No trees were harmed in the making of this conference

For those of you who have never visited (or heard of) a virtual conference, let me set the scene:  hundreds of librarians huddle in front of PCs in their homes and small libraries across Iowa on a particularly freezing January day with coffee in hand.  All are about to take part in a conference, without going anywhere.  Keynoters Sarah Houghton-Jan and George Needham bookend the day while breakout sessions, poster sessions and even a virtual exhibit hall give every attendee the full conference experience – all without travel, or cost. 

2010 marks the third year that the Iowa Small Libraries Online Conference (ISLOC) has been offered by the people, for the people (the people of small libraries, that is).  The ISLOC team ( consists of Library Service Area staff, a trustee, a State Library representative, and the very people it aims to serve:  individuals who work in Iowa’s small public libraries.

Selling a free service

The online conference is all about accessibility.  The idea is to provide those from the smallest rural libraries the opportunity to have the full conference experience without the barriers of travel and cost.  This is a hard idea to get across to potential exhibitors (You mean my booth will be free?  Is this for real?  Will anyone actually be there?).  With over 200 registered to attend the day-long online conference, the few enterprising exhibitors that survive the introduction of this radical new way of connecting with conference-goers are guaranteed some quality exposure.  What have they got to lose?  There is no charge to exhibitors or participants, and only an hour-and-fifteen-minute time commitment the day of the conference. 

Deadlines and other figments of the imaginationEx\

After “selling the free service” it becomes necessary to help (especially the first-timers) through the follow-through.  Ideally, the commitment to participate would come about a month prior to the conference (with the added incentive of the listings in the hall going in order of date of commitment), the logos and catchy taglines should be submitted three weeks prior, the hall built two weeks prior and all links submitted / added / tested one week prior.

In reality, many exhibitors make this harder than it actually is.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel, or to buy or create expensive or time-consuming software.  Just follow the bouncing ball!  If you can sign up for a hotmail account, chances are you can sign up for meebo. has become our go-to suggestion for first time exhibitors.  It’s free, it’s easy, and the widget can be added to a site by even the most timid & non-techie. 

Because all of this is online and does not require the scheduling of table space or extension cords, I have generally been able to work with exhibitors who are having a hard time getting set up.  I have been known to edit the exhibit hall page the morning of the conference for those who are not quite sure they’ve got the ideal wording in their space.  The ability to be flexible is part of the beauty of being online.  I’ve also been known to give a few pep-talks:  “You can do this!  You’re a pioneer in your field!  We are great practice – more requests like this are surely coming your way!”

Interactivity – It’s all relative

The catch for the exhibitors is the “interactivity requirement.”  Simply having a website is not enough.  We want the conference participants to find a friendly face (or VOIP or chat space) waiting at each exhibit booth, just as they would at a live conference.  As mentioned above, several exhibitors use meebo widgets added to their websites to provide live chat to participants.  Others have used Webex presentations, self-made webinars, Adobe Connect (which was also the classroom environment for 2010 ISLOC sessions), or streaming videos with a toll-free number and someone standing by to answer questions.  Whatever method is chosen, the interactivity requirement makes for a more realistic conference experience and makes the visit to the hall worthwhile for participants.

No trees were harmed in the making of this conference

ISLOC team

Here's the ISLOC team in person.

We did not even use trees to print money! Free resources were utilized at every level – the hall was created as a google site, a wiki was used for team planning, and meebo widgets were used as communication tools for the host and several exhibitors.  No business cards, funky notepads/pens/trinkets were printed for distribution to participants. How much more green does it get?! 

Will there be chocolate?

Okay, so at the online conference you won’t get to go trolling for chocolate at all the exhibitor’s booths, but there are plenty of reasons to visit anyway!  CE credit was offered by the State Library of Iowa for visits to the exhibit hall for the first time in 2010.  Exhibitors include everything from automation companies to Summer Reading Program performers – something for everyone!  Participants gain free access to real live exhibitors from the comfort of home, and exhibitors gain free access to real live potential customers without having to pay for a booth or travel to it! 

The survey says…

  • 93% of participants were easily able to navigate the Virtual Exhibit Hall.
  • “I think the vendors did a good job of having information ready to go, with plenty of information available on demand.”
  • “An easy way to visit things of interest.”
  • “This is great for showcasing sites of interest to librarians…This was time well spent.”
  • “Enjoyed doing this from my office computer in my own library.”
  • From an exhibitor:  “Very convenient.  I love the concept of being able to work at the office AND attend a tradeshow at the same time.”

Further info:

Tena Hanson, Director
Milford Memorial Library, Milford, IA