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LibParlor Contributor Reflection

Future of the Library Annual Meeting: How Does Ithaka S+R’s “Future of the Annual Meeting” report compare to librarianship’s own pandemic conference shifts?

LibParlor contributors Jaci Wilkinson, Faith Bradham, Amanda Koziura, and Maura Seale unpack a recent Ithaka S+R's "Future of the Annual Meeting" report and compare it to ALA and ACRL's current practices.

Written by Jaci Wilkinson, Faith Bradham, Amanda Koziura, and Maura Seale (i.e. Librarians for Equitable Professional Development)

Jaci Wilkinson is the Head of Discovery and User Experience at Indiana University Bloomington Libraries and Executive Director of the data enclave CADRE.

Faith Bradham is a Reference & Instruction Librarian at Bakersfield college in Bakersfield, California. As a community college librarian, her role extends into reference, instruction, liaisonship, and outreach. Her research interests focus on critical librarianship and culturally inclusive teaching practices, She can be found on Twitter @faithbradham.

Amanda Koziura is the Head, Scholarly Communication and Data Services at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She brings to this new role a background in integrating digital scholarship into teaching and research and experience managing a digital scholarship center. She can be found on Twitter @amandaelaan.

Maura Seale is the History Librarian at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on critical librarianship, library pedagogy, political economy and labor in libraries, and race and gender in libraries. She is the co-editor, with Karen P. Nicholson, of The Politics of Theory in the Practice of Critical Librarianship (2018), and is also co-editing the forthcoming volume from ACRL Press, Creating Space for All Learners: Exploring Equitable and Inclusive Pedagogies.


On October 18, 2021, Ithaka S+R released “COVID-19 and the Future of the Annual Meeting” describing the results of a study about how COVID-19 impacted the 2020-21 meetings of thirteen US-based academic societies. The societies studied span STEM, social/behavior sciences, and humanities. As a academic librarian research group whose research focus lies in equity within professional development for librarians, we asked: How do the trends identified in this report compare to actions taken by librarianship’s largest professional organization, the American Library Association (ALA) and its largest division, Association College and Research Libraries (ACRL)? What are the implications of these actions (or inaction)? 

After examining recent budgets and communications, it seems librarianship’s largest organization is keen to return to in-person meetings and its accompanying revenues, with little big picture examination of what modalities work best for members and attendees. In the following post, we identify three key takeaways on 2020-21 academic society annual meetings from the Ithaka S+R report and compare these to the most recent ALA Annual Conferences as well as the most recent ACRL Conferences (which take place bi-annually).

Takeaway #1: Increased transparency

Ithaka’s report states that “one laudable effect of the pandemic is that societies are beginning to communicate the financial costs of meetings to members as part of their communication around plans to proceed with or cancel in-person meetings.” After investigating the ALA’s and communications surrounding finances and ALA Annual, as well as ACRL’s communications around their own conference, we found that, in contrast to many societies reviewed by Ithaka, neither the ALA nor ACRL have fostered public conversation amongst its membership about utilizing the COVID-19 pandemic as a catalyst for a larger discussion on the future of annual meetings and the potential benefits of virtual formats.

An internal budget memo from October 2021 showcases the ALA’s treatment of its annual conference as a revenue generator for the association. A $2.3 million decrease in net revenue was projected for the 2021 annual budget due to planning for a virtual conference instead of an in-person one. To offset the decrease, a plan to decrease membership dues by 30% was revised to 28%. There was no mention whether the modality of ALA’s annual meeting will impact its cost to attendees in the official statement announcing the online move despite growing criticism during and before the COVID-19 pandemic about the cost of ALA’s conferences. 

ACRL’s public-facing financial information for the ACRL 2021 conference highlights a similar focus on the conference as the main revenue generator for the division. When the 2021 Conference had to move online, a budget memo stated that overhead costs were reduced by 50%, while registration increased by 5.5% in comparison to ACRL 2019–the virtual conference was predicted to be a resounding financial success.

ALA & ACRL’s inaction on this matter contrasts significantly with the American Historical Association; the Ithaka report highlights that group’s decision to demonetize all virtual programming and offer it as a year-long series. Ithaka calls this decision “wildly successful” due to the high volume of views that programming received: a roughly 60% increase over the AHA’s most recent in-person meetings.

Takeaway #2: Registration costs & conference scheduling

Registration costs

The Ithaka report found that “Five societies specifically mentioned that they had reduced registration rates for their virtual meetings relative to the previous year.” Using the Wayback Machine, we compared registration rates from the last in-person ALA Annual meeting in 2019 to the two ALA Annuals since the pandemic began. For ACRL, we used the Wayback Machine to compare registration rates from the last in-person ACRL Conference in 2019 to the virtual ACRL Conference in 2021.

ALA Annual Meetings

MemberMembers who are furloughed/
Laid off/had a reduction in paid working hours
Other Member (Retired, Student, Life, Trustee, Non-Salaried, Support Staff)Non-MemberExhibits/
Library Marketplace
ALA 2019 (in-person)$385N/A$230$500$75
ALA 2020 (virtual)$175$0$95$250N/A
ALA 2021 (virtual)$205$0$115 ($59 for students)$285$79
Chart comparing the registration prices of ALA 2019, 2020, and 2021 annual meetings.

