organizing Access 2011 – how we done it good

I’m exhausted and thrilled that we pulled off an awesome Access conference. I normally hate the “how we done it good” posts and presentations, but I think we did a great job. Here’s a brain dump of some of what we did and my thoughts on why we made some of the decisions we did for future conference organizers.

Pick a good team

We had an awesome team of 7 eight people. I quickly reworked the Vancouver code4lib proposal and got some other people from other institutions to put their name on it. Once we were awarded the conference I put together the organizing team with a few people I knew I wanted to work with, then we collectively picked a few more people. There were two rules in adding people to the group: do they get stuff done? are they drama free? I’ve organized a lot of events, but this was my first library conference. This was the most functional and fun group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.

While we each had areas we were responsible for, we updated and got feedback from each other. It was the best of both worlds–we all felt empowered to make decisions and get stuff done, but also benefited from the support and input from everyone else. Most of us communicate in similar ways and preferred to use email. We met in person once a month. It was challenging to keep our face-to-face meetings moving forward, as most of us have strong personalities and most people are detail oriented. One person said that they normally hate meetings, but always looked forward to our monthly meetings. This was deeply satisfying for me, as the majority of my work meetings are inefficient as they take the most ineffective person as the lowest common denominator.

One of my hidden agendas was to develop more of local systems community and to get to know some people who I admire. I achieved this and developed some friendships with people I only knew professionally. Now when I need to call this guy, with questions about CONTENTdm, we are no longer just faceless email addresses at different institutions.

Know your audience

Access is my favourite library conference because it’s my favourite people in libraries: geeky, creative, generous problem solvers. These folks are passionate about libraries, sharing, learning, teaching and not afraid of failing or breaking things. These are people who delight in rolling up their sleeves and helping out and getting stuff done. I know that some things that are important to this group include: good wireless (including free wireless in the hotel rooms), somewhere to charge their devices in the conference and tasty food and beer. We chose to DIY many things to save money, so we could spend the majority of the budget on good food at the conference hotel and good local beer and tasty food at the social events. After all, the best conversations often happen over good food and drink.

No swag but stickers

We went back and forth on conference swag and decided not to have a bag of paper stuff that most of us usually throw out. We didn’t want to waste time making these bags and we think they are wasteful. This made it a bit tricky when soliciting sponsors, but many companies, organizations and libraries generously sponsored us anyway.

Emily Carr design students Jack Curtis and Brian Tong developed an awesome brand for the conference. Part of the brand was an avatar that we turned into stickers for attendees. They also made custom avatars for each of the speakers that were used on the website, as introduction slides for each session, and turned into stickers as part of the speaker’s gifts (or gifs as someone quipped on Twitter). Both of these were a huge hit and it made me really happy to see the stickers on people’s laptops and on their online profiles. This was better (and cheaper) than making ugly t-shirts. They gave their brand to the Access community. I need to chat with them about how they want to license it, if they want to write a brand standards guide, and figure out where we should put the files.

Social events

Photo credit: BigD on Flickr

Most people at Access are a bit shy and introverted, so having structured social events makes it easier for people to interact and connect with people. Alcohol also helps as social lubrication. I was worried for the first bit of the karaoke event, as there were only about 40 people in a room that was too big. Normally when I plan public parties, how many people come is a measure of success. However in this case, the attendees were so awesome that they decided to give ‘er, get up and sing and at one point, there were a bunch of people dancing. (We also realized that there were 3 kegs of beer that needed drinking and decided not to charge for beer–free as in beer.) It turned out to be one of the most epic library social events I’ve ever been to. Look and see for yourself.


I’m really proud of the program that we put together. The theme was “the library is open” so it made sense to do an open call for submissions. We considered what people proposed as well as what we knew about their presentation skills. We were reluctant to give people who are doing cutting edge work but have weak presentation skills, a full 45 min session. We had 3 sessions of lightening talks and encouraged some of the people to do that instead. Access is a technical conference. One of the proposals talked about Solr as being a “new and exciting technology”. Solr is rad, but it was new to libraries about 5 years ago.

Some of my favourite sessions were from people outside of libraries: Heather Piwowar and Kimberly Christen. We collectively decided we wanted to introduce the Access group to local Vancouver people who were doing amazing things, like Jon Beasley-Murray and Andrea Reimer. I met Jer Thorp when he was an artist-in-residence at Emily Carr. Many people said that Jer’s talk was one of the best talks ever at Access and I’d agree.

