This is one of the more confusing conferences you can attend. You can pay money — rather a lot of money — to go to "The Conference" — which is the three tracks on the 3rd floor of Olympia 2. I participated in two sessions up there, one a question and answer session on search, the other on social networking. What impressed me about both of those was the willingness of the audience to participate and ask questions. I tend to learn more about the state of the industry from questions being asked rather than prepared presentations. Overall, I thought the people in those sessions were more than willing to walk away from using Google as their only search tool and they had concerns about using blogs, wikis, and podcasts as research tools. This is not a group of people to get wildly and/or visibly excited about the topics being presented. They’re more likely to absorb the information, think about it, and act on it later, back home in their individual offices and libraries.
I sat in on some other sessions and was surprised by how few people were in attendance. Although I was told by the organizers there were slightly over 600 delegates registered, it certainly didn’t seem that way to me.
And there’s a good reason for not going to "The Conference" — it’s called the other programming on offer. Down on the exhibit floor, there were four tracks of presentations, most of them by high visibility, well known, knowledgeable speakers. These presentations were free. Every time I looked at those rooms, they were full. Why should people pay to go to "The Conference" when they can get much of the same information for free?
Then there were the International Forums. Held in the back of the Pillar Hall, behind a temporary wall, they were in languages other than English (except for the Scandinavian one that I attended, which was in English, but the presenters were from Finland, Denmark, and other Nordic countries). It was difficult to hear the speakers, however, because of the noise from the other side of the wall.
There were also Roundtable discussions during the lunch hour, also free.
How to assess the conference? Other colleagues of mine writing in this blog have concentrated on the exhibit floor, what’s new (or not), what’s hot (or not), and what’s newsworthy (or not). I’d like to attempt an assessment based not only on the exhibitors but the attendees. One of the important things about this conference is the number of countries represented by the delegates. It’s interesting to listen to exhibitors, particularly those in the business information space, try to tailor their pitch to those different nationalities. Several vendors told me how shocked they were at the availability of public record information in the US, since it’s not legal in most European countries. A delegate from the UK told me he didn’t understand why his contract with a major information supplier was different from mine. I don’t think I convinced him that it had to do with differences in contracts based upon differing legal and licensing restrictions.
I think the challenge of collaboration, social networking, new technologies, and content management (remember there was a huge emphasis on content management, particularly on the exhibit floor)lies in implementation. I also think that whizbang technology is increasingly hard to come by. Many attendees are jaded and tired of hearing that every new product offers them a "solution" without specifying what the problem is that’s supposedly being "solved."
What Online Information does for me is expand my horizons, not so much about new information products and services, but in how my friends and fellow information professionals view their information world. If online — and librarianship — is to be truly global, we must recognize and celebrate both our similarities and our differences.
Editor, ONLINE: The Leading Magazine for Information Professionals