Ideas can be unpredictable. You never know where they might lead. This is the story of how an idea became a conference, and how the simple question “Why not?” set off a chain of events that, nine months later, has brought the libraries of the Texas A&M University System closer together and set the stage for future collaborations.
TAMU-CC belongs to a large university system which includes 11 universities and eight state agencies. Each of those universities has at least one library and sometimes more, with dedicated, highly trained staff who are working hard to serve the students, faculty and staff of their individual institutions every day.
That’s a huge brain trust of expertise and creativity. What would happen if we tried to harness that energy, not just within our own individual libraries but across the System for the benefit of all?
The idea originally hit during a conversation with Scholarly Communication Librarian Alexa Hight about a thorny copyright question. Alexa wondered why there wasn’t a systemwide group of copyright librarians who could support each other and share ideas. Well, yes, why not? And for that matter, couldn’t the same be said for our instruction librarians, people doing assessment, people running makerspaces… I could generate a really long list of possibilities. In my work, I focus on open educational resources; who else in the system is working with textbook affordability issues and could we combine forces to increase our impact? Couldn’t we be communicating and collaborating? Why not?
One thing literally keeping us apart is space. Texas is big, and the distances between our individual campuses can be very large. It’s 635 miles from Canyon, Texas, where West Texas A&M University is located, to Corpus Christi. And it’s 8,206 miles from Corpus Christi to Qatar, where TAMU-Qatar is located! Well, okay, then. Let’s eliminate the travel costs, the hotel reservations, those pesky receipts. Let’s meet online!
When I brought this idea to Dr. Cate Rudowsky, she was immediately on board. As the Dean of Libraries at TAMU-CC, she meets regularly with the other deans and directors of the libraries in the TAMU System, so she had first-hand experience of the benefits of cross-institutional collaboration. She ran it by the other library leaders and the response was swift and enthusiastic. Yes, this was something we should do!
After the initial euphoria wore off, though, reality set in. Yes, we should do it… but how? Not surprisingly, it came down to people. We established a committee representing libraries from across the system, did a survey to find out what staff at the libraries wanted to see and do at such a conference, and then set about making it happen. Folks from across the system stepped up with program proposals, putting themselves on the line to contribute to the conference. Dr. Rudowsky offered funds to hire a contractor, Amigos Library Services, Inc., to manage the technology for the online event.
Fast forward nine months and here we are, celebrating the launch of the first TAMU System Virtual Library Conference. Over 200 employees from libraries across the system have registered to participate in 31 programs. I think just by getting to this point we have already proven the hypothesis: that collaborating across institutional boundaries could lead to great things.
Of course, we had no idea that conferences all over the world would be disrupted and even cancelled due to COVID-19 this year when we started planning a virtual meeting! Our online conference was able to go on as scheduled, but the dangers of pandemic did still loom over the event. For one thing, we had originally hoped that attendees could host watch parties at their libraries and view sessions together. Instead most of us will be watching alone in our offices or from home due to the need for social distancing. And the program includes several presentations focusing specifically on the impact of COVID-19 on library operations and staff morale. But it’s very heartening that in these uncertain times our libraries will be connecting through this event and sharing lessons learned as well as developing stronger connections and maybe some strategies for moving forward.
We can now officially call this the 1st Annual TAMUS Virtual Library Conference, as West Texas A&M University has already stepped up to host the event next year. The members of the planning committee couldn’t be happier to see that this idea will live on after we close the book on this year’s conference.
And that’s my story of how a conference was created. My greatest hope is that we will have planted seeds of cooperation that will grow in ways that benefit, not just our libraries, but everyone in the communities that we serve.