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Building and Sustaining the Community While Apart: An Interview with Team DLF

An abridged interview with the staff of the DLF program about the impact of COVID-19 on the 2020 DLF Forum, and on  upcoming Forums in 2021 and beyond. Nicole Kang Ferraiolo, CLIR’s director of global strategic initiatives interviews: 

Louisa Kwasigroch, director of outreach and engagement; interim DLF senior program officer
Aliya Reich, program manager for conferences and events
Gayle Schechter, DLF program associate


I thought that we’d get started by talking about how the DLF Forum adapted in 2020 following the spread of COVID-19 globally. What was initially planned and then what changed?

Aliya Reich: I can start us off. Because of the timeline of when everything took place, we had already released a CFP for an in-person DLF Forum in early March 2020. But over the next month it became increasingly clear that this was going to be more serious than we initially thought. So we conducted a couple of community surveys and made the decision to go virtual. We then re-released the CFP in July with a new guiding focus, which was “building community while apart.”

Gayle Schechter: Once we made the decision to go virtual, in terms of planning the event, there was this real feeling in the community of “Oh, we’ve got your back.” I recall our first DLF Forum Community Committee meeting once the decision was made to go virtual. Aliya and I were both feeling a little down going into that meeting. And I remember leaving just so energized! Everyone was so enthusiastic and creative. It just really reinforced for me how unique and special of a community we have.

Louisa Kwasigroch: We wanted to be as transparent as possible with our community—letting people see our process and weigh in rather than being like, “Oh, we’re the experts and we’ll just prescribe what you need.” We were really interested in those key questions like: why do you hold a conference? Why does the DLF Forum exist? How are we going to distill that into the necessary pieces to keep our community getting what they need now that we’re virtual? And kudos to Aliya and Gayle for making sure that the Forum was free, no charge to attendees.  

I like to think that DLF is known for having a culture of care. What are some of the ways you tried to foster an ethos of care at the DLF Forum during this particularly difficult time?

Aliya Reich: In a typical year, our Community Committee works to welcome everyone to our conference host city. And so the focus shifted this year to “how do we do that virtually” and build community? Their work was absolutely crucial in providing opportunities for folks to connect with each other so that it wasn’t just webinar after webinar. So this crew put together a comprehensive list of wellness resources. They had a movie screening (I Am Divine, a John Waters film, of course!) and a Spotify playlist with a nod to Baltimore because that’s where we were meant to be. They did networking bingo, a photo booth, a newcomers’ welcome hour, a community journalist program and more.

Gayle Schechter: We had a community toast during the lightning talks and we reached out to a local bartender in Baltimore, Ashley Mac, to create a specialty cocktail/mocktail. We also included the option for folks during registration to donate to some local charities in Baltimore, including the Youth Empowered Society, a safe space for homeless youth in Baltimore City, and the Baltimore Restaurant Relief Fund

Louisa Kwasigroch: Typically, when people come to the Forum, we want to make sure they feel supported while they’re away from home. But we’re coming into your home now. So you have kids, we should have a storytime (and a fabulous one at that, hosted by keynoter Dr. Stacey Patton). You have pets, we want to show them off on Twitter (#DLFPets). 

Aliya Reich: Another part of creating a community and culture of care is making sure that we can keep people safe. The Committee for Equity and Inclusion and the Digital Accessibility working groups helped us revisit DLF’s Code of Conduct, which is a robust document but it wasn’t as explicit about online events. That committee also put together a bystander orientation for online spaces, building on a previous bystander training for the in-person event in 2019.

The summer before the Forum, there was our racial reckoning around the murder of George Floyd and so many other Black people at the hands of police. And we felt like we needed to incorporate something acknowledging that in the new call for proposals. We explicitly stated that we would be prioritizing the voices of BIPOC people and people who worked at BIPOC and HBCU institutions. The importance of these issues at our 2020 conference was driven home by Dr. Stacey Patton, in her keynote, “Do Black Lives Matter in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums?

