Three suggestions for improving AALL program selection

The last week or so has seen a flurry of discussion about the AALL Annual Meeting's educational program and suggestions to improve it. I won't rehash the discussion here. Instead, have a look at:

To some extent I heartily agree and vehemently disagree with each in one way or another. Rather than pick apart what others have written, I'll simply offer my three suggestions on how AALL can improve the program selection process.

1) Create tracks by library typeThe idea of conference "tracks" has already been floated by many people over the years, and the Annual Meeting Program Committee (AMPC) already announced that the 2011 Annual Meeting will have six tracks for programming based on AALL's "Competencies for Law Librarians":

  • Library Management
  • Reference, Research and Client Services
  • Information Technology
  • Collection Development and Cataloging
  • Teaching
  • General or Core Programs

Problem is, every one of these tracks remains a one-size-fits-all approach, meaning programs related to providing reference service to public patrons at a court library will be on the same track as ones about service to attorneys in a law firm. As is often the case with the non-track approach to the Annual Meeting, many coordinators will still include both types of presentations in the same session as a way to spread their programs' appeal to a wider audience and increasing the likelihood of its acceptance by AMPC. Unfortunately, programs that try to meld disparate audiences become half as useful to their audiences.

Last year I moderated a program on adding Web 2.0 tools to the library catalog. The panel included both academic and firm librarians, each speaking on the tools used in their respective libraries. The academic librarians' portion of the session kept academics in the audience interested, but had little to no applicability to the firm audience. When the firm librarian spoke, the opposite was true, with firm librarians suddenly engaged and academic librarians uninterested.

While we are all law librarians and work with legal information resources, the truth is that crossover appeal between what we work on and are professionally interested in is rare. A commenter to Jason Eiseman's blog post about the programming debate wrote, "Personally, I find the sessions presented by law firm librarians to be above and beyond the best of the conference." With all due respect, she only feels that way because she is a firm librarian. I, personally, find those sessions to be sleep-inducing and think programs presented by academic librarians to be the best, but this has nothing to do with who the best presenters are. It's simply a reflection of our professional interests.

To summarize the problem with the Annual Meeting's programming as deficient in programs for firm librarians is myopic. The real problem is AALL's well-intentioned push to appeal to all of the people all of the time, which results in watered-down programming that has limited applicability to everyone but inspirational functionality for no one.

For these reasons, I don't see the six tracks announced for 2011 being a solution to the problem. They simply reshuffle the schedule without resulting in any difference in the programs themselves. Instead, the tracks need to be based, at least in part, on librarian types. This means a track for academic librarians, one for court librarians, another for firm librarians. But this doesn't solve every problem, as reference librarians in an academic environment have little in common with technical services librarians in the same institution, so these tracks need to be split into additional mini-tracks. In the end, we could continue splitting until there are 100 or more tracks, but even with only one or two splits, the tracks become far more applicable to individuals than the current ones. Does this mean more than six tracks? Yeah, probably, but maybe every track doesn't have to be represented in every time slot. Or maybe having more, smaller programs is a good thing. Convention center meeting rooms can usually be split into smaller rooms, right? Not every session has to have 100+ attendees to be valuable. I'd rather sit in a room with ten people discussing academic library reference and technology concerns than in a huge room with 150 people discussing non-specific reference and technology concerns.

I don't know exactly what the structure of this multi-layered track system would be or what the specific tracks are. All I know is, trying to appeal to everyone at once in the same program rarely results in information I can take back to my library and put into action. In order to be useful to anyone, the tracks need to focus first and foremost on the type of library attendees work for. Only then will all constituencies find applicable programming.

2) Replace the AMPC with a separate committee for each trackIf focusing program content on specific types of audiences is a desirable thing, it then follows that the content should be designed by the very people it is designed for. If there is a track for academic reference librarians (which is the category I fit into), the content should be solicited by, vetted by and scheduled by academic reference librarians. A committee made up of academic, firm, court and public librarians lacks in specialized knowledge what it gains in professional diversity. Instead, each of those librarian types should be involved in creating the track that fits their own qualifications and interests, not someone else's.

Under the current structure, where wide appeal is the goal, a committee with a sampling of all constituencies makes sense. With a move to specialized tracks, even the one announced for 2011, the committee makeup should shift to specialization as well.

Perhaps this would make AMPC membership less prestigious since there would be multiple committees instead of one centralized cabal, but firm librarians shouldn't be subjected to a program selected by academics and vice-versa. Embrace our differences and allow us to get the most out of the conference. This only happens if the committee itself reflects and embraces the differences, not through homogenization, but through specialized programming created by specialized committees.

Of course, the influence of the committees themselves becomes less important if we...

3) Crowdsource the program proposals within each trackIn the last year or so I've had a lot of private conversations about crowdsourcing AALL programming. One of the commenters to Jason Eiseman's post also mentioned this, citing the SXSW PanelPicker as a model. The extreme example of this would be to post every proposal online and allow the AALL membership to vote. The top vote-getters then become the educational program. This model is problematic because it allows the largest constituency to dictate the program, leaving little or no content for specialized groups. This would also probably lead to the same problem with the current program in which sessions with the widest possible appeal, and perhaps highest likelihood for being watered-down, receiving the most votes.

Another suggestion I've heard is having AALL crowdsource one session, perhaps posting all the remaining proposals after the rest of the program is selected, allowing the membership to vote for the last slot. I find this problematic on two accounts. First, it sends a message that AALL only views member preference as worthy of consideration for a single session, preferring the machinations of a committee working in secrecy over the voice of its members. Second, it makes all the rejected proposals public, subjecting AMPC to an onslaught of "How could you have picked this session over that one" complaints. Both of these would be valid complaints, but the ensuing chaos might lead to obnoxious flame wars that would annoy everyone but the rabble-rousers.

With program tracks defined by clear member constituencies, however, crowdsourcing becomes a workable option. If there is a track for firm librarians (or some sub-category therein) already defined with a set number of session slots, a proposal can be submitted to that specific track where it will be voted upon solely by firm librarians. Proposals for academic tracks would be voted upon solely by academic librarians. This ensures that each constituency gets a program that reflects its current interests and needs.

This doesn't mean AMPC (or the various tracks' AMPCs) doesn't have a role. Crowdsourced voting should be the top consideration in selecting a program, but scheduling, speaker availability and other issues will still have to be dealt with by the committee(s). Again, this might make AMPC a less prestigious committee appointment, but prestige shouldn't be why AMPC exists.

These three changes to program selection are not small. They would involve major alterations to how the Annual Meeting's content is selected, requiring personnel, administrative and technological overhauls to be implemented. So what? AALL is our organization, and if we don't shape it and the Annual Meeting into something that meets our needs, we have no one to blame but ourselves. This is really just an "off the top of my head" summary of various conversations I've had over the last year, so it's by no means intended as an end all, be all solution. Your mileage will vary. But hopefully as more people enter the conversation and the various suggestions are weighed, we can come up with something that results in a more valuable Annual Meeting for everyone.