Monday, 27 July 2015

Conferences and note-taking

In the past three months I have been to three library conferences, one big [approx 600 delegates], one medium [I think about 200 delegates] and one small [less than 100 delegates]. I got a lot out of each one as individual experiences, but I also found myself reflecting on them as a group and considering the ways in which my attitude to getting the best use out of them has altered.

In the past I would write copious notes, which I would then turn in to lengthy blog posts afterwards, generate numerous tweets during, and actually find myself having consumed so much information that I struggled to put it to some productive use. In fact I often found that once I had blogged about my experience, I rarely thought of it again.

I recently read this very interesting blog post on conferences and note taking, and as I'd just been to the CILIP Cymru Wales conference in Swansea [the medium sized one!] it really resonated. It advocates organising your notes into categories and assigning action points to them, this should then [hopefully!] translate into a 'to do' list and make your notes more useful.


I made very few notes during the sessions at the CILIP Wales conference, other than to jot down references to various articles or resources and a reminder to investigate them further. I barely tweeted at all, other than to comment on how much I liked the food and being by the beach! In short, I mainly listened, talked to other delegates, and generally absorbed the atmosphere, rather than trying to cram in loads of note taking. As a result I came away with what I felt was a more manageable list of ideas that I could explore later, instead of my more usual overwhelming pages and pages of notes that would probably just end up forgotten in a desk drawer because I didn't have time to go through them.

When I went to a big conference at the beginning of July (the CILIP conference in Liverpool) I felt it was important to continue this practice. I did take notes this time, there were so many sessions crammed in that I thought I might start to loose track of what I meant if I just jotted down keywords and to do lists. However I did still stand by the mantra of 'less is more', and tried to avoid copying everything down and attempting to quote speakers. This was made much easier because the speakers slides would be made available online, so we could access them at a later date.

In the past I have used my tweets as a form of note taking, I find that I am unable to listen properly to the speaker, take notes and compose tweets all at the same time, so combining the tweeting and note taking seemed to be a good solution. I would simply Storify my tweets after the event and then use them to compose my blog posts. However, as mentioned earlier, the notes I took this time were quite specific to me, things I wanted to try out, or explore further, or ideas they sparked. They weren't a record of what was said, and so would be pretty unintelligible to anyone else but me. It seemed pointless putting them out in public, and so I just took notes and didn't tweet very much.

And I actually felt more comfortable not tweeting. I've always been happy to tweet from conferences and believe in sharing what's happening, especially for events that can be prohibitively expensive to attend. But I did always feel a pressure to accurately convey the speakers intent and to provide enough context. There was a freedom to not feeling that responsibility, or having my attention split that I quite enjoyed.

Last week I attended the ARLIS conference in Cardiff. It was my first time at an ARLIS event, and it was also my first experience of being part of a conference working party. I found that being part of the organising team meant that I experienced the conference from a different perspective than if I had been a delegate (unsurprisingly!!).


One of my responsibilities was to blog about the conference afterwards, so I found that informed how I made notes. I didn't get to attend all the sessions, I spent some time manning the reception desk, but when I did I was no longer taking notes for myself, but instead for the blog. It meant the types of notes I took altered, because they had a specific purpose, and I adjusted what I recorded to suit that need.

So I guess what I mainly learnt was;

  • For me, notes with a purpose, either because I've been asked to feedback on a session, or as a 'to do' list, seem to be more effective than simply trying to capture everything that happens.
  • That it's hard to give my full attention to things if I have a competing obligation (like tweeting, or being an organiser) so if I want to do those things I need to make sure I factor it in.
  • And that one of the things I like best about attending conferences is the networking (although I hate that term, and just think meeting people!) and that I find it a lot easier to do at the smaller conferences.


Hopefully, having the chance to reflect on what works best for me means that when I attend future events, I can bear it in mind and get the most out of the experience. I'd love to hear other peoples feelings about how they get value from attending them too!

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