As COVID-19 Cases Surge, Library Conferences Move to Virtual and Hybrid Models

After a year and a half of virtual networking, many public and academic library leaders and employees were looking forward to attending in-person conferences again, while many others remained apprehensive about travel and large group events. As library organizations and associations began finalizing plans for fall and winter conferences, they needed to balance people’s wishes for some semblance of normalcy—in-person sessions and networking, shared meals, hugs and handshakes, tote bags—with a range of safety and liability concerns.

close up of man's hands holding vaccination card
Photo courtesy of New York National Guard on Flickr

Despite the national rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine last spring, this summer and fall have been about readjusting expectations for living with the coronavirus. At press time, just over 66 percent of the United States population over 18 were fully vaccinated, with 76.7 percent having received at last one dose. But owing to an increase in travel and gatherings, the reopening of schools and businesses, and the emergence of highly infectious virus variants, this summer saw a resurgence of COVID cases nationwide.

After a year and a half of virtual networking, many public and academic library leaders and employees were looking forward to attending in-person conferences again, while many others remained apprehensive about travel and large group events. As library organizations and associations began finalizing plans for fall and winter conferences, they needed to balance people’s wishes for some semblance of normalcy—in-person sessions and networking, shared meals, hugs and handshakes, tote bags—with a range of safety and liability concerns.

Some conferences have chosen to move to an all-virtual format, including next January’s American Library Association (ALA) LibLearnX event; the National Humanities Conference, originally scheduled to be held in Detroit from November 11–14; the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) conference, originally slated to meet in Milwaukee from September 20–24; and a number of state library conferences. Several, such as the New York Library Association (NYLA), have moved to a hybrid format, and some smaller events whose size allows for individual attention at check-in—such as the Association of Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) and Charleston conferences—have elected to require proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests for in-person attendance.

 

GOING VIRTUAL (AGAIN)

After two virtual versions of its annual conference in 2020 and 2021, as well as the final iteration of the Midwinter meeting last January, ALA was prepared to offer the new LibLearnX: The Library Learning Experience scheduled for January 21–24, 2022, as a hybrid event. However, given considerations about the combination of surging COVID cases and the size, scope, and location of the gathering—originally slated to be held in San Antonio, TX—ALA announced on September 15 that it would be fully virtual.

Although ALA members had been voicing their concerns for months, ALA’s Executive Board began discussing the shift to virtual in earnest in late August. The size of the event—some 3,000 on-site attendees were anticipated—meant that checking proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests would not be feasible. Wong wasn’t sure what kind of financial hit ALA would take from the cancellation, but felt that it was more than balanced out by long- and short-term health and safety issues. ALA members have also voiced opinions about the location, with Texas’s new abortion ban and restrictive voting bill raising concerns for many would-be visitors. However, Wong said, ALA’s decision was focused on COVID-related considerations.

“We had heard from hundreds of members that they weren't planning on coming,” ALA President Patricia “Patty” Wong told LJ. “We were introducing a new concept in terms of LibLearnX, and to be able to put our best foot forward and have all of these other factors around health and safety be part of it, [that] would be very difficult. So, we made a hard decision. There's no doubt that we would have rather had it go a different way, but I think there just wasn't a better choice.”

Fortunately, Wong added, the conference services team had three successful all-virtual events under their belts—and had always kept a fully virtual event in mind as a Plan B—so the pivot was more about fine-tuning what had been learned over the past year and a half. “If anything, we've learned is how to be a little nimble in terms of how to think about things, so that the virtual LibLearnX will offer a very similar array of interactive educational opportunities and inspiring speakers, just as the in-person events would have,” she said. “Because we have that wonderful experience from the past couple of conferences and meetings, we're able to articulate that and put it into place.” LibLearnX will feature all the previously planned components: award announcements, speakers, educational sessions, and networking opportunities. ALA council and executive board sessions have begun meeting online already, so governance sessions will meet during that time as well.

“We've also learned from [earlier virtual conferences] about what members and participants want,” said Wong. “It can't be formulaic. It has to be crisp and responsive, and, when we can, as interactive as possible.” Wong hopes that ALA members will enjoy participating in the conference safely; registration for Virtual LibLearnX opens on Oct. 15.

 

HYBRID OPTIONS

NYLA plans to proceed with its Conference and Trade Show as a hybrid event—virtually from October 28–29, and in person at Syracuse’s the OnCenter from November 3–6—without requiring proof of vaccination, but reflecting the protocols of the OnCenter, Syracuse Downtown Marriott Hotel, and Onondaga County.

