What’s so exciting about hosting a conference?

What’s so exciting about hosting a conference?
Danuta A. Nitecki
July 7, 2017

The Drexel Libraries is coming down from its high of hosting an international conference in June.  

The international Evidence-Based Library and Information Practice conference is not organized by an association or otherwise formal entity. Rather a group of like-minded enthusiasts interested in evidence based practices have issued, for nearly two decades, the biannual calls inviting bids to pitch a hosting organization and geographic venue. When invites crossed a few Drexel email boxes, most of us deleted them and wished the organizers well.

EBLIP9 attendees look at the poster presentations during the conference. However, one of the Drexel Libraries directors raised the idea to host the conference with the senior leadership group. An almost uniform response was, “Do you have any idea what it takes to do this?” He admitted he didn’t know what to expect but was willing to learn by doing—a common Drexel trait. I agreed to co-chair the conference’s local organizing committee with him to give moral support as a colleague and to share some experiences I’ve had with conference planning in the past.

[Photo: EBLIP9 attendees chat with poster presenters during the conference.]

We researched costs, identified venues and pulled together a well-illustrated proposal that had us imagining what it must be like to pitch the honor of hosting the Olympics – as we confidently argued that Philadelphia is the convention town and the University would be honored to conduct most of the events in no-cost spaces within one of our newest and most spectacular campus buildings. 

We filed the proposal the night before Thanksgiving Day and were ecstatic when word came a few weeks later that we won the bid! And thus work began to deliver on our promises and respond to a few unexpected surprises, including protests of boycotts over the US travel ban with cancelled speakers and presenters. But nearly 150 attendees from over eight countries arrived. They were eager to hear the presenters and keynote speakers, view posters and pick up new ideas throughout the three-day visit. Informal socializing opportunities were organized during breaks on campus, as well as in Center City at a reception and a gala dinner with dancing.

Canadian colleagues with an international group of reviewers handled the peer review of papers and posters and negotiated the keynote speakers. Help from Drexel campus units gave many a hand at critical moments and volunteer stations. Everything went beautifully and we heard nothing but compliments.

By the end of this intense time and with new-found friends, I began to wonder, “What excites library staff to do this?” Here I share five answers to the question from different perspectives as I realized that these apply not just to conference planning but to life in libraries anytime, or at least here at Drexel.

1.       Commitment to continue a worthwhile program.  None of us at Drexel involved with the conference had ever experienced an EBLIP conference. Learning about this specialized but broadly applicable approach to using data for decisions resonated with other work many of us do, and the opportunity felt like a perfect match to support our professional values.

2.       Not as bad as we thought. In retrospect, members of the Local Arrangements Group – and particularly its chair – realized that what seemed to be overwhelming last year wasn’t so bad after all. A “can-do” attitude goes a long way in making the huge tasks manageable.

3.       Bringing people together makes it all worthwhile. We were told that the conference traditions called for dancing at the gala dinner. But after the food was served and eaten, no one was on the dance floor as the DJ spun his tunes.  Several local volunteers rose to the occasion and started a conga line that restored the tradition. They ended their task by sitting down and watching the merriment and giggles on the dance floor. One Drexel planner said, “This is what makes it all worthwhile—bringing happy folks together.”

4.       Feeling appreciated goes a long way to happiness. At the closing event, different conference organizers gave thanks on behalf of the attendees with lovely comments and gifts. Even though perhaps expected, these were very well appreciated when stated publicly.  Then the totally unexpected and unsolicited comments took feelings of appreciation over the top. Tweets and Peter Gatit, one of the conference scholarship winners (left), and Danuta Nitecki, co-chair of the local organizing committee (right), pose for a photo during EBLIP9. in-person comments shared such phrases as, “This is the best conference I’ve ever attended.” A scholarship winner from another continent asked to have his picture taken with organizers and excitedly sent the photo with his conference report to colleagues back home. The following week at the American Library Association’s annual conference, I was sitting at a luncheon hosted by a big international vendor, and a library director came to me and asked if Drexel had not just hosted a conference. When I acknowledged EBLIP9, he shared that a staff member attended it and told him with much enthusiasm how great the experience was. As I shared these various expressions with staff involved with the conference planning, the smiles and joy that came over their faces reminded me how the little comments sometimes come with the biggest rewards.

[Photo: Peter Gatit (left), one of the conference scholarship winners, and Danuta Nitecki (right), co-chair of the local organizing committee, pose for a photo during EBLIP9.]

5.       Bringing pride to Drexel. One attendee – only after the conference – sent a note identifying himself as a Drexel alum. He shared his pride of being associated with the institution that hosted the conference, and that bond brought pride to the rest of us as well.

Yes, it is a lot of work to host a conference, but the results are hard to get all together through any single other project. Our new fiscal year begins this week amidst numerous changes and new challenges, but with a special spirit the EBLIP9 conference brought us—that with the right idea to get behind, with our can-do attitude, and with joy in bringing benefit to others—the Drexel Libraries staff can tackle anything.  

Thank you to the EBLIP community for giving us the chance to realize these basic principles and to colleagues on campus and around the city for working with us to have made the conference happen.

Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries