LOEX and the “small conference” problem

If you’re an instruction librarian, you know about LOEX, the organization that holds the leading annual library instruction/information literacy conference in North America, also known as LOEX. And if you’re an instruction librarian who’s ever thought of going to LOEX, you probably know about the insanity that is LOEX registration. If you don’t, here’s the deal:

LOEX organizers believe very strongly in the value of a small conference, so they cap registration. I’m not sure what the cap is, and I haven’t been able to find any hard numbers online, but for some reason I have 250 in my head. (I’m not sure if that includes presenters or not.) For the purposes of argument, let’s say it’s 250.

There are many more than 250 librarians who want to attend LOEX each year, so registration is done online on a first-come, first-served basis. They open the website at a designated hour (usually 1:00 pm EST), and close it once registration has filled up. In recent years, it’s filled up in under an hour, and sometimes in as little as about 30 minutes. Folks who don’t get registered in the first round get put on a wait list.

This leads to the spectacle that is hundreds of instruction librarians around the country hunched over their computers at 12:55 pm, hitting “refresh” over and over again, and then frantically filling out the registration form as fast as they can, in hopes that they’ll be able to get in. If you have to teach a class at 1:00, or have technical difficulties, well, you’re just out of luck that year. Although I understand that a fair number of people get in off the wait list, which suggests that people who think they might want to go to LOEX register proactively, and then cancel before registration payment is due if it turns out that they can’t/won’t go.

Now, this strikes me as problematic on a number of levels: first of all, because not all the librarians who want, or need, to go to LOEX can go, and because there doesn’t seem to be an equitable system for deciding who gets to go and who doesn’t. There’s no accounting for whether you (or someone else from your institution) has gone to LOEX in the past, no possibility for “you didn’t get in this year, so you get priority for attending next year,” and no system for accommodating someone whose technical issues make it difficult or impossible to register rapidly online. (Screenreading software, anyone?)

Admittedly, I don’t know how many people try to register for LOEX, as compared with how many slots there are. It’s possible that, after cancellations are taken into account, nearly everyone gets in off the wait list. But it’s also possible that dozens or hundreds of librarians aren’t able to go every year.

And this is where, to my mind, the “small conference” idea breaks down. Sure, it’s nice to have a conference that’s reasonably small and manageable, and certainly there’s a difference between, say, 250 attendees and 2000, or even 250 and 750. But is there really a qualitative difference between 250 attendees and 350? Either way, you still won’t be able to meet and talk with everyone who’s there, and I doubt very much that moving from 250 to 350 would affect the kind of conference hotel and meeting rooms that the organization could book; if anything, it might bump the conference up to the next level of volume discount. (I could be completely wrong about this, of course, never having booked a conference hotel, so feel free to tell me I’m full of hot air here.) If increasing the registration cap from 250 to 350 would allow nearly all of the librarians who want to go to LOEX to attend, wouldn’t it be worth it?

Several years back, at the conference in Maryland I think (Spring 2006?) I seem to remember there being talk of overhauling the way that registration for LOEX worked. But then last year, for LOEX in Chicago, it was exactly the same deal, with the online free-for-all. I wonder what kinds of changes they were considering, and why they ultimately didn’t implement them?