By Ben Els, Digital Curator at the National Library of Luxembourg and Chair of the 2021 General Assembly (GA) and Web Archiving Conference (WAC) Organising Committee
In collaboration with the IIPC, the National Library of Luxembourg (BnL) had the honour of hosting the 2021 edition of the Web Archiving Conference. As a virtual event, this conference brought together experts and researchers from 39 countries, to present and evaluate the latest developments in the world of web archiving. The last edition of this conference took place in 2019 in Zagreb and since many web archiving institutions haven’t had the opportunity for a local exchange with fellow practitioners, this international meeting plays a vital role in the concerted efforts in Internet preservation.
From in-person to virtual
The preparations for this year’s conference started in June 2019 and, initially, the 2021 conference was meant to take place in our new library building. As you can imagine, the ups and downs of the past 1 ½ years had a significant influence on the preparations for this conference: Will people be able to travel? What will the safety measures be? Should we plan for a hybrid solution? Eventually, we decided that a hybrid solution would hardly be feasible from an organisational standpoint and would likely also disadvantage participants attending the live event. When the decision was made to go for an online event, we faced another set of questions: how to combine the advantages of a virtual meeting with the indispensable aspects of a physical conference? In other words, what are the most valuable experiences that people would like to take away from a real-life meeting?
Our conclusion was to aim our efforts at enabling lively discussions, to focus on Q&A sessions and networking, which would normally happen during coffee breaks or social events. We spent several months researching and testing different video-conference and virtual event platforms. Finally, we decided to abandon the idea of 8-10 hour Zoom calls and moved to a different format, using the relatively new platform Remo. We also asked the speakers and panelists to make their presentations available ahead of the conference as pre-recorded videos. This way, participants were able to watch the videos they were interested in beforehand, so that during the conference, we could jump into the Q&A part right away. This format allowed for a more lively experience, with more engaging discussions. This was illustrated by the fact that many participants stayed with the event from 08:00 in the morning until midnight!
Customising the online experience
As Olga explained during the General Assembly: “online doesn’t mean less work”. We realised that Remo is not a perfect platform and that there was a smart adaptation phase for first-time users. Therefore, a lot of work went into organising training events during the three weeks before the conference. We made sure that all speakers, session chairs and panelists took part in at least one of these familiarisation sessions, which helped the event in getting a lot of technical and organisational questions out of the way ahead of time. Moreover, we had a number of volunteers on board, making sure that the program of the conference would run smoothly and all technical difficulties could be dealt with as quickly as possible. The team composed of five core members of the organising committee and the conference “super elves” was operating like a well-oiled machine – and that over the course of three days from 08:00 in the morning until midnight.
Online and all time zones
The second challenge of a virtual event is the differences in time zones, when people want to follow the discussions from their homes on the other side of the world. For this reason, we arranged the conference schedule in a way that would allow participants from all time zones to follow at least 6 hours of program during their normal working hours. This inclusive approach has proven to be successful, by surpassing the previous records for registrations and attendance. It is safe to say that the 2021 edition of the Web Archiving Conference has reached more people than ever before.
Virtually in Luxembourg
The third challenge in an online event: how to highlight the character of the hosting institution, since the conference venue doesn’t really matter on the Internet? In collaboration with our sponsors and partners, including the National Research Fund and the Luxembourg – Let’s make it happen initiative, we tried to represent the BnL and the country of Luxembourg in a virtual space. On the customised floorplan in Remo, we highlighted our partners and included hints at cultural, historical and culinary Luxembourg landmarks. If you would like to learn more about the Emoxie icons and their stories, we invite you to a virtual visit to Luxembourg. Please don’t forget to stop by at the National Library!
Lessons learnt and raising awareness
Before WAC 2021, the BnL didn’t have a lot of experience with hosting larger conferences and even less experience in online events. Although the time commitment should not be underestimated, the whole process was at the same time, an incredibly valuable learning experience (not to mention how much fun we had during preparation calls and all throughout the conference). Hosting the Web Archiving Conference has also pushed the BnL in getting to know all parts of the inner workings of the IIPC and getting in contact with many member institutions. Locally, we were able to draw attention to the role of the National Library as a frontrunner in digital preservation in Luxembourg (Mois des archives: Web Archive & Mir brauchen dréngend e Bachelor an den Informatiounswëssenschaften). We were also able to organise a shared panel with the University of Luxembourg, to highlight local efforts in documenting the Covid-19 pandemic.
From the incredibly generous feedback, we also learned that the attention to detail and thoughtful planning have not gone unnoticed by the participants. For that part, the BnL can only accept a fraction of the praise: without Olga’s and Robin’s tireless commitment and expertise, we never could have reached the goals that were set up at the beginning. Therefore, next year’s hosts should be reassured to have both of them on board and set the bar for 2022 even higher.