Last Thursday, when word spread across social media platforms that last December’s Online conference and exhibition marked the end of the series, many of us – myself included – were prompted to reflect on what Online meant to us, and share memories of an event whose history stretches all the way back to 1976. Mine are here, and I link to those of others at the end of this post.
There was a time when everyone associated with the information industry knew that London Olympia was the place to be in the first week of December each year to attend the Online conference and exhibition. I participated at the event myself from 1994 to 2011. Over the same seventeen year period that it took my nephew to reach the age when he could apply for his provisional driving licence*, I attended the exhibition to catch up with the latest online developments. The expensive pay-by-the-minute/record viewed command-driven interfaces of the early days, understandable to, and used only by trained information professionals, are the ancestors of the mobile apps marketed at the general population today. Those of us who attended Online on a regular basis called in at all stopping points along the way: basic text-based menu-based systems, early graphical user interfaces, Windows-based systems, web interfaces etc., while witnessing the movements of the companies and other organisations that support this industry. Meanwhile upstairs at Olympia in the conference halls I sat with others from all over the world listening to dozens of papers, relating their content to my own experience, and picking up new ideas to develop my teaching and research into the forthcoming new year.
The satellite events that grew up around the conference and exhibition, such as exhibitor receptions, book launches, professional group meetings, language-specific sessions etc. provided seemingly endless opportunities for networking (and eating, and drinking). I used to say that I looked forward to Online week as much as others look forward to going on holiday, and it was this aspect of Online that I loved the most. Seeing many of my professional colleagues in London for three days each December to reflect on the work of the past twelve months, and to look forward to the opportunities ahead, was one of the highlights of my year.
I attended Online as a delegate, presented my research as a speaker (on nine occasions between 1995 and 2011, as can be seen on my publications and presentations pages), chaired numerous sessions, and worked on exhibition stands (mostly for UKeiG/UKOLUG and other CILIP special interest groups, and others such as British Association for Information and Library Education and Reseach (BAILER)). Between 2004 and 2011 I also served as a member of the Conference Executive Committee. In this role I helped plan the conference, and was a member of the panel that refereed the papers submitted for review each spring. In the period that I was leading the implementation of the UK Library and Information Science Research Coalition between 2009 and 2012 I used the networking opportunities of the Online conference and exhibition to disseminate news of the Coalition’s activities, as well as disseminated news from the event to the Coalition’s audience over Twitter and in a couple conference reviews (see the reviews from 2009; and 2010). It is would be no exaggeration to say that my involvement in Online over the years had a significant impact on my teaching, research and professional activities – indeed on the direction of my career.
The conference’s hey day was in the 1990s as the wider population became increasingly aware of the Internet, and the potential of online information to change the way we work and live. Each year the exhibition seemed to grow bigger and bigger and you really felt that you would miss out if you didn’t put in the leg work to get around all the exhibition stands and discover the new products and services on offer. Then there was the strange effect that the freebies had on us all. Normally I would have no interest in a luminous yellow frisbee/sparkly red baseball hat/a striped tote bag/multi-coloured juggling balls and the like, but if I saw a couple delegates showing their latest exhibitor acquisition off to just one other person, I just had hunt one down for myself – and then find a way of fitting it into my luggage to carry back to Edinburgh along with all the literature that I’d picked up over the three days at Online.
I have especially happy memories of the conference from the period when I worked as a lecturer at Queen Margaret College (as was – now Queen Margaret University) because it was then that the event organisers liked to employ groups of students as conference and exhibition stewards. Over several years I took the final year undergraduate student members of my Online information services module on a three day trip to London. This was integral to studying the module content. Part of the course work assessment was to write a product review in the style of Information World Review. This task required the students to identify a candidate product at the Online exhibition and ask for a demonstration so that they could evaluate its potential application in a business environment. The students very much enjoyed the opportunity that Online gave them. One e-mailed me in the past couple of days to say:
“I loved Online. Everybody in the information profession was there. It was great to blend academia with the working world, and to do some serious networking with the help of nibbles and a glass of wine. The exhibitors gave away the best pens, pencils, rubbers, highlighters, torches, bouncy balls ever! I could hardly get back on the train to Edinburgh with all my bags! Happy memories.”
For all the students participation at the conference and exhibition confirmed that their Information Management degree offered many exciting career opportunities. In some cases it changed lives as decisions were made to pursue career interests in particular sectors of the information industry (e.g. publishing, research, financial services, consulting), or ambitions were raised to seek employment beyond Scotland following graduation.
Another told me at the weekend about the impact that Online had on his career:
“Online definitely confirmed to me that I wanted to get a job as a Researcher. In those days the Online exhibition was huge and seeing the vast range products available for the first time was a great experience. Getting into the conference and attending anything you wanted to when you were required as a steward was very useful. Of course, it was also good to meet the recruitment agencies and get my CV into circulation.
