What’s next for Conferences? A Perspective from the Bibliographical Society of America

What’s next for Conferences? A Perspective from the Bibliographical Society of America

This blog post is part of a series that reflects on the experiences of scholarly society leaders who participated in the "Future of Scholarly Meetings" cohort. The Future of Scholarly Meetings was a collaboration between Ithaka S+R and JSTOR Labs. Today’s blog post features excerpts (edited for clarity) from a conversation with Erin McGuirl, Executive Director for The Bibliographical Society of America about her involvement in the Future of Scholarly Meetings cohort.

Over the past year, JSTOR Labs and Ithaka S+R partnered with seventeen scholarly societies to explore the future of scholarly meetings in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced societies to rapidly reinvent their annual meetings as virtual or hybrid events. While often imperfect, the virtual and hybrid meetings of 2020 to 2023 proved the viability of conference formats that few societies or their members had previously experienced. Through co-learning, conversation, and design-informed activities, the Future of Scholarly Meetings cohort spent last year assessing the lessons learned from their experiments with new conference formats, weighing options, and developing concrete ideas about organizing conferences going forward.

The final report from The Future of Scholarly Meetings project will be published by Ithaka S+R this summer. To complement the final report we’ve invited several participants to reflect on what they’ve learned from the events of the past several years and from their experience in the cohort. Today’s blog post features excerpts (edited for clarity) from a conversation with Erin McGuirl, Executive Director at the Bibliographical Society of America. We will publish a few more interviews in the coming weeks..

We are grateful for support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which made this project possible.

Can you tell us a bit about the Bibliographical Society of America and its annual meeting?

The BSA is an organization that is centered around this idea that books and other kinds of textual forms are objects that we can study in and of themselves.  It's not just about reading the text, it is about thinking about the material forms that textual objects take and how those forms can be interpreted as evidence of our shared cultural heritage.  Because our focus is on a type of media and an approach to studying the material texts, we come from all different disciplinary backgrounds and we come from a really broad range of professional backgrounds as well. What distinguishes us is our very deep focus on materiality, and the interdisciplinary and interprofessional demands of studying material texts.

If you come to our annual meeting, you will meet librarians, by which I mean, curators, catalogers, administrators, and exhibitions people.  You will meet academics, senior faculty, junior faculty, students in graduate programs, you'll meet students in library school programs.  You will meet conservators, museum professionals and people who do not have an academically oriented career at all who collect books.  

We're also a really small organization. At the height of our membership year we have about 700 members, with about 3000 newsletter subscribers.  Our annual meeting is similarly small.  It has always been free, just one or two day event every year in New York as part of Bibliography Week. Say there’s ten book people at every other conference, at MLA, ASECS or RSA, whatever your humanities du jour would be.  We’re the place that all those groups of book people go to be book people together.

What was your experience as a meeting planner during Covid?

COVID presented a huge opportunity for us because all of a sudden we had an audience at home that was really looking for ways to connect with their people and their people aren't necessarily at major conferences like MLA., AHA, etc.  

We had this great opportunity to do tons of virtual programming that really showcased the interdisciplinary nature of the organization, that showcased the interprofessional nature of the organization. I had the support of my board to give a lot of my time as a staff of one to putting out virtual programs.  

The response was really wonderful: our membership grew during the pandemic.  When I started in 2018, we had 450 members, and at the end of last year we had 700.

COVID forced us to respond to the needs of the field during a very particular time, and those needs were changing radically – it felt like overnight. Going to virtual programming was something I thought a lot about when I was applying for this job in 2018 and I had absolutely no thought that we would enter a global pandemic two years later that would make that shift possible.

What meeting challenges do you anticipate moving forward?

People really want to be together again. What we saw this year with our annual meeting is representative.  We planned all this virtual stuff, people registered, but then they didn’t come. People are burnt out, people don't have time and they want to be doing things in person. The in-person events were pretty well attended and our annual meeting was fully registered.  It was so well attended we didn’t have enough seats.

What did you learn from participating in the Future of Scholarly Meetings project?

I think my biggest takeaway is that what we are already doing is what other societies are moving toward, which was a really strong validation of the program. Hearing from other societies and seeing that what we're doing is already different was really useful because it pushed me to try to be even more bold.

What are some of those things BSA is already doing?

We are thinking how we can better articulate what it is that we're doing, and essentially we're calling it a distributed conference.  It's based on three core programming principles that I think are aligned with the reality of academic life and the humanities in particular:

One. Not everybody has funding to travel to attend events in person, and local communities are becoming more and more important for the future of all of our disciplines. It's at the local level that we bring new people into the field.

Two.  Academic and other types of scholarly labor deserve to be paid. It is essential to make funding available to compensate people for the time that they put into preparing presentations, organizing, etc.

Three. Things should be as accessible as possible. We provide funding for captioning, for ASL interpretation, for virtual events. Hosting events locally is an important intervention in accessibility, more broadly defined.

Informed by those principles, three times a year, we have an open call for proposals where people can put together a budget and say we are doing this one day workshop or host a panel on . . . whatever.  We’ll make funding available for all kinds of events: a conference in London about queer bibliography or a panel on collecting Caribbean materials in institutional settings. These events happen all year round, almost every month, all over the world – this year we have events in Atlanta and in London.

Our approach, outlined in the three core principles, centers everyone's humanity first. It’s leading us to make good decisions. I know that we can continue to operate from this core guiding principle of “we are all humans first, and scholars second.