Event manager? One librarian’s view
In November I, a metadata librarian and CILIP Cymru Wales relationship manager, found myself ordering excessive numbers of sandwiches, weighing up scones versus brownies, twisting arms for parking permits, firing off group emails about dietary needs, external device security and travel arrangements for people kind enough to come all the way to Aberystwyth at my request. And I did all of this twice in two weeks.
One event was in my role as WHELF Cataloguing Group co-chair and involved bringing Jisc presenters to Aberystwyth to test new Library Hub developments out on 19 cataloguers and library systems colleagues from across Higher Education in Wales.
The other event was the CILIP Cymru Wales AGM and Open Day. Although there was some drama at the WHELF event (lunch went missing and our firewall blocked access to Jisc sandbox data – both issues resolved with help from colleagues) I’m going to reflect here on the AGM and what became an open day.
Others are better placed to evaluate the day - the speakers, the professional networking opportunities and, of course, the brownies, see Dr Pierce’s blog, for example, and you can see the presentations themselves here – but given that librarians are expected to embrace complimentary skills in marketing, teaching, new technologies and event organizing (with little or no training), I thought a reflection on organizing the event itself might be useful.
To be clear, I am a paid member of CILIP staff 3 days a week. I am a librarian the other two days a week (at Aberystwyth University) and in that role, as well as WHELF group co-chair, I am a CILIP Metadata and Discovery Group committee member (a volunteer role). I am well aware, therefore, that most professional special interest groups don’t have the luxury of a paid member of staff, but hitting the ground running in my new CILIP role reminded me of all the volunteers out there putting together the training, conferences, publications and presentations that help us become ‘professionals’.
So, while we had what I think was a great day - fully booked and replete with great presentations and a positive vibe - to make sure that I learn from the experience and what could have been better, I want to break it down into categories (I am a cataloguer after all!) so that I can use it, share it and improve it for next time.
1 The venue
I’d been given the date – 21st November – and I had thought finding a venue would be easy. We have a University, a library school, a National Library…surely there would be lots of lovely locations available on a dark winter’s day in Aberystwyth? Not so many. Another conference had booked out the usual spaces so I looked for alternatives, none of which had parking. Eventually, a bit of pushing and name dropping (thanks to Dr Anoush Simon, Head of Department of Information Studies, and the university's Vice Chancellor Professor Elizabeth Treasure) got me use of a boardroom. It was in a building with which I wasn’t familiar, but did have technology, parking, and a vague 25 plus capacity.
Securing the venue is obviously only the first step; catering, technology, and layout were still to come. I was told to aim for about twenty people but I was secretly hoping for more so went for thirty (I stopped at 33 bookings in the end) and went largely vegetarian to make catering choices easier. Sandwiches plus canapes seemed to offer the best price and a bit of variety (set lunch deals were a good 50% more expensive) and being librarians, I knew cake was key so brownies and scones finished off the menu along with more tea and coffee. We asked for dietary needs on our booking form so I made sure to get these and final numbers to Sioned Fflur in the Aberystwyth conference office, a key contact for a smooth event.
Having once had my own presentation awkwardly on hold for 20 minutes at a conference due to ‘technical difficulties’, I asked an IT colleague, Darren Bradley, to come with me to the boardroom the week before the event to check out the technology. I realized that we would need more chairs and to have tables moved – and Darren worked out what buttons I needed to press on the remote control to get to my staff login. The university has upped security on external devices so I needed presenters to send me their presentations beforehand so I could save them onto my staff drive and all were marvelous about getting these to me via file transfer sites in good time. Only the video files slowed us down on the day – so next time I will find a way to leave videos open on my desk top, perhaps in different programmes.
Because the room is not often externally booked it took a few attempts to find out if the tables could be moved. I’m suffering from sciatica so I was relieved when Sam Dowden from Aberystwyth Estates department got in touch to say he was happy to rearrange the room. I met Sam on the morning too and got his phone number…just in case!
2 The talent
Simultaneously I was on the lookout for speakers. What I thought would be an afternoon session plus a short AGM grew to be a day event so I needed good presenters who, trickiest of all, could talk about subjects that would appeal to any sort of librarian – from library school students and academics, to school and health librarians. After some advice from my counterpart at CILIP Ireland, Gerardine Blee, I thought it would be good to balance standard presentations with a skills workshop, to give working librarians an added argument for getting out of the office and doing some CPD so I started chasing the Superhero Librarians Roadshow…
The other speakers came from meetings (with Jason Evans, the National Wikimedian based at the National Library of Wales) and short notices I’d seen in Information Professional (Gwyneth Davies’ Living Memory project) and listserv emails I’d received (from People’s Collection Wales). Additionally, we wanted to promote our CILIP Cymru Wales bursaries (so I invited recent bursary winner Hywel Lloyd) and highlight CILIP services available to members in Wales (Aberystwyth-based Juanita Foster-Jones offered to talk about professional registration). Everyone said yes which was fantastic – although the topics were diverse only one presentation was from a non Aberystwyth speaker which was good for costs and for profile raising in a fairly remote location.
