Saturday, 15 September 2012

Profession in crisis? Thing 15: Attending, presenting at and organising seminars, conferences and other events.

CILIP Career Development Group / North Wales Library Partnership joint event – January 2012, Llandudno Junction. Image © Stephen Gregory / CILIP CDG Wales, 2012.

The picture above, for me, recalls an excellent joint event hosted in North Wales in January 2012. I attended and spoke at this event, and it reminds me of the pleasures and perils of doing both. I found myself agreeing with so much provided within the brief for Thing 15 and its related links. Participating in professional development events, as delegate, speaker, chair or organiser really is so fulfilling, beneficial and invigorating. Consequently, my first attempt at this blog did little more than replicate the suggestions and experiences encapsulated in the brief. Little point in re-inventing the wheel!

However, I would agree with Katie Birkwood's comments that attendance at events is being increasingly jeopardised by the current economic situation. In my experience this really is becoming a significant factor to the viability of our professional events. Furthermore, in the absence of other activities, this affects the viability, vibrancy and raison d'etre of our formal professional groups. It seems to me that the impacts of the economic downturn on professional development are numerous, including:
  • from the employer / employee perspective:
    • depleted or non-existent training and development budgets
    • reduced staffing levels, meaning that: retained staff work to increased workloads; capacity for planned absence is reduced; ability to catch-up after absence, or to clear the decks prior to absence, are diminished.
    • Stagnation on the career ladder. There are fewer opportunities for promotion and advancement, meaning that staff loose motivation and enthusiasm for cpd. Staff new to a role will have greater need to attend formal CPD activities in order to aid their development for fitness to undertake the role effectively and fully.
    • Organisations are less likely to support professional development in its broadest contexts, favouring job-specific training only. This is in part because of training budget limitations, but also because of workload pressures and reduced capacity to sanction cpd absence.

  • From event providers' perspective:
    • Economic viability of events is being squeezed, leading to increasing likelihood of event cancellation.
    • Events become undertakings where the risks of financial and reputational disaster are too great. Can an organisation afford to loose money, or in effect subsidise events? Can organisations weather the potential for loss of credibility with poor attendance rates and perceived declining impact or professional value?
    • Events are not able to get off of the ground because the burdens of event organisation are too great for volunteer group committee members, especially given that support by their employees may be severely decreased.

There may be additional factors in some areas too. For instance, being based in Wales, where travel times from Bangor to Cardiff are at best half a day, we have significant problems of geography and costs associated with this (hotel fees, journey practicalities and time). However, in Wales geography can also be an issue for much more local destinations. Public transport routes between a location in one valley and a nearby location in another valley may be tortuous or non-existent. Video conferencing may be a solution, but as professional and social networking is such a valued feature of many meetings, can this be effectively replicated via a video-link?

How can some these barriers be overcome?
  • Collaborate or use partnerships for events! Use vibrant local groups to jointly host successful, well attended events. The North Wales Library Partnership was a superb group to collaborate with. In South Wales groups such as Cardiff Libraries in Co-operation are incredibly active, now run with very little financial assistance. Other local divisions or circles of CILIP's Special Interest Groups or your CILIP Branch may also be able to assist. In the case of Wales it may be more appropriate for us to collaborate with our neighbours in West Midlands, North West, or South West, because transport links make it as easy, or easier, to attend events in Birmingham, Hereford, Chester or Bristol. (It could work the other way around though couldn't it! Marketing events in Wales more actively to colleagues just across Offa's Dyke.)
  • Make events free / very low cost, and seek funding to cover costs via other routes. Grant funding, sponsorship, bursaries, awards, and dare I say, creative financing.
  • Where possible use central locations, with excellent public transport links, and if possible with addition attractions or benefits.
  • Plan well ahead and market your event extensively. Know your intended audience(s) and plan timing to maximise attendance. I consider timing to mean in this context two factors. Recognition of delegate availability (e.g. probably best not to run an event for academic library staff in late September or October). And also training budget cycles. When are training budgets set (April / August / January)?, and so when might chances for successful bids for expenditure from this budget be most successful? Remember that with some organisations expenditure for events that coincide with the end of a financial year, or which can be billed for in advance, using up residual funding in one year, to support CPD in the following, will be successful. Of course, if you are funding an event through means other than delegate charges, then this becomes less relevant, except where creative financing options may be considered.

Case Study

Walled Garden at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales
© Copyright Andrew Hill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

In the Spring 2012 I organised for CILIP Career Development Group in Wales, a one day event at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales with the Gardens' voluntary library manager. The day was planned to enable delegates to find out about:
  • botanical and horticultural information and library collections for these subject areas, including the delights of herbaria and seed banks;
  • implementation of Koha shareware library management system, and how to do this very successfully on a very small budget;
  • the use of volunteers within a library service; and
  • the Library's plans for the future.

I naively thought with that spread of fascinating and pertinent topics there would be significant interest from delegates. Unfortunately we had far too few bookings to make the event viable and so cancelled the event at one week's notice.

So what did I learn from this?
  • Sell-ability. Potential delegates may have found it difficult to convince their line manager that attending this event was good use of their time and would provide excellent returns for expenditure from the training budget
  • Affordability. If your employer wouldn't pay for your attendance, then the pricing was too high for self-funders (£40). If this is an option then delegates may also be burdened with using a day's leave and funding transport costs.
  • Geography. The Gardens are difficult to get to unless travelling by car. Public transport would have been viable, but the journey is time consuming and a further expense. (I'm not quite so convinced by this one. No one contacted me to see if lift-sharing was possible, or if a quicker connection from the local train station could be collectively organised.)
  • Increasing professional malaise or apathy? I hope not, but sometimes I can't help but suspect that this is the case.

What might be the way forward?

  • Technology - video conferencing / virtual meetings are proving to be a vibrant and low-cost means for providing cpd. But technology has it's limitations: uneven user demographic; barriers caused by the technology; the lack of “by chance”, face to face networking opportunities.
  • More local “live” networking events: pub meets, New Professionals meet ups; charity fund-raising initiatives.
  • Mentoring – mentees and mentors both gaining through formal planning, discussion and evaluation of professional development, job roles, professional issues etc.
  • CILIP Branch and Group Review. Changes to enable Groups and Branches to be more sustainable, but also more vibrant, creative, effective and supported.
  • Where geography allows, the formation of cross-sectoral local groups providing cpd events, forums for discussion and debate, library visits etc. Partnership working between groups of all different types, sharing the burdens and risks of running events, but also gaining through their collaborative muscle and reputation. For CDG Wales linking more directly with the Annual CILIP Wales Conference might be a good way of promoting the Group, increasing our membership and our activity levels.
  • Further exploration of alternative funding mechanisms and sources.

Regrettably, I don't have a prescription guaranteed to provide success. I do have ideas, enthusiasm and energy to support events, where and however I can. But what do you think?


  1. Shame about the Botanic Gardens - its a fascinating library and Margot a wonderful host. I remember from my time at CDG Wales how hard it was to predict popular events.

    I have very little opportunity to get out to things but what appeals to me most in the current climate are events on the key strategic themes we are dealing with: demonstrating value / impact, mobile, student voice / experience etc, It is also easier to sell the idea of attending these as there is a clear connection with our organisations strategy.

  2. Thanks for your really helpful ideas for CDG Wales events. I'll raise these with the committee. :-)

    Margot is amazing isn't she!!