The short answer, obviously, is: Katina.
I’m standing at the refreshments table with a colleague who’s just told me this is the first time she’s come to the Charleston Conference. I say, “There really isn’t any other event quite like it” and she asks, “What makes it so different?”
She hasn’t seen the differences yet. When you’re standing in the middle of that ballroom, surrounded by exhibit tables staffed by eager, smiling sales reps making their pitches, the Vendor Showcase looks much like any other exhibit hall at any other library conference. But that’s just the first day.
On Vendor Showcase day, the buyers and sellers may be on opposite sides of the tables, but after that wraps they’re equals. Librarians, publishers and the other vendors of products aimed at librarians are all full program participants. They’re all speakers and listeners and questioners, in the conference rooms, the bars, the hotel lobbies, the receptions, the restaurants. (Oh yes, the restaurants! It’s Charleston.)
Back in 1980, unable to afford to go to ALA, Katina Strauch, then at the College of Charleston, invited a couple dozen people to join her for a day of discussions about “Issues in Book and Serial Acquisition.” They had a good time, so they did it again the next year and a few more people came. By the time I first went, in 2002, there were hundreds of people packed uncomfortably into the anachronistic Southern elegance of the Francis Marion hotel and the adjoining conference center. A couple of years later, the conference center closed, so Katina and crew expanded into two other nearby hotels, sending attendees scurrying across Marion Square or up along Calhoun. Now, with the Gaillard Center nearby, the physical crowding has been greatly relieved, even though attendance is bumping up against 2,000. The intellectual crowding dizzies more than ever.
There’s no association or membership organization behind it. It’s just Katina and the brilliant crew of Conference Directors and staff she’s assembled over the decades. They’re nimble, creative, highly professional. Beholden only to their vision of the conference they can innovate in session design, be flexible in handling themes and content. It’s extremely well run (much of the credit for that going to Exec Director, Leah Hinds), and the range of topics covered is staggering. The tagline is still there – Issues in Book and Serial Acquisition – but it is so much more than that.
I went that first time because Ramune suggested I propose something – she was trying to get more medical librarians to go. I’d just written a JMLA editorial about the retraction debacle surrounding the deletion of an article from Human Immunology and the letter that had been sent to subscribers asking them to remove the article from the print copies. I put together a presentation outlining the issues. I was particularly critical of the policy that Elsevier had drafted after the fact to address possible similar situations in the future. During the Q&A, Michael Mabe, then working for Elsevier, stood up and said, “I drafted that policy.” We had a lively exchange – lively exchanges being very much a hallmark of the Charleston Conference. We became friends and when Michael moved on to head the STM Association he opened many doors for me in the publishing world, for which I will always be grateful. It was also at that first meeting that I met Anthony Watkinson (aka the Connector – he seems determined to make sure that every interesting person he knows meets every other interesting person he knows). More gratitude.
The web of connections grew. I think now of the people who’ve been so influential in my life and in my understanding of the complexity of the world of scholarly communication; so many of them people I met at Charleston or through someone that I met at Charleston. It’s the opportunity for making those sorts of relationships that’s a big part of what makes the Charleston Conference so different, too.
I don’t go back every year, but most years. I’ve done some concurrent sessions, a plenary or two, hosted some panels, been interviewed for the Penthouse series. These last couple of years, though, I haven’t wanted to be on the program. My neurologically challenged body doesn’t handle the stress as well as it used to. The ratio of work to fun in putting together and delivering something that I’m proud of is no longer in my favor. So now I go to mingle with people I’ve come to know, meet new people, have my brain tickled by ideas. It never gets old (although we do).
It comes back to Katina. Certainly there are many people who deserve a lot of credit for making it what it’s become. But it’s her curiosity about the field, where it’s going, how it works, and the people who comprise it, that infuses the spirit of the conference and makes it the uniquely challenging, stimulating, and energizing event that it is. For anyone interested in the future of scholarly communication, the business of scholarly communication, and the myriad ways people are trying to shape that future, it shouldn't be missed. There isn’t anything else quite like it.