That did put a squeeze on the timetable though…and meant a potentially long day, and a short AGM.
3 The marketing
With date and venue pinned down and speakers getting on board I needed a web page to which I could send people with basic information at first (when and where) and over time with detailed programme and speaker info and booking information.
This meant using CILIP’s web system and relying heavily on CILIP staff to show me how to do the basics and to create more complex pages with photos and tabs as the day came together. Back and forth messages between me and presenters then me and CILIP’s Gemma Wood took time and goodwill. Then I had to use Your Members (YM) in anger for the first time, and set up booking – which CILIP’s Ann Hellyer had to show me. We weren’t charging for the event which made it slightly easier but with my vague 25 plus person limit I did need to know who was signing up. Note to self – next time find a way to tell people there is a limit. It isn’t nice having to turn people away.
4 The comms
Once the page was up I could tweet about the AGM (as it was still called – later I noticed Scotland and Ireland had an ‘Autumn gathering’ and ‘Open Day’ respectively and I realized that 'AGM' wasn’t all that enticing by itself!) I asked the CILIP Cymru Wales committee and CILIP to share the webpage with colleagues. I sent details to those with whom I'd discussed the event during the course of my work over the past few months and to target audiences (staff at the Department of Information Studies, my own Information Services department, CILIP’s Nick Poole and the university’s Vice Chancellor, amongst others).
It eventually got into our newsletter (a whole other ‘complimentary skills’ challenge!) which due to translation into Welsh and other key central CILIP emails to members was a bit delayed. This resulted in a few people trying to register onto something they had just seen only to find out that it was full (see earlier note-to-self!) Once full, there were then reminders and further information messages about directions and parking which meant that Gemma had to create an email list from delegates in YM, and move it to Informz where I could write a message, that she could send!
On the day Juanita Foster-Jones suggested a hashtag #CCWAGM19 and along with others I tried to tweet for each presentation. Sitting at the back to welcome latecomers meant that I took some average photos though. Note-to-self - get better at event photos!
What I totally missed was feedback communications. I was so focused on getting the day done I hadn’t thought about afterwards.
5 The business
I do have a habit of getting involved in the detail and while I was merrily organizing the ‘event’ I wasn’t thinking about the AGM itself at all. I was hoping/assuming people who had been on the committee for a few years would carry off this bit of the day. Like all volunteer committees, however, people who are working full time haven’t necessarily got everything to hand (procedures and forms and timelines for nominations of new committee members, requirements of notice and reports to be published and so on) and people have different ideas of what an AGM is and should be.
Some frantic last minute toing and froing between CILIP and CCW members 28 days before the AGM and a simplified nomination form later and we agreed we should have the process written up and easily accessible to all…miraculously we had three vacancies and three nominations!
6 The lessons
Plan early so you can share decision making and gather feedback but be prepared to take decisions that need a fast turn around
Create a team: the AGM won’t be in Aberystwyth next year because we want to move our events around Wales but I wouldn’t recommend one person working alone on an event like this. Two would be ideal for a day event, with help from others as needed.
Remember that help comes from all over…from informal goodwill and last minute favours from overworked colleagues to professional services like catering, IT support, and Estates. Develop good relationships with these colleagues, be polite and professional and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Make technology your friend, or, at least get to know it! I knew to do this but only looked at the actual presentations on my laptop at home. Opening two videos in the same application froze the PC, and I may have been able to work around that. The delay was small though, and because I was familiar with the set up it wasn’t too awkward – not being equipped to help a presenter whose work won’t open is horrible, and that is why having the extension for tech support is essential!
Timings: communications can get stressful especially if there is official business on which to report. Having a timeline of when what needs to go out is useful to share with people when you are relying on others for deadlines.
On the day: I had meant to assign people some tasks on the day, but there wasn’t time. Ideally have someone to take photos, someone to tweet, and someone to chair sessions. Not doing this meant I didn't sort out the heating – it was freezing! People had coats on all day and I should have called Sam (as he said to me afterwards when I thanked him for helping me organize the room) but I just wasn’t on top of it.
After the day: I should have had automated feedback forms set up or paper forms for the day. I made sure I contacted all the presenters with thanks afterwards and followed up on tweets from delegates but this was a missed opportunity. Leo Appleton’s Superhero Librarian workshop emphasized the need to write up our activities to share and mark our development and contribution to the profession, something I have let slide since Chartership – so this blog has become a reflective marker for me.