The most obvious change is between rates in ALA 2019 and in 2020 and 2021: ALA 2019 rates were nearly double the cost of 2020 and 2021 rates. It is interesting to note that even though ALA 2021 registration rates incorporated a more flexible sliding scale than 2020’s rates, the ALA 2021 rates increased in price from 2020 by $20-30, depending on category. No public information linked the registration decrease to a change of modality, the only reason given for the reduction was a recognition of financial hardships faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

ACRL Conferences

ACRL Personal MemberALA Personal MemberNon-salaried & retired ALA membersNon-MemberFull time library school student
ACRL 2019 (in-person)$519$619$229$719$160
ACRL 2021 (virtual)$329$399$169$439$129
Chart comparing the prices of registration for the 2019 and 2021 ACRL conferences.

While ACRL did reduce its pricing structure for the virtual conference in 2021 by nearly half in comparison to its pricing for 2019, it’s worth noting that the prices for non-salaried/retired ALA members and library school students only decreased by $60 and $31, respectively.

Scheduling

Ithaka’s report also concluded that despite the “financial and logistical constraints of physical gatherings, societies found opportunities to inject breathing room into their conference schedules.” 

ALA Annual also seems to have utilized “breathing room” in its schedule. Prior to 2020, ALA Annual employed a traditional in-person format that consisted of concurrent sessions over five days. In contrast, ALA 2020 and ALA 2021 had livestreams and on-demand sessions so attendees didn’t have to miss any sessions that took place concurrently. ACRL also held one of its bi-annual meetings in 2021 and used a combination of livestreams and on-demand sessions.

In 2019, ACRL had already implemented a virtual conference that gave the conference a bit of the “breathing room” mentioned above. Registrants for ACRL 2019 had free access to the virtual conference, with live sessions taking place in the 3 days before the in-person conference began. Registration also included free access to virtual content for a year, including slidecasts and electronic poster sessions. When the entire conference went virtual in 2021, the program consisted of a mix of semi-live and on-demand programs, interactive discussion groups, posters, and social networking. In contrast to the 2019 virtual conference, ACRL seems to have taken a step back as far as access to virtual content, as access to the ACRL 2021 virtual conference only lasted for 30 days from the start of the conference. 

Takeaway #2: Big picture reconsideration of future annual meetings

The final Ithaka takeaway that we compared to the ALA was: “Annual meetings are deeply rooted parts of the scholarly landscape but have struggled to evolve in tandem with the communities they serve. The pandemic has revealed the possibility of significant change, which should invigorate questions about the relationships between format and purpose.”

COVID-19 has forced a big picture reconsideration of the utility of professional annual meetings and conferences. But ALA, while continuing to move scheduled events online for the time being, seems eager to return to in-person meetings with no wide public discussion about “the relationship between format and purpose”. Indeed, ALA is increasing its roster of annual in-person conferences and in January 2022 held the first ever LibLearnX: The Library Learning Experience. Initially planned as an in-person event in San Antonio, TX, LibLearnX announced it would move online in September 2021. An October 2021 budget memo about the FY2022 budget states that as a result of the move online, LibLearnX “is now budgeted to net $160,000 whereas the in-person event had been budgeted a break-even”. This increase is not explained in publicly available budget information.

At a March 2021 meeting of the ALA Council, the elected Councilors were given the opportunity “to share preferences on the method of participation of the Council meeting in January 2022”. Only 12% of Councilors voted for the in-person format, but the minutes also note that the Executive Board will decide the modality of governance meetings, not Councilors themselves. A condition of service on ALA committees, a coveted political position within librarianship, is attendance at all scheduled meetings.  

Implications for librarianship

A 2021 paper (authored by our own research group, Librarians for Equitable Professional Development) surveying academic librarians described the difficulties in-person meetings present for attendees with disabilities, primary caregivers, rural librarians, and those without professional development support from their employers. Librarianship’s biggest conferences are prohibitively expensive for some librarians and create a “service ceiling” of haves (those who have the resources to attend) and have nots (the ones who stay home). Costs associated with in-person conferences (hotels, travel, cost wages, etc.) were described by surveyed librarians as often the most substantial burden. This service ceiling phenomenon for librarianship is especially harmful given the way that scholarly communication functions in our field–the huge amount of LIS scholarship presented and discussed at ALA Annuals and ACRL Conferences becomes essentially inaccessible for those unable to attend in-person conferences.

The Ithaka report echoes the findings of the paper above and describes that the cost of attending annual meetings in person “is a substantial burden” to some groups like graduate students and early-career professionals. Ithaka’s report describes other ways virtual meetings can benefit scholarly societies: 

  • Increased environmental sustainability. 
  • Potential to reevaluate toxic culture of annual meetings around sexual harassment, assault, unprofessional or misleading interviews with graduate students, and alcohol use.
  • Pushing academia to utilize more effective, relevant means of scholarly communication. 

Will the American Library Association use this moment to do as professional societies surveyed for Ithaka’s “Future of the Annual Meeting” report have and experiment with the annual meeting format? Two of the most significant experimentations seen by surveyed societies include lengthening schedules beyond the “standard long-weekend format” and “circulating recorded content in place of, or as a supplement to, broadcast of events”. Based on promotional material, ALA’s upcoming LibLearnX conference and annual meeting will try neither and both were planned as in-person meetings forced to move online. Similarly, ACRL’s upcoming Rare Books and Manuscripts Symposium scheduled for June 2022 was planned initially as an in-person only event to be held at Yale University and has yet to decide officially if its modality will change. 

Unlike professional societies across academia, librarianship’s most popular annual meetings are not using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to re-evaluate their form and purpose despite the mounting financial and ethical concerns that predate or have been exacerbated by the pandemic.


Featured image by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of the writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

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