Updated: Aug 30
Dylan Ruediger et al. have written a report in the Ithaka S+R (blog) called “Of Meetings and Members”, in which they discuss “The Interconnected Future of Conferences and Scholarly Societies.” The authors recognize that “annual meetings faced significant criticism even before the COVID-19 pandemic, much of it focused on exposing the limitations of in-person conferences.”¹ The cost of such meetings ranked high on the list of concerns, and the authors note that “[t]he virtual meetings of 2020-22 were much more successful than pre-pandemic conventional wisdom would have believed possible….”¹
When COVID made the iConference in Sweden impossible, the iSchools organisation held its first virtual conference in 2020 on only two weeks' notice thanks to the technical expertise of the Berlin staff. Ruediger et al. note that today many societies are “returning to primarily in-person conferences…”¹ often with a virtual component that some see as a supplement. For the iSchools, the virtual conference remains essential because many scholars simply cannot afford international travel. Nonetheless no one denies the importance of “the role that conference attendance plays in socializing students and early career scholars into the culture and norms of a field.”¹
The Ithaka report concluded that efforts to “replicate some of the social texture of in-person meetings… largely failed.”¹ The iSchools have seen how hard it is to replicate the serendipity of in-person social interactions. Nonetheless the Ithaka authors note “there is room for new purposes … [and] for adjusting programming in response to changes in the needs of members.”¹ The Ithaka report looked mainly at the experience of American organisations. The iSchools are primarily international (American schools represent 40%), which means that the cost of international travel plays a significant role for conferences. Finding ways to enable virtual social interactions has become a priority and ideas are welcome.
Ruediger et al. note that “[f]or many societies, the primary purpose of their annual meeting is to generate revenue…”¹ The situation for the iSchools is different. The iSchools do not use the conference for income generation and typically make just enough to cover costs. This has been possible by avoiding conference hotels and using facilities at member schools. The key question the Ithaka report raises is not about the form of conferences, but about the relationship between conference and the organisation. The iSchools have the advantage of not relying on conference income, which means it is possible to make decisions based on “the long-term sustainability of the organization and the future needs of scholarly communities ….”¹
1: Dylan Ruediger et al., ‘Of Meetings and Members’, Ithaka S+R (blog), accessed 19 August 2023, https://sr.ithaka.org/publications/of-meetings-and-members/.