Wednesday, August 14, 2013

30th Year Reflections/53: Conference Prep

“Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.” — A. A. Milne

Good planning eases the mind. I’ve found this to be true in many instances, but perhaps the greatest exemplar on the importance of good planning that I’ve witnessed or been a part of has come in preparations made for a conference. I was reminded of this while serving as a member of the local arrangements committee for the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) preconference in June. There I witnessed (and examined) two large three-ring notebooks assembled by Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) conference supervisor extraordinaire, Tory Ondrla. According to the ACRL web site, Tory “manages logistics for ACRL professional development events including the ACRL Conference, preconferences, workshops, institutes, the ACRL Conference, and ACRL Board functions.” Even though she was absent from the RBMS preconference due to maternity leave, those planning notebooks were testimony to her experience and expertise. They were the playbooks used by her two substitutes during the conference. Those notebooks are a lesson in good planning.

My first experience planning a major academic conference came in 1988 with a multi-day event: “Swedish-American Life in Chicago, 1838-1988.” I was a member of the planning committee, with particular responsibilities for logistics, audio/visual support, food breaks, and other activities. In order to ease my own anxieties, I prepared a spreadsheet with an almost minute-by-minute breakdown of the event, linking this timeline with the name of each responsible member on the planning committee, equipment needs, speaker needs, and other important contacts. I printed this spreadsheet and had it readily at hand; it was my playbook for the conference and made a huge difference for my part of conference management. The conference turned out to be a huge success, with all the talks captured on videotape (and now in the Swedish-American Archives of Greater Chicago). Conference talks were later compiled, edited, and published by the University of Illinois Press as Swedish-American Life in Chicago: Cultural and Urban Aspects of an Immigrant People, 1850-1930. I wrote a chapter for the book, based on my conference presentation, and created the index for the volume.

Since 1988 there have been a number of conferences I helped plan. Perhaps the most enjoyable have been the string of Sherlockian conferences (and associated exhibits) from 2001 to the present. Each conference had a theme—“2001: A Sherlockian Odyssey”; “A River Runs By It: Holmes and Doyle in Minnesota” (2004); “Victorian Secrets and Edwardian Enigmas” (2007); “The Spirits of Sherlock Holmes” (2010); and our recently completed “Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Place.” This tradition of triennial conferences follows three earlier gatherings of the Holmesian clan in Minnesota: “Rogues, Rascals and Ruffians” (1993); “The Detective and The Collector” (1995); and “Founders Footprints,” the 50th anniversary of the Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota (1998).

Each conference has been planned and organized by a wonderful group of volunteers. Planning for the triennial conferences begins about two years prior to the event. Each member of the planning committee shouldered various assignments with aplomb. Working in conjunction with university and hotel staff, each conference ran like a well-oiled machine. There may have been a few minor bumps along the way, but attendees rarely noticed. It has been a joy to work with this group of dedicated people, and an even greater joy to see conference-goers enjoying themselves at these triennial conferences. I’m sure Holmes would appreciate the planning and organization behind each event.

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