How to Build a Conference

This past spring I spent countless hours working on a little gathering called the Symposium on LIS Education. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the symposium was a small, if enthusiastic conference that, this past spring, was the first student-organized and led conference on LIS education to take place at the University of Illinois. It started with a group of determined individuals (myself included) and a collection of questions and ideas very similar to those that drive Hack Library School: How can students take more ownership of their education and experiences? Are student voices being heard enough and, if not, how can we change that? Can we give students a platform to think critically about LIS education, what it is and isn’t, and what we’d like it to be?

Amazing planning committee is amazing!

Amazing planning committee is amazing! L to R: Alice Mitchell, Sarah Crissinger, Kate Rojas, Madison Sullivan, Jamie Wittenberg, Sveta Stoytcheva, keynote speaker (and HLS alum) Brianna Marshall, and me!

Cut to several months later and we were talking through the opening session of our conference: a student-led two-day event with keynote speakers, unconference sessions, presentations, and full virtual-attendee participation support. It was an incredible, consuming, at-times-frustrating, amazingly worthwhile experience. At times library school can feel very in-the-weeds, theoretical, and heavy. There is *nothing* like planning a conference to really get into the thick of *doing,* of planning something and then watching it unfold over months into something that is alive and producing its own amazing things. Others have written insightful and engaging posts on the symposium and their involvement in it, so I will try not to duplicate their thoughts. My goal for this post is to turn some of the things I learned from this process into concrete advice for other students planning conferences, events, or other ventures. I hope they help!

Get yourself a great team. This can be hard, but it is key! You want folks who are passionate about making the event happen *and* about the ideas behind the event. You also want people who have the time to commit to your venture – people often have good intentions when they say they’ll get involved, but they need to really assess what level of involvement they have time for. Being a part of a planning committee definitely takes over your life for large chunks of time! Another key aspect is making sure people are playing to their strengths. Divide up the work and regularly check in to see if people need help with their tasks; also, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel overwhelmed!

It is all about the planning. Start thinking as far ahead of time as you can about all sorts of things. Think big picture – what kind of issues/topics/questions are you trying to engage with? – and small picture – do you need to provide food? (The answer is always “yes” to that last one.) The more you can plan up-front, the better. So much of this is time-restricted – you can’t really plan the food until you know how many people will be there. And your attendance list can also affect considerations like which venue you should use (unless you just put a cap on registration). Lots of things to consider! The earlier you start having regular planning meetings, the earlier you’ll think of all kinds of things that need to be taken care of.

Funding is something that should be considered early in the planning process. Even if you think your event is “low budget,” you’d be surprised at how quickly small costs add up. Consider whether you want to take donations (and if so, what mechanism will easily allow that). Consider whether or not you will charge for registration/attendance (and what this will mean for access and your attendance figures – we did not charge for registration, but we also had some no-show registrants…). Think about who you’re willing to take funding from and what that will mean for your event. We wanted to remain fairly independent from our graduate school, funding-wise, and tried to raise most of our funds elsewhere. Also, consider how you will keep track of funding that come in, funds that are spent, and individuals who need to be reimbursed. Designating someone as treasurer is advised!

Consider how you will spread the news about your event (again, as early as possible). If you have a call for proposals, consider the venues you will need to distribute it (listservs, social media, etc.). Think about social media early – get a Twitter going, or at the very least a hashtag. Also, I would *highly* recommend setting up an email address specifically for the event. Make sure it is checked regularly and responses are sent in a timely manner. Lastly, consider whether or not you need a website (you almost certainly do). Consider whether or not your event needs its own Code of Conduct (always a good idea, in my opinion). And consider how your registration forms/communications with attendees will insure that people are aware of your Code of Conduct and any other considerations they need to be aware of about your venue, location, etc.

Oh my – designate someone to be the coordinator of technology from the very beginning. And then spend the entire time showering that person and their team (yes, they should have a team) with praise, gratitude, and candy. Our conference featured virtual presenters *and* attendees; the entire tech part of the conference was managed by Kate Rojas and we all constantly reiterated to ourselves and others that the digital aspects of the conference would not have been possible without her. If you don’t have a tech person on your team, try to get one, or at the very least look into IT support options through your institution.

Have a plan for this! You should have all large orders placed well in advance for things like coffee, pizza, and anything else that needs to be *made.* Snack items and drinks can also be bought in advance (a few days before the event). An individual person should also be the coordinator for this – it doesn’t seem like much at first but it turns out to involve a *lot* of time and planning.

Pick a place (based on all of your planning efforts) and then contact someone who can give you all the info you need about planning an event there. There are tons of little details you won’t think of that they will: can you empty the trash cans more often, as needed; do you need special permission to open the building early or keep it open late; is there a kitchen area where you can store and prep food? Find the person that can answer these questions and then ask them what other considerations you should keep in mind – they will absolutely have things for you to think about.

You may end up wanting to invite speakers/keynotes. This can be tricky, especially for student-organized events, mostly because of funding. My advice? Develop a short-list of people whose goals/ideals/professional practices seems to reflect the values/ideals/goals of the event. Contact them with a short initial email – explain the event and express your interest in their participation. If they respond favorably then send a polite but direct email, explaining what you can offer – maybe you can cover lodging, but not transportation, or maybe you can offer both (or neither). Be up front, explain that you are student-led (and what that means, funding-wise), and reiterate your interest in their participation. And then hope for the best! Lots of LIS professionals have some travel funding, and can contribute towards their attendance. Worst case scenario: they have to turn you down. But hopefully you’ll find some folks who will be happy to contribute towards what you are doing.

Think about what you want the outcomes/outputs to be from your event. Do you want it to come to a close at the end of the event? Do you want abstracts/papers/slides/recordings to be available after the event? How will you host these things? What life (if any) will they have after the event? Have you obtained consent from the speakers/attendees/anyone else? These are all things to consider as early as possible so that you can plan for them *before* the event even starts.

General/Overall Considerations
Basically, just plan as much as you can. But also, know that some of your plans will fall through. Flight cancellations will take away one of your speakers. You will have no-shows. Technical issues may arise! Know that no matter how much you plan something will catch you off-guard, but you will be OK. It will not be the end of the world! Now go forth and make the change!

Have you ever planned a large event? If so, what advice do you have for others? If not, what questions do you still have after reading this post?


7 replies

  1. Very cool! Organizing even a small conference is quite a feat. As someone who will be starting at GSLIS this summer through LEEP, I’m curious to know whether you’ll be hosting the conference again next year.


    • Goodness! So sorry for the tardy reply (was out of the country)!

      We (the current organizers) almost all graduated this past May. Thus, we would *love* future GSLIS students to continue hosting the conference, but it is largely out of our hands. We also talked about the conference rotating between institutions, similar to BOBCATSSS (in Europe), but who knows…


  2. Pingback: Moving On | hls

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