ACRL 2021 Conference Will Be Virtual Due To COVID-19 Concerns

Because of concerns about travel and gathering during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL)’s Board of Directors announced on October 1 that the 2021 ACRL conference, previously scheduled for April 14–17 in Seattle, WA, will instead be held as an all-virtual event.

ACRL Virtual Conference logoBecause of concerns about travel and gathering during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL)’s Board of Directors announced on October 1 that the 2021 ACRL conference, previously scheduled for April 14–17 in Seattle, WA, will instead be held as an all-virtual event. The virtual conference will feature many of the same components as the originally planned in-person gathering, including keynote speakers, contributed papers, panel sessions, preconference events, workshops, lightning talks, poster sessions, roundtable discussions, TechConnect, and webcasts, as well as a platform for exhibitor and sponsors, and will take place over approximately the same dates.

In addition to health risks, conference planners were concerned about the distance many attendees would need to travel, and the fact that there is no guarantee that the Seattle Convention Center—currently closed at least through the end of 2020—will be open next April.

“We didn't have a lot of choice,” ACRL President Jon E. Cawthorne, dean of the University Library System and School of Information Sciences at Wayne State University, Detroit, told LJ. ACRL staff and the conference planning team have been monitoring the situation since pandemic-based shutdowns began in March, he said, “and each time we thought about it, the choice was pretty clear. But I think what is important is the focus on what we will have, which is a virtual conference that will be second to none.”



“It's pretty huge, to transform such a successful big conference to a virtual conference,” ACRL 2021 Conference Chair Beth McNeil, dean of libraries at Purdue University, IN, told LJ. “But I'm confident, with the excellent ACRL staff and the terrific people on our coordinating committee, we can come up with a really great conference.”

For more than a decade, the biennial conference has augmented its live proceedings with a Virtual Conference for those who are unable to attend in person, giving ACRL useful experience bringing sessions online. For the 2019 conference, poster sessions were shifted to online as well, so that more people could view them. And in June, ACRL hosted a free five-day virtual event, Together Wherever, with programming and networking opportunities for the academic and research library community. With that experience under the planning team’s belt, some of the transitions to a large-scale virtual environment will be relatively simple. The two keynoters—author and recent MacArthur “Genius Grant” awardee Tressie McMillan Cottom and Mona Chalabi, data editor at The Guardian—have already agreed to speak virtually.

There are still major adjustments to be made, however. The platform that currently hosts ACRL’s Virtual Conference doesn’t have the capacity for approximately 5,000 guests—or more, given the accessibility that an online event would offer to those who would not have been able to travel to Seattle. The organization is currently investigating options for a new platform for the entire conference.

The virtual exhibit floor is also a work in progress, as are alternatives to in-person connection time. “A lot of the ACRL Conference is networking and talking to friends, or meeting new people,” McNeil told LJ. “That's something we need to figure out still. Because that’s something valued by our members. And our exhibitors—the ability to interact with registrants is an important part of their experience, too.” Planners are looking at other conferences that have had successful virtual experiences, including the American Library Association’s Annual Meeting in June.

The deadline for lightning talk, poster, round table, TechConnect, and webcast submissions has been extended to Monday, November 9. Scholarship applications previously submitted for the in-person event will be automatically transferred to consideration for scholarships for the virtual conference, and the deadline has been extended to October 23. Notifications about contributed paper, panel session, preconference, and workshop proposals are expected to go out by the end of December.

Cawthorne is positive that ACRL will be able to create “an intimate environment, where people can gain knowledge from participants,” he said. “I think [attendees] will be pleasantly surprised at how much of a connection we can make in the online environment.”

The conference team, he added, is “really working hard to make sure that people come away feeling what they feel in a face-to-face conference, feeling connected to other people who do the work in other institutions, and inspired. That's what we want at the end of the day—for people to be inspired.”

Both Cawthorne and McNeil are disappointed that they won’t be able to see ACRL members in Seattle next spring, but are eager to move forward with the virtual conference. “[I'm] excited about this transition,” Cawthorne said. “A little sad that we won't be able to see one another, but I have great confidence that we will be able to pull off a wonderful conference.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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