Last night, I caught a snippet of an interview on NPR, where the interviewee noted that remakes of Led Zeppelin songs are generally flops. Zeppelin fans look for a specific combination of factors: this specific drummer, this specific guitar sound, this particular vocal style. The songs fail to stand on their own; while you can play a Gershwin tune in the style of Led Zeppelin, you can’t really play a Zeppelin tune in a Gershwin — or any other — style. (He illustrated this point by picking out an entertaining one-finger piano melody, recognizable as a Zeppelin song, but definitely not Zeppelin.)
This leads me in a roundabout way to thinking about library-related conferences, which fail or succeed due to a confluence of factors. You need engaging presenters, an accessible and functional location, enthusiastic attendees, a commitment on the part of conference organizers to make everything run smoothly, and so on. Subtract any one factor, and some attendees will have a nagging sense of wrongness. Subtract any one factor, and the conference is less than what it could be.
I’m coming to the issue late (as usual!), but have been watching the conversation Karen Schneider sparked recently with her post on 2.0: Where are the Women? (See also: Dorothea Salo, Grunch and the Library Coder, Linda Absher, It’s a Man’s World, and Karen Coombs, On Being the Library Web Chic.) Gender balance, particularly women’s representation in technology-related programs or at hard-core techie conferences, can be one of these necessary factors. Some recognize it more consciously than others, but it’s one piece of the greater whole that makes for a satisfying conference experience.
Some random observations. I don’t think that there’s a vast conspiracy here, but that sometimes conference organizers don’t think to ask women — or create an environment that supports everyone. Other issues come into play as well, though. I think the various commenters to Karen’s initial post have it right about women in library technology being spread too thin. An anecdote: A few months ago, I asked a number of people to contribute to a work on library technology. The work’s ended up with a 50/50 split between male and female contributors — but, out of the people I originally asked, eight said they were stretched too thin to contribute: one man, seven women.
I say “no” more often than I’d like, partially due to childcare issues, partially due to being stretched too thin with other projects, and partially due to my brain being too full. (Alongside the professional track, I have the ongoing “are we out of kleenex and when’s the kid’s next dr. appt. and what do I need to defrost for dinner tonight and can I go another day without doing laundry and I need to pick him up from camp in 30 minutes so what can I start without getting into it too heavily and having to leave in the middle and did I put sunscreen on him this morning and I should call his friend for a playdate and the cat needs to go to the vet and I’d better send a birthday card to my mother-in-law” track.) Having the primary responsibility for childcare has changed the way I prioritize, and makes it less likely I’ll go back to systems librarianship anytime soon — or really burn up the library conference circuit.
Sarah Houghton comments specifically on the LITA Top Tech Trends panel at Steve Lawson’s See Also, noting that the mix of contributors tends heavily toward academic librarians and mentioning the financial barrier to conference attendance, let alone participation, for a lot of us. At mfpow, a public library, professional development funding was virtually nonexistent and even getting time away to attend or give workshops could be problematic. I vaguely remember reading that academic librarianship tends to attract more men than public librarianship. (In this article on “Career and/or Children: Do Female Academic Librarians Pay a Price for Motherhood?” — interesting reading in its own right — Zemon and Bahr say women represent close to 70% of academic librarians.)
If anyone’s seen updated gender breakdowns for systems librarians, please comment here; mine are from a few years back, so I’d love to take a look at newer stats. I’d particularly be interested in detailed breakdowns — my sense is that, the more hard-core “techie” the job, the greater the gender imbalance, but that’s based on anecdotal evidence and observation, rather than actual numbers.