After the event I wrote an article about the conference with some of the other students. This was then published for one of the information journals. I talked about that article and Online at the interviews I attended afterwards!
During Online week it was also good to meet up with all the Queen Margaret graduates who were already working in the information industry in London. I remember talking about life in the city with them that evening, then later crossing paths with them when I moved down to London myself.”
The irony is that In recent years it is the ubiquity of online in general that has lessened the obvious need for large conferences and exhibitions such as Online. When the provision of online information services was a niche actvity of a well-defined professional group, supported by a vibrant and diverse set of industry players, with the professional groups to provide the necessary infrastructure for networking, the set-up of Online was well-suited. Today it is a much more difficult task to identify and pin down a core audience for a conference series whose remit could be so large. Equally, online tools now make it possible to achieve at a distance tasks that required the trip to London in the past, such as accessing product information from a supplier (go to the web site to download the brochure and demo) or maintain contact with external work colleagues and friends (follow their Twitter feeds and blogs, connect to them on LinkedIn, chat to them on Facebook etc.) Then there is the issue of three days in a row out of the office. For many information professionals, this is a luxury that their employers can no longer afford.
I know that I have been very fortunate to have been so closely associated with a conference and exhibition series that had such an impact over the years. Since seeing the closure announcement last week dozens of random memories from Online have popped into my head. Here are some of them – in no particular order:
- Andy Hyde encouraging me to send my first ever tweet.
- Turning up at the UKOLUG help desk one morning to discover that Alison McNab, Christine Baker and I were all dressed in almost identical Black Watch tartan jackets.
- Talking to Jimmy Wales at breakfast and Robert Scoble at dinner.
- Being completely taken by surprise when it was announced that I had won the 2009 Information World Review Information Professional of the Year Award.
- Dropping my mobile into a glass of water on my bedside table following a Monday night City Information Group party. The next day I won £100 in an exhibitor’s prize draw. This paid for a replacement phone.
- Sharing the curious – and rather chilly – pleasure with many other delegates of seeing hotel guests outside in their pyjamas early one morning when the fire alarm went off in the Hilton London Olympia Hotel.
- Presenting my last ever conference paper with acetates as visual aids. “I think you better learn this thing called PowerPoint” mentioned a student to me as we headed back to Edinburgh at the end of the conference.
- Chatting to Sir Trevor McDonald about cricket at one of the conference dinners.
- Seeing a hand held device – an Apple Newton – for the first time at Online and wanting one so badly!
- Announcing that Phil Bradley had been elected Vice President of CILIP for 2011.
- Being grateful to Marydee Ojala when she kindly stepped in to cover my session chairing duties on a Thursday when I fell ill.
- Witnessing Katherine Allen all aglitter in a black sparkly top from an illuminated bridge above the delegates in one of the museums at one of the conference opening parties.
- Enjoying all the parties, receptions, and lunches – in particular those hosted by the conference itself, and the satellite events organised by the City Information Group, FreePint, and the SLA – and not forgetting JG-T’s InfoChums lunches.
- Watching the students showing off their stashes of freebies on the train home to Edinburgh, giving the wrong impression to all in the carriage that they’d spent the previous three days perfecting a legitimate form of shop-lifting, rather than attending a professional event.
- Establishing the tradition of always sitting next to Paul Blake during the opening keynote presentation at the conference.
- Meeting Charlene Li.
- Making educated guesses as to whether the tweeted questions at the session that I was chairing were aimed at my panel or those in the parallel sessions.
- Appreciating Sue Bright and Mike McConnell’s talents in looking after everyone so well in the conference speakers’ room between presentations.
- Listening to my then-boss Professor Elisabeth Davenport posing challenging questions for Tony Benn to answer in the UKOLUG guest lecture slot.
The Online conference and exhibition was a huge annual event and a large part of the working life of many of us in the information industry. I’d like to thank all those behind it. These individuals include the staff of Incisive Media expertly led by Lorna Candy, the volunteer committee members, and the three chairs with whom I worked closely: Martin White, Adrian Dale and Stephen Dale. Everyone who took part as delegates, presenters and exhibitors had a role to play over the years, as did the students steward cohorts whose company I particularly enjoyed in the 1990s.
(*I heard news of my nephew’s birth from a public telephone in the Hilton London Olympia Hotel at the end of my first ever day at Online. “I’d rather have my head chopped off with an axe than do that again” announced my sister, who then went on to have another baby just 18 months later.)
Others have also blogged their reflections and memories of Online: Phil Bradley; Roddy McLeod; Steve Dale. If you know of others, please send the URL(s) to me by e-mail and I’ll add them to the list here.