A Few Thoughts on Coordinating Conference Panels

By Marcelo Rodríguez

During this year’s Annual Meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), I will be coordinating four panels as well as taking on some important responsibilities as the current chair of the AALL Foreign, Comparative and International Law (FCIL) – SIS. To say that this is a lot of work is an understatement. However, I can honestly say that I adore coordinating conference panels. I’m not sure whether this is a thing for other people. It is for me! Over the past five years, I have coordinated panels for AALL’s Annual Meeting every year (one in 2018, two in 2019, three in 2020, one in 2021 and four in 2022) in a variety of super interesting topics: Library Services for Communities Living in Fear; Artificial Intelligence and Implicit Bias; Social Media as Primary Sources of Government Information; Access to Legal Information from and on U.S. Territories; Legal Ethics in the Use of Artificial Intelligence; Updating Your Emergency Plans: From Pandemics to Acts of Violence to Extreme Weather and others. And it hasn’t been only with AALL. I have also had the opportunity to coordinate panels for the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL), Seminar on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials (SALALM), NELLCO Law Library Consortium, Association of Caribbean University, Research and Institutional Libraries (ACURIL) and my own conference, Conference on Access to Information: Latin America and the Caribbean (CAI:LAC).

I tend to get lots of questions from people interested in how I manage to coordinate these panels, all the way from ideation to implementation. Based on the experience listed above, the reality is that I have developed a style that has worked for me tremendously. In this post, I will enumerate some of the considerations and thoughts I always keep in mind when coordinating a panel, from beginning to end. Two warnings! Whatever works for me doesn’t necessarily need to work for you. We all have working styles and while you read this, you might want to think about what works for you and just develop that. I’m not going to cover everything here. Sometimes I do things which seem second nature to me and I’m not aware of. If you have any questions and would like to discuss further, reach out. 

First, you need an idea. You’re interested in coordinating or working on a panel about what? Perhaps there is something happening at work, something you read somewhere, an idea that came to you while watching a webinar or attending a panel. Anything and anywhere is valid, at least for your initial steps. I actually have a folder in my personal email called Ideas, where I tend to save articles, notes or anything that might be good for a panel, webinar or article. However, having an idea that resonates only with you is NOT enough. You have to be able to inspire, attract, convince, entice other people as to why your idea is interesting and worth pursuing. In my experience, this is what people struggle with the most. You have to propose an idea that you believe in. But at the same time, this same idea needs to resonate with other people and prompt them to want to approve your idea, want to be a part of it, and more importantly to attend. If your idea is too specific, perhaps consider expanding the scope and bringing other people in. Otherwise, you could have a panel about multiple points of view related to your idea. There are always ways in which you can connect your idea to that of others and to ensure others buy it too. In order to do that, you need to be willing to adapt, change and get creative with the idea that you initially fell in love with. 

Once your panel is approved, your most important step will be to select your moderator. Sometimes coordinators also want to moderate. However, I wouldn’t advise that, especially if you are coordinating or speaking in other panels or with any other responsibility during the conference. Your moderator is the most important person in the panel and you need to choose them strategically. The moderator is the center of the conversation and the person in charge of making sure that whatever the speakers are saying gets conveyed in a digestible and understandable way for the audience to follow. You want to make sure that the moderator and you are on the same wavelength and you both see the speakers, format, conversation flow and outcomes in the same way. If you choose correctly and properly communicate with your moderator, they will make sure that your vision flourishes during the panel. 

Your speakers are also an incredibly important piece of the puzzle. Choose speakers that are both knowledgeable about the topic, but also people that you want to work with. In my experience, especially with law librarians, we are lucky to be able to find experts in almost all topics, either law librarians themselves or people coming from our two closest professions: librarianship and the law. However, my biggest challenge has been to find speakers that I want to work with. By that, I mean speakers, for example who are also people who want to convey a message to the audience, instead of being dedicated  to listening to themselves speaking out loud; educators as opposed to narcissistic people; people that believe and work on diversity, representation and inclusion. This last one has become incredibly important to me, the more I coordinate panels. Sometimes coordinators do not understand the power they have to elevate voices and stories which have not been previously featured or represented. This will require some extra work. However, it’s incredibly impactful and worth every minute you spend. 

In general, I work by a few core beliefs. I make lists for everything and almost every day. I try to write these lists down and it helps me remember them more clearly. These lists also help me be consistent with what I have to do, and with myself and others. You need to communicate that same consistent messaging regularly with your moderator and speakers, even when you don’t have the answer to their questions. Being honest and consistent with the people you are working with will help you build trust and they will be more willing to follow you and receptive to your leadership. Last but not least, coordinating and controlling are not the same. Once your panel gets approved and you bring in your moderator and speakers, your idea is not yours anymore. Collaborating requires a level of flexibility and reciprocity that helps make or break a panel or any project. The ability to be resilient and succeed in the face of unpredictable things, which will inevitably happen, is based on the trust that you cultivated with people, not on the false sense of control you think you exercise over them. 


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.