One of my other not-so-secret agendas was to be mindful of women’s representation on the program. Access 2010 in Winnipeg had 4 female speakers out of a total of 23 (17%) and Access 2009 in PEI had 5 female speakers out of a total of 23 (22%). We did slightly better with 8 of the 29 speakers (28%), which still isn’t great. We need to do better. I invited two women who hadn’t submitted proposals to speak. I explained to them at the conference that I didn’t want them to feel tokanized, as they are working on amazing projects and doing cutting edge work in the sphere of library technology. It was awesome to hear that the Hackfest was close to 50% women. Simply counting the number of women on a conference program is a crude measure of participation, but is an important one nonetheless. We talked about this at the pub and agreed that we need to get more women coding, but we also need to incentivize other types of participation in open source library projects.

My last agenda was to encourage more collaboration between the Koha and Evergreen communities. There was strong representation from the Sitka and KCLS (BC and Washington state installations of Evergreen) as well as someone from Bywater Solutions (Koha) and Chris Cormack, one of the first Koha developers from New Zealand. There were 3 sessions related to open source ILSes and quite a bit informal conversation.

Create ways for people to participate

For me, being able to actively contribute something to an event is more satisfying for me than just passively attending. Most of the Access folks are like this too. Amy Buckland organized a panel on library fail, then invited other people to share their fail stories. This was excellent warmup for the Ask Anything session, that Dan Chudnov started at code4lib. Brian Owen, the convenor for Ask Anything, described the session as part Craigslist (have equipment to get rid of, need a specific driver?), part Trivial Pursuit and part speed dating. He compared himself to a cable access channel 4am host of some game show. It was excellent. The lightening talks and hackfest report sessions were also great and it was nice to see new people get up and do their first short presentation at Access.

Amy Buckland did live note taking, which will be useful for people who need to write conference reports. Declan became the unofficial conference photographer and also offered to help archive the live stream video. 3 people responded to my tweet asking for help with Illustrator. It was very easy to find volunteers to lead groups to various restaurants. When the morning finished 30 minutes early and lunch wasn’t quite ready, we threw in an impromptu lightening talk session and a few people got up and spoke. Peter Binkley started a Google doc to document the history of past conferences, within a few hours, most of the basics had been fleshed out.

We also invited people from our institutions and from the wider library community in the Lower Mainland to do speaker introductions. This was a way for us to involve people who may not have attended the conference (and to have them hear some of the issues that we think are important) and to give some of our bosses a useful role that didn’t require much of their time.

Software tools to make your life easier

  • Eventbrite – the fees are worth the time and hassle you’ll save in managing registration and processing money
  • GroupMe was a good way for all of us organizers to keep in touch during the conference
  • Google Docs – we put all of our planning docs here, which will make it easy to hand off to the next organizing committee

If you were at Access, please fill out the feedback form. I’d love to hear what you thought worked, and what we could have improved on.

7 thoughts on “organizing Access 2011 – how we done it good”

  1. Great summary, Tara. It will be obvious to anyone who knows or has worked with you that the success of this conference was also due to your leadership, convictions, and seeing opportunities in a fresh, creative way. So, add to this post: Have a Strong Team Leader. You were all that and more.

    Also having fun can’t be stressed enough. It was key to being a productive and motivated group. No one begrudged the meetings or the work that followed.

  2. oh gosh, you’re sweet shlew.

    another subpoint under having fun, i think all of the organizers had fun (and partied and napped) during the conference too.

  3. I’d add get lots of volunteers, keep them informed and appreciate them. For library school students, besides the obvious opportunities a conference provides to meet employers, it’s also our opportunity to demonstrate professionalism, collegiality and the attractions of working in geekspace.

  4. Oh, I thought of another point that might be useful to share. With the sponsorship, we did well by having everyone contact vendors with whom there was already a relationship. So instead of a somewhat anonymous form letter, we all sent personalized asks. That was quite effective, though it took more effort.

  5. Mark–you were awesome with the volunteers. I feel bad that I forgot to acknowledge all the work they did. They were a huge help and it was great to hear their ideas on libraries.

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