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The Gaillard Centre, where most of the Charleston Conference events took place. Sadly, this is the most inauthentic building in the whole of Charleston. Constructed 1975, it looks feeble compared to the magnificent municipal and private neoclassical buildings a few blocks away.

This was my first visit to the Charleston Conference, a venerable event that has been running for over 40 years (since 1980, to be precise). Until this year it was privately owned, a rarity among major conferences.  It was great to be back at a physical, not virtual, event, with numbers (around 2,200 attendees) back to before-COVID levels. How does this conference compare with others on the academic circuit?

Let’s face it, Charleston is a long trek for most visitors. Yet The Charleston Conference is one of the most successful shows primarily focused on academic libraries, and one of the best liked, based on comments I picked up from regular attendees. Fully 10% of attendees had been to ten or more Charleston Conferences. Although in principle a library conference, it has a large contingent of publishers, who use the conference to pitch their journals and books to institutions; at a guess, I reckon the event comprises around 60% librarians, 20% publishers, and 20% vendors. These figures were corrected by the final session, where the attendees marked themselves at 73% librarians, 9% publishers, and 3% vendors (in which case, I must have met several vendors more than once, or, most likely, the publishers and vendors did not hang around for the final day). There is a trade exhibition, but the exhibition, exceptionally for a publishing conference, does not overlap with the conference proper: it takes place on a single day, the Tuesday of the conference week, with the conference sessions spread over two and a half days from Wednesday to Friday lunchtime. That makes it quite a lengthy event, the best part of four days.

Is there a secret sauce to Charleston? Why is it so liked? It must get something right to attract so many people on a regular basis. And there is certainly a technique to get librarians talking, when they are surrounded by publishers – usually the publishers drown them out.

Perhaps the secret is mass participation. As befits a library conference, the Charleston tradition is to have a large number of sessions – so many, in fact, that it is impossible to attend them all. I didn’t count the number of participants with “speaker” on their badge, but I reckon perhaps as many as a quarter of the attendees were speakers on one session or another. In other words, everyone – even you – can be a speaker.

What I liked about Charleston:

  • Certainly, the location, the exquisite historic town of Charleston, the famous food seemed to work its effect on the conference. The fine old buildings looked grand in the sunshine; the window boxes were all full of flowers, due to the mild temperature, and everyone seemed pleased to be there. Even if the conference venues are slightly north of the historic centre, there is a sense that the Charleston Conference shares something of this rather special location.

What I didn’t like

  • Although there was a vast number of sessions, it wasn’t possible to attend some events that were highly relevant to me, because they were scheduled in parallel (and sometimes in a different venue). UKSG, by contrast, offers most of the non- plenary sessions twice, so the chance of missing a session is greatly reduced.
  • The event is held over three venues, around a fifteen-minute walk at most. This is crazy; I appreciate the historical origins of the conference in this small town, but it should be possible to find a single venue.
  • One implication of the very high proportion of participants who were also speaking was that some of the sessions were less than enthralling.
  • Lunch wasn’t provided one some of the days. This might sound churlish, but after all, the point of a conference like this is for people to interact. If they drift off at lunchtime and have lunch by themselves, then they cannot talk to each other.
  • The innovation sessions were the least successful. Each hour-long innovation session was an umbrella event comprising four or five new ideas, with no connection between them. Inevitably, some topics blotted out others: they got all the questions, leaving some presenters slightly embarrassed at what seemed to be a lack of interest in their topic. Ten minutes simply isn’t enough to do more than present a few slides. It’s not enough to make a genuine contribution.

What I liked

  • The open and informal nature of the event meant that participants spoke their mind much more openly than is usually the case in other conferences.
  • For me, the best sessions revealed, for better or worse, what everyday practice in libraries actually is. It was through one of the sessions, for example, that I discovered that green Open Access is not generally liked by academics: they prefer the version of record to be deposited.

Would I go again?

Undoubtedly Charleston is a great place to have a conference. The relaxed atmosphere, the great food, the reception at the Charleston Aquarium, all contribute to making the event very much a highlight of the academic conference season. Yes, I’d certainly go again.