was smaller than expected, though I think we had around 50 people registered originally and 16 presenters. We charged $30 for registration and provided breakfast Saturday and Sunday and lunch on Saturday. We also gave tours of libraries, museums and archives on the IU-B campus in between presentations. While our two conference committee co-chairs handled a lot of the details pertaining to the conference, the rest of the committee helped manage catering, moderating, and social media.

    I’m looking forward to taking on a larger role in planning next year’s conference; I’d especially like to do a better job using social media to attract attendees. I decided to create a Twitter account for us but it never really got off the ground because neither the committee members nor the attendees used Twitter. I also like your idea of experimenting with a less traditional conference model and finding sponsors to help defray costs.

    Thanks for sharing! And if you host another conference be sure to send an invite to IU students; I guarantee some would make their way up to Ann Arbor to attend!


    • Hey Brianna:
      I’m the aforementioned Ilana in the post! Thanks for your comment! This is exactly what we were hoping would happen, library students comparing conference planning. Magic!

      Weather! It is isn’t mentioned in the post (so few things can be covered in 1000 words) but one of the largest snowstorms that hit Ann Arbor this winter happened the night before quasi-con, taking our numbers down from 90-70. In some ways as a planner, this was large relief for me as really 90 was pushing the capacity of our event (originally planned to be much smaller), which I suppose is the best sort of problem.

      In terms of social media, we already had a twitter account but the hastag was really the thing that brought it together in terms of the event (the work of the wonderful Mariah). We also had a computer set up as a guest account so people could tweet their thoughts even if they had never tweeted before. There were moments throughout the day where a person would stop what they were doing, talk to the back of the room and tweet something. A large ticker was set to the hastag in our main conference room, which really was just plain fun and wonderful. In terms of social media for marketing, we did have a facebook event for the event but I think the best way to market was our posting across campus (which encouraged an interdisciplinary crowd) especially in libraries and public spaces. We also planned quasi-con to happen the same week as ALA Midwinter, marketing our conference towards the many librarians who could not afford to fly to Texas but still wanted to be part of the dialogue.

      I did hear about your conference and loved the theme! Our SAA chapter is looking to get involved with quasi-con so it should be more archivy next year! I will be sure to pass IU’s interest to our quasi-planners for next year. We had the Wayne State library students there and it was really a lot of fun to compare notes! We didn’t really reach out far because of our timidness (it really was an experiment in so many ways), but IU would be a great addition next year.


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