Conferences: Are they worth the time and money?

How to share your work, learn new ways of working, and get that buzz from being around like-minded people when conferences don’t inspire you.
Jul 23
Title: Conferences: Are they worth the time and money?

I remember my first conference.

I was like a wide-eyed kid in a candy store, breathless (almost to the point of passing out) and in awe of everything conference had to offer.

Everyone seemed so experienced and confident. They knew what sessions they were going to, who was presenting and how to swipe the freebies from the vendors.

I got hooked by the conference buzz and the opportunity to learn so much in such a short space of time. Every year I saved my money and annual leave to attend. And I had a ball!

After a while conferences began to lose their shine. And I asked myself whether it was worth it and what the alternatives might be.

Hands up if you have felt like this too.

This post is for you.

What are the alternatives when you want to learn and be inspired, but are uninspired by conferences? #TheLibraryBoss

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Pros and cons

Conferences are a great place to learn, build friendships and share your work. 

But they are also expensive, time-consuming and exhausting.

And sometimes the content just doesn't inspire you.

When that happens, paying the big bucks to catch up with friends isn't something your employer wants to see on a funding application. And it's not worth self-funding either.

So the only other option is to present your work. 


Presenting  your work at New Zealand and Australian library conferences has no financial benefits. You still have to register and pay other expenses. And it involves a huge chunk of time to prepare. 

On the plus side, your employer may subsidise some of the costs or allow you to prepare during work time. And it's an opportunity to build your reputation and career.

Conferences also have a couple of hidden costs:

  • Your energy levels are reduced. Conferences are intense. They require high levels of concentration and social interaction. Going from morning to night on nothing more than caffeine and a quick bite to eat quickly leads to exhaustion. And because you've been stimulated by lots of new ideas it also takes time to recharge and reflect on what you learned.
  • Time away from family. Even with a supportive family, going to conferences involves sacrifices. Responsiblities need to be adjusted and juggled. And choices are made to 'get through'.

So if the content doesn't grab your attention, then it probably isn't worth the time and money.

So what are the alternatives?

Other options

Conferences used to be one of the few places for people to exchange ideas. The internet has changed that.

Information is easier to find and easier to share. People are easier to contact and get to know.

And conferences aren't as valuable as they used to be.

So let's get clear on what is an acceptable conference alternative. 

  • 1
    A live event. Not recorded conference videos or TED talks.
  • 2
    An opportunity to 'talk' with presenters and other attendees. Not webinars.
  • 3
    Free (to save money).
  • 4
    Short in duration (to save time and energy levels).

3 options that meet the above criteria are: virtually connecting, twitter chats, and twitter conferences.

3 conference alternatives are @VConnecting, twitter chats and twitter conferences. #TheLibraryBoss

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1. Virtually Connecting

Virtually connecting (VC) is a group of volunteers who “connect onsite conference presenters and attendees with virtual participants in small groups.”

VC is available at conferences all over the world with particular emphasis on education technology and open education resources.

I have participated in two VC sessions. Each session was about an hour in length with 6-8 people virtually connecting with 3-5 people at a conference (using Google Hangouts). There were facilitators onsite and online to encourage conversation but the sessions are quite fluid - there’s no set agenda or discussion points.

What I liked most about VC (in addition to it being free) is the supportive environment and the buzz of talking with people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. 

VC is an absolutely awesome way to experience a conference that you would never attend in person - either because it is too far away, too expensive or only indirectly related to your job. 

2. Twitter chats

Twitter chats (also called tweet chats) are live text-based discussions that happen on Twitter at a regular time. Tweets related to the discussion are marked with a hashtag making them easy to find, follow and participate.

Each twitter chat focuses on a specific topic and will usually have set discussion questions so you can prepare in advance.

I’ve participated in a number of library-related twitter chats and really enjoy the focused interaction with a large and diverse group of people. People involved in twitter chats share a wealth of practical information that often lead to more detailed discussions once the chat is over.

Twitter chats are one of the best ways to find like-minded people to add to your professional network.

3 popular library twitter chats are:

  • 1
    #uklibchat - held on the first Monday of the month from 7-8:30pm (UK time)
  • 2
    #LISprochat - held alternate Mondays at 8:30pm (Eastern Time)
  • 3
    #auslibchat - held on the first Tuesday of the month from 9pm (AEST)

3. Twitter conferences

A twitter conference happens entirely on Twitter. 

The format is similar to an in-person conference. The main difference is that each speaker is given only 15 minutes to present their paper in 6-15 tweets.

Twitter conferences aren't common (the first one was in 2015) but they are growing in popularity. 

Some examples are:

I would love to see a library-related one!

Only you can judge if conferences are worth your time and money. But it is worth trying the alternatives to see how they stack up.

Have you tried any conference alternatives? Let me know in the comments.

Spark Notes

  • A couple of weeks ago I asked Twitter what I should write about. Kat suggested I write about professional development to keep you inspired throughout your career. This is the result.
  • Image by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash.
  • Rachel says:

    I’m interested in your thoughts on why you don’t consider webinars an alternative to conferences?

    • Sally Pewhairangi says:

      A great question Rachel!

      Personally I find webinars are awesome learning opportunities but they often quite passive (watch and listen).
      Webinars generally don’t encourage comments, other points of view or conversations amongst participants, like might happen at a conference.

  • Rob says:

    Another option is unconferences. These are participatory (No spectators!) And everyone is expected to contribute even if that is just to ask a question. Everyone knows more than they think they do. I have run 9 unconferences and attended 1 not run by me (which was a bit odd not to be in the driving seat) and i run mine with the only cost being a donation to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. Everyone who attends can nominate things they want to talk about. Multiple sessions and everyone gets time to talk and network and has the space and time to engage.

    • Sally Pewhairangi says:

      I had forgotten about unconferences. Thanks for reminding me Rob! Because they are participatory they can take a bit to get used to. But if you attend with an open mind and some topics you’d like to discuss unconferences so worthwhile.

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