And then the last thing I’ll say is that accessibility is a huge part of our in-person event. So that was something that we really thought through in terms of formatting, looking at making sure that we had captions and transcripts and resources that were as accessible as possible. 

Let’s talk about the upcoming 2021 Forum. How has it been shaped by your experience with the 2020 Forum?  

Gayle Schechter: We’ll be virtual again in 2021, but the situation for us is very different. Last year we were planning for an in-person event, and then all of the sudden it was pump the brakes and hard right turn into doing a virtual event. We managed, but it was a lot and the timeline was very condensed. This year, we’re able to envision this event as a virtual event from the beginning, which means we can ask the right questions when thinking about what we’re hoping to get out of the event this year. 

Aliya Reich: We decided to go virtual again after we did another community survey in January 2021, and we heard over and over again that folks were nervous about having access to the vaccine and about not having professional development funds or stable, sufficient employment. People were also concerned about not having a vaccine for kids. We didn’t want to create a situation that would increase the disparity between folks at well-funded institutions, with stable jobs, and family structures that allow them to travel and others in other circumstances. We learned so much from last year that we’re looking to just really build on the success of that event. 

Gayle Schechter: We also have a better sense of what a virtual Forum means for our working groups. Last year, our groups created a series of either blog posts or videos introducing folks to the work the groups do and how you can get involved if you’re newer to DLF. With that format, a lot of people became aware of our working groups and there was definitely an uptick in involvement, including international partnerships. We’re hoping to build on that model this coming year.

Aliya Reich: We also hope there will be more opportunities in 2021 and beyond to partner with other GLAM organizations that do work that is adjacent or aligned with our own and bridge our audiences. For instance, last year we had partner sessions with the HBCU Library Alliance and we’re looking at doing that again this year.

Louisa Kwasigroch: When we were first talking about what we wanted to be the guiding principles for 2021, I couldn’t get the image of weaving out of my head, which is where the design look for the Forum this year comes from. It’s all these individual people coming together to make something strong and coherent, something you couldn’t see when they’re all apart. That’s what was driving us. We wanted to sustain our community. So we’re not trying to add a bunch more to this picture right now, we’re trying to get back to basics. What do you really need to have a community? What do we need to keep our careers sustained and ourselves sustained? There’s this isolation, not just physical, and so if we can bring people together to make something stronger and beautiful, then that’s what I’m looking for. 

How do you think the Forum might change again as more of the population is vaccinated? What’s on the horizon for 2022 and beyond? 

Aliya Reich: I think that people are very eager to get together in person again. 2022 is going to be fantastic! I’m a little biased (since I live here!), but Baltimore is such an amazing city and the hotel is fabulous. We’ll also be co-located with the Digitizing Hidden Collections Symposium in 2022. I’m really looking forward to the energy because that’s something that this community seems to have in endless amounts. And hopefully because of what we’ve done over the virtual events, we’ll have that many more new folks whom we can welcome to their first in-person Forum as well. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps! 

Louisa Kwasigroch: There are many advantages to both virtual and in-person conferences. I think one of the biggest things for 2022 and beyond will be how are we going to mix the away and the in-person?

Aliya Reich: And climate change obviously is a huge piece of all this, between the air travel to get there, all the stuff we’re ordering—just thinking about the environmental impact of even our relatively small conference, how can we look at ways to balance that out and contribute to a more sustainable events model going forward?

Louisa Kwasigroch: Every year we issue a survey and we take the feedback we get very seriously. We’ve evolved and our team puts in an incredible amount of thoughts into what happens. So when we try to look ahead to 2022 and 2023, we don’t want to prescribe too much what they might be like, because we’re going to be listening very carefully to the feedback that we get this year as well.

Is there anything else you want to add? 

Aliya Reich: I don’t know that I’ve emphasized enough or could emphasize enough how amazing the Planning Committee was throughout all of this. There are hundreds of other people without whom it really would not have been possible to put on the virtual DLF Forum, and we are so grateful to them.


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