Experiencing Global Conversation and Connections: NISO Plus 2021

Problem solving on a global scale

The tagline for NISO Plus 2021 was Global Conversations, Global Connections, and the conference certainly lived up to the premise. More than 800 speakers and attendees participated from all over the world, and the many perspectives expressed by this diverse group of information professionals was truly eye opening. I have never learned so much from so many, in so short a period of time. What’s more, I had the opportunity to meaningfully engage with both speakers and attendees via in-session chat, Zoom (full-group discussions as well as more intimate breakout sessions), the Discourse community forum (where we were encouraged to continue our conversations asynchronously), and at multiple social events. It was amazing that, despite being separated by distance, we had the opportunity to connect on topics we were all passionate about. This was one of the most successful aspects of the conference for me: It was almost as good as meeting in person, something I have not encountered in the many other virtual events I have participated in during the pandemic. This, I believe, is what the NISO Plus 2021 development team was hoping to achieve, and kudos to them for making their conference as “virtual forward” as they had intended. 

The conference planning committee outdid themselves, as the sessions and speakers were fantastic. As a NISO Plus 2021 Diversity Scholar, I was so excited to discover how many sessions revolved around access, accessibility, bias, and improving diversity, equity, and inclusion overall. My favorite sessions were “Standards That Support Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” “Solving Problems with Standards,” “A Focus on Accessibility,” and “AI, Metadata Creation, and Historical Bias.”  One concept that really struck me is the insidiousness of unconscious bias, which has such a strong hold on us that if we fail to assess our own bias, it can creep into everything we do. In “AI, Metadata Creation, and Historical Bias,” Dominique Luster urged us not to be satisfied with believing ourselves neutral and objective, because our carefully cultivated efforts to maintain “neutrality” and “color-blindness” do not work, as they are based on a normative culture that makes “whiteness appear neutral.” Instead, we must take action as a community to be actively anti-racist, from the metadata we use to describe records (thereby controlling discoverability) to the data sets utilized in programming AI.  The passion of those championing DE&I subjects was electric, and I was further inspired to hear how hard so many people are working behind the scenes to create meaningful change. 

The introductory talks were informative, and the subsequent live discussions were even more enlightening. There is so much variability in how issues are dealt with in different countries — it was fascinating to hear about how people engaged the same challenges around the world, the strategies and workarounds they developed to improve products and services, and how willingly they shared information and resources with other organizations to address these issues. 

NISO Plus 2021 was effectively about problem solving on a global scale, and the conference format really lent itself to achieving this goal. While expert speakers were brought in to provide introductions and share their experiences, the aim was to highlight important topics so the entire community could then join in the conversations and work together to brainstorm potential solutions. And people were truly invested in those conversations. They discussed each problem from all angles and perspectives, provided concrete examples whenever possible, and shared resources with each other. NISO working groups were proposed for follow-up on relevant issues, and participants were encouraged to volunteer. It was wonderful to see such a diverse group of people working together so positively and respectfully; all voices were welcome, even those of students like me, who are just embarking on their careers in the information professions. 

 One of the most surprising parts of the NISO Plus conference was that it was also fun! This was not just another one of those infamous “talking head” events that we have been inundated with as a result of the pandemic. The NISO staff are really funny and creative, and they worked hard to make this an experience to remember. The “Jeopardy NISO Edition” was hilarious, and it was great to see how much everyone got into the spirit of the game. I also spent quite a bit of time in Gather.town, a virtual networking environment I had never used before. The old-school video game avatars were adorable, and it was such fun running around as a cartoon and meeting new people from all over the world. Indeed, it was such a clubby, relaxed setting that it made it much easier to chat with strangers, many of whom I might normally have found intimidating due to their high-level positions and achievements. What I found though, was that everyone I spoke to was incredibly approachable, responsive, and helpful. 

I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to attend NISO Plus 2021, not just because of everything I learned, but also because of the amazing people I met. I have made connections with information professionals whom I admire both for their expertise and their kindness. As a first-generation student from a marginalized community, it was astounding to find so many people who wanted to help me succeed. I am proud to be a part of the NISO community, and I look forward to doing my part to increase access and accessibility for all. NISO’s vision is to help create “a world where all benefit from the unfettered exchange of information,” and NISO Plus 2021 certainly made great strides toward achieving this goal.