Small and Rural Librarians: Leading the Way in Online Conferences

Noah Lenstra /

As part of the public health response to the coronavirus, most face-to-face conferences scheduled for upcoming months have been cancelled, with many opting for online conferences. For instance, the Society for Public Health Education’s annual conference, scheduled for March 17-20, 2020 in Atlanta, shifted to being entirely online.

In this context, it can be helpful to remind ourselves that library staff, from small and rural locales in particular, have been eager and effective early adopters of the convening capacities of new technology. Two examples from Iowa and Nebraska illustrate this evolution.

In April 2009 Sarah Willeford, Assistant Administrator of the Central Iowa Library Service Area, asked “What if we held a conference and everybody came? That was the premise of our first Iowa Small Libraries Online Conference (ISLOC): a conference that librarians and trustees from even the smallest libraries could attend. Not everybody attended, but more than 100 librarians and trustees registered for the first online conference and, on a snowy January day in 2008, they attended sessions, networked, and visited exhibits from their homes and libraries. Attendance was good, interaction during the sessions was gratifying, and at the end of an exhausting day, we knew that we were going to be planning another online conference."

You can take a quick trip to the past and see the webpage for the 2008 online conference, which was preserved by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. The tagline for the event was “Join us for this conference for Iowa's small libraries-You don't even have to leave town!”

In 2009, there were 170 people registered, and by 2011, registration topped 200. The conference has continued to grow year after year.

In 2008, the ISLOC planners teamed up with the state library (who offered the technical infrastructure) to launch this online conference. From the beginning, OCLC's WebJunction helped make it happen. In the early years, the conference used the Horizon Wimba Live Classroom environment, “made available through the State Library of Iowa’s Community Partnership with WebJunction,” according to one of the organizers.

To help others plan similar events, organizers published tutorials on how to launch and sustain an online conference, with more advice to come in following years on the TechSoup for Libraries website.

The ISLOC conference was so successful that in 2015 the organizers decided to open it up to anyone, and thus the Innovative Libraries Online Conference came to be. The conference is now run annually by the State Library of Iowa.

This is truly an example of small and rural librarians identifying a need (as they can’t always travel to state conferences), working with partners to address that need, and then, with those partners, recognizing that the model works so well it could be extended to a wider audience.

The Iowa model inspired others around the country. In 2012, Christa Porter of the Nebraska Library Commission teamed up with the Association for Rural and Small Libraries to launch Big Talk from Small Libraries, a national, one-day online conference. According to the conference website “Big Talk From Small Libraries was inspired by the Iowa Small Libraries Online Conference, and our event wouldn’t exist without their advice and encouragement.”

Image: Big Talk From Small Libraries on Facebook

And the online conference phenomenon has continued to snow-ball. In 2017, state libraries from Iowa, Colorado, Georgia, and Maryland got together for “the first-ever multi-state library virtual conference.” Called Virtual Library Staff Development Day ’17, this unique event on community building represented a sea change in professional development.  These multi-state online conferences have become increasingly common. On March 3-4, 2020, the state libraries of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia got together for the 2020 Southeast Collaborative Online Conference, which they describe as focused on offering “innovative and useful online learning experiences for library staff at all levels through a convenient online conference.”

We have these trailblazers to thank for setting the stage for online conferences. In the coming months, and perhaps years, we're sure to see more opportunities to gather in virtual spaces, to learn, share, and grow as a profession, connecting with colleagues across regions, states, countries, and the globe.


Noah Lenstra is an assistant professor of Library and Information Science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is an active member of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries and in 2016 started Let’s Move in Libraries.

Images: Logo of the Iowa Small Libraries Online Conference, ca. 2011, source https://www.iowalibraryassociation.org/images/subdivisions/ISLA/2011_Spring_ISLA_Newsletter.pdf; Big Talk From Small Libraries cover photo on Facebook