Bringing Innovation to the Annual Meeting: A Report from the Content Subcommittee

A part of the charge for the Annual Meeting Task Force is to offer Council specific recommendations for reasonable changes that can be made to the meeting’s structure and administration. The Content Subcommittee is charged with making recommendations on the current format, schedule and type of content. To this end, the Subcommittee has conducted a review of annual meetings for professional organizations from allied fields (including libraries, museums & international archival organizations), as well as groups of comparable size. The goal was to identify “innovative” concepts that might be proposed as reasonable scenarios for SAA.

The Subcommittee examined the annual meetings of 30 different groups, taking into account size of the meeting, length of the meeting, and costs to members. For each group, “innovative” concepts were recorded. These concepts were not all necessarily new ideas in the world of annual meetings, but loosely defined as “things SAA does not do.” The concepts were then compiled into topical groupings, such as technology, session type, session content, conference-wide changes, pre-conference events, and food/breaks. The Subcommittee then took this list of concepts and turned them into narrative proposals for changes to the meeting.

It should come as no surprise that many of the new ideas recorded relate in some way to unconference events, or unconference facilitation of sessions. Just a few from the list include Pecha Kucha sessions; “open meetings” about a specific skill, where attendees are allowed to ask question of an expert; “facilitated conversations” around a specific topic; “incubator” sessions for collaborative work on new ideas; and lightning talk session based on theme where speakers can sign up on a daily basis.

Not all session content concepts focus on “new” ideas. Many groups support focused debate sessions featuring leaders in the field, or “senior scholar” sessions. Others make room for “State of the Field” sessions, with commentary on recent innovations or literature reviews from scholars. And still others create tracks in their programs, targeting either a theme or knowledge level. While these ideas may seem familiar, they would be new additions to SAA’s annual meeting.

Several guiding principles have come out of this process.

  • Cause and effect: For every proposed change to the annual meeting, it is important to evaluate any ripple effects that might occur. As Subcommittee Chair Carl Van Ness noted in a previous blog post, the decision to move Committee meetings to Tuesday and Wednesday mornings has impacted Saturday attendance at education sessions. Serious changes to the structure of the meeting may have a large impact on the amount of work done by the Program Committee or SAA staff. However, there may be positive ripple effects, as the introduction of unconference events, or attendee driven session content may increase networking opportunities.
  • All of the people, all of the time: Based on the comments gathered at the AMTF table at SAA, as well as the most recent SAA survey, not all members see the annual meeting in the same way. While there are very common complaints, no one member wants the same result from the meeting. The Subcommittee recognizes that any proposed changes will please some, and annoy others.
  • Membership responsibility: The success or failure of changes to the meeting content and structure ultimately lies in the hands of the attendees. For example, a formal networking opportunity sponsored by SAA is bound to fail if no one attends. New session types provided/promoted by the Program Committee can not succeed without experimentation by presenters.

We are aware that our survey of other groups in no way captures all of the possibilities that might fall into the category of “innovative” concepts. We would appreciate your feedback, either in bringing new concepts to our attention, describing the ways you’d like to see meeting content change, or even expanding on/asking questions about some of the concepts listed in this post. Please feel free to comment below, or to contact any of the members of the Content Subcommittee.

Carl Van Ness, Chair
Jacqueline Chapman
Courtney Chartier
Jelain Chubb
Jennifer Johnson
Ben Primer