Masking will be required for all participants, vaccinated or unvaccinated, with temperature checks also required prior to entry into the conference, NYLA Professional Development Manager Sarah Sherlock told LJ. All vendors will be three feet apart and must wear masks. On the Trade Show floor, hand sanitizer stations and masks will be available. Since vendors are spread apart, NYLA has also downsized the number of vendors allowed to 96 maximum. Conference programs at the OnCenter and Marriott will have six-foot spacing requirements, and the in-person registrant cap has been updated to allow for distancing at all events.

 

VACCINES REQUIRED

On August 24, ARSL announced that it would require proof of vaccination or documentation of a medical exemption on official clinic or hospital letterhead to attend the 2021 ARSL Conference, from October 20–23, in person. Those who cannot or will not provide vaccination proof are invited to join the virtual conference, which includes live streams of keynote events and featured sessions, a selection of on-demand virtual sessions, and networking with both virtual and in-person attendees through the Whova conference app, all of which is available through December 31.

Days after ARSL’s announcement, the Charleston Conference, originally planned as a hybrid in-person and virtual event from November 1–5, announced that, due to updated safety protocols from the Gaillard Center following CDC guidelines, attendees will be required to provide proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours prior to check-in in order to receive a conference badge. Only results of PCR or rapid tests, or proof of antibodies from a doctor, will be accepted; results from home COVID tests will not. Vaccination cards must show that 14 days have passed since the final dose.

“The conference will continue to monitor the situation closely, and will be following all venue policies for the Gaillard Center and the Francis Marion Hotel,” said Charleston Library Conference Executive Director Leah Hinds. “Face masks are required while indoors for all in-person conference sessions and events regardless of vaccine status. In addition, there will be plexiglass protective desk shields at registration desk check-in and information desk areas, and refreshments will be served by catering staff with masks and gloves. Hand sanitizer stations will be provided throughout the facilities, and rigorous cleaning and sanitizing procedures will be followed by venue staff.” These protocols may be subject to change, she added, as planners receive new guidance from event venues, local mandates, and CDC guidelines.

For the ARSL Board of Directors, the decision to require proof of vaccination for conference attendees—who would be coming from around the country to the venue in Reno/Sparks, NV, often from remote areas requiring extensive travel or connections—was not arrived at lightly.

“I really commend our board,” said ARSL Executive Director Kate Laughlin. “It was not an easy decision, and we knew that it was one of those damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situations. There is no way to please everyone.”

ARSL leadership had tracked pandemic news all summer, particularly dispatches from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) Project. By early August, they realized that their concerns about bringing hundreds of people together indoors for hours at a time would not diminish by the fall. At the same time, the ARSL office was receiving a growing number of questions about the conference from worried attendees and presenters—some of them considering canceling as case numbers rose, and many asking if vaccines would be required.

As part of the registration process, ARSL had included a question asking registrants whether they would be fully vaccinated by the time they attended—“We just wanted to be able to get a read on it,” said Laughlin. Roughly 10 percent indicated that they would not be vaccinated. At their weekly meeting, Laughlin and ARSL President Kathy Zappitello decided to take the decision to the association’s executive board, which in turn called for a discussion and decision by the full board—nine voting and two non-voting members. After a week of conversation and deliberation, the proof of vaccination requirement was discussed, voted on, and passed, with the provision beforehand that, whatever the outcome of the vote, it would become the decision of the entire board. “Regardless of which side it fell on, we would all be expected to stand behind that decision,” said Laughlin, “and that includes me as an ex officio non-voting member.”

Responses to the ruling ran the gamut from gratitude to anger; “We’ve lost members, we've gained members,” Laughlin told LJ. The association’s listserv was extremely active over the decision, she said, but dialogue, both pro and con, was respectful. ARSL administration received a good number of emails thanking them, she added, but also “we heard from people who were really upset about it, whose focus seemed to be on feeling that their freedoms and rights were being trod upon. There were feelings that this was somehow forcing or legislating their decision” about whether to be vaccinated. “We've been really clear in all of our communications, and I know it was clear on the board: We absolutely support everybody’s choice.”

Most registrants who will be unable to produce proof of vaccination have “professionally and respectfully” switched over to the virtual option, which had been in place from the beginning, Laughlin said. Unless a federal or Nevada state mandate or conference facility policy arises in the next few weeks, the ARSL conference will take place as planned. Until then, she said, “I hope ARSL’s decision gives other library associations the courage to make that choice as well.”

As Wong noted, this won’t be the first time in the past year and a half that library professionals have needed to change the way they do things. “I think we've all pivoted a little bit in our own experiences, within our own institutions,” she said.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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