We All Need an Opportunity to Discuss and Talk Freely

Letter From the Executive Director, February 2022

We all have things we miss from the era before the spread of the pandemic, personally and professionally. For me, one thing is the ability to gather and talk face to face. One of the things we’ve lost the most in this collective misery over the past two years is the opportunity to meet and talk in a freeform manner. In my role at NISO, I have often spent time at meetings and conferences gathered with people as we discuss the challenges they face or the implications of a new service or approach, or work through the detailed implementation questions users have. 

When we gather in person, there is a freedom to talk in a way that is seemingly far more difficult when we aren’t face to face. In part, it’s because connecting virtually is often driven by the scope of the meeting or the purpose of the call, and there is less or no opportunity for small chats before or after a meeting, or during a break. Increasingly, we get on a call to discuss the topic at hand, then move onto the next virtual meeting. There aren’t the surreptitious moments when tangential topics are brought up.  

It’s been my experience that most people are more guarded and more on-task in scheduled meetings or events. Perhaps it’s the recognition that the camera is on— in some ways, people view recorded media as something more akin to performance than they do live interactions. Perhaps, too, it’s the little window showing your own reflection on the screen, reminding you of the way others may view you. And then there are also the many people who prefer to listen and engage in other ways, avoiding stepping up to the microphone in a crowded room.

Despite this situation, there is much to gain from virtual gatherings. Far larger numbers of participants can engage in the topic. More voices can contribute their ideas and perspectives. People can engage from numerous locations, and we can all learn from how people in other environments solve problems. What is important is how we structure those events to promote inclusion and participation.

In just two weeks’ time, we will gather again for the next NISO Plus Conference. From its origin, this event has been centered around conversations, not presentations. There are many forums where people talk and present their ideas, their findings, or their new services. Our vision was rather to create a space where people could discuss the second-order challenges of these ideas or services. What are the impacts on organizations of a product or service, or what issues were implementers facing as they interacted with that product or service, and how can we address those challenges?  

In the virtual model that we adopted for NISO Plus in 2021, we recognized that consumption of brief introductory presentations can happen asynchronously. We don’t need to be convened together to listen to that part of the event, so we’ve moved to pre-record them all.  The most important part of the meeting, and the thing we can only do together, is to discuss and share our thoughts about the ideas. Our goal is to discuss the challenges that these ideas present and how we can collectively address them, then move forward a few of those ideas into projects and hopefully resolutions.

It is worth noting that we had a long list of ideas last year, everything from identifiers for software and code to metadata models for indigenous knowledge. We’ve advanced work on three of those ideas: controlled digital lending, retractions of scholarly works, and publisher/repository interoperability. But there were nearly three dozen other ideas that were left “on the table” and not advanced after vetting by the NISO Topic Committees. In large part, this wasn’t because the ideas weren’t good ones, or because they aren’t problems that need a resolution. Many weren’t advanced because comparatively fewer people were willing to step forward to move the idea into reality. The NISO model of completing work is that projects are organized, managed, and carried out by volunteers. Without the driving force of leaders in our community, and a team of people willing to work on solving the problem, nothing advances. We took as signals about the priority and demand for these ideas to progress the number of volunteers, the robustness of the conversation, and the feasibility of accomplishing the project in a reasonable time. Most important were the people willing to say they would volunteer their time to work on developing a solution to the issue at hand, again, because that is the most determinant factor in pushing a project forward.  

It has been an amazing journey organizing NISO Plus 2022, and we’re looking forward to the ideas and discussion that will take place in two weeks. The content recorded to date has been amazing, and we’re excited to share it with you all. More importantly, we’re excited to hear where the participants take those discussions and the ideas that will come out of them. There’s still time to register so you can come join the conversation. Let’s reinvigorate the communication and idea sharing that was such a part of the pre-pandemic world!


Todd Carpenter
Executive Director, NISO