Spoleto. The Southeast Wildlife Expo. The Charleston Wine + Food Festival. When it comes to the events that draw a massive crowd to downtown hotels and restaurants, few people think of the “librarian convention,” a.k.a the Charleston Conference. And it all began back in 1980 thanks to Katina Strauch.

At the time, Strauch, a librarian, was unable to afford the trip to the American Library Association’s annual conference, so she decided to invite a few of her peers to Charleston. Thirty-two years later, what began as a gathering of two dozen like-minded librarians has grown into the four-day Charleston Conference, an event that will draw 1,600 participants from around the world to the Francis Marion Hotel for workshops and networking this weekend.

“When I started this, there weren’t that many issues for a librarian to deal with,” says Strauch, now the assistant dean of technical services and collection development at the College of Charleston. “Today, it’s an exploding area.”

That’s an understatement. For any librarian (or writer, publisher, or editor, for that matter), the current era is downright frightening. “Taking information and putting it into physical books is not our future,” Mitchell Davis says. And Davis would know. He’s a co-founder of Charleston-based Bibliolabs, a company that curates and compiles digital content into online anthologies. “Libraries today are having to think about how to acquire content from independent sources that are off the radar of most major distributors.”

Think about it like this: 20 years ago, a library updating its scientific material might simply look to the recent works of a major science publisher, but librarians today have to stay attuned to a much broader base of information. After all, getting published is easy nowadays, thanks to modern technology and companies like Amazon’s CreateSpace.

“That farm-team-to-the-majors system doesn’t really exist anymore,” Davis says. “Librarians tend to paint the entire self-publishing industry with one big brush, and it’s not all that black-and-white anymore. There is good content now by people that don’t care about it being published by the big publishers.”

When Davis first attended the Charleston Conference a decade ago, e-publishing and self-publishing were cutting edge, outsider topics. Since then, the percentage of the conference’s workshops that include digital or self-publishing has grown from 10 to 80 or 90 percent.

Attendees for the 2012 conference, running Nov. 7-10 at the Francis Marion Hotel, must choose between 240 workshops scheduled from the early morning through the evening, with titles like “Developing a Cross Institutional E-Book Strategy” and “Zen and the Art of Scholarly Publishing Business Models.”

On Thursday, Davis moderates “Curating a New World of Publishing” as part of a panel that includes the presidents of Smashwords and Gluejar, the world’s largest distributor of indie ebooks and a crowd-sourced publishing platform, respectively. Davis and Bibliolabs will also co-host a Wednesday pre-conference at the Hippodrome, the Mini Tools of Change (TOC), pairing speakers from publishers including Tumblr and the Ingram Book Company.

“You could not bring people from farther ends of the spectrum,” says Mitchell.

Brave New World

Does this all sound like geeky librarian porn to you? Much of it may be, but consider the implications of this changing world of words. On the one hand, the Charleston Conference is about helping librarians acquire content in the digital realm, but on the other, it’s framing conversations about the future of published words including the newspaper you’re holding in your hands or the website you’re browsing.

For Davis, the principal question for writers remains the same as it always has been: “Can you really make a living writing books?”

At the same time, he points out that the self-publishing world is taking off and large publishing houses stand to benefit. “If Simon & Schuster goes to a self-published author who has already sold 1,000 books, there’s less of a risk, and it changes the threshold for a writer’s potential,” Davis adds. Which is probably one reason why Penguin, one of the world’s biggest traditional publishers, bought self-publishing giant Author Solutions in July. (Penguin is also set to merge with Random House.)

While the Charleston Conference is for attendees only, Davis and company will host a public event on Wednesday night called Ignite, a co-production with Tools of Change sponser O’Reilly Media.

“While we have all of these librarians and tech gurus and publishing luminaries in town, we said, ‘Why don’t we show off the best stuff that’s going on in Charleston?'” Davis says. “Ignite is kind of a Pecha Kucha all-stars meets South by Southwest, one-night music showcase.”

Held at the Music Farm, the event includes a food truck rodeo, quick presentations by jazz chanteuse Leah Suarez, painter Robert Lange, PURE’s Sharon Graci, spoken-word poet Marcus Amaker, and REV Foods’ Karalee Nielsen, among others, and music by a Josh Kaler-led ensemble which includes Michael Flynn, Lindsay Holler, and Steven Fiore.

So if you’re out on King Street this weekend and you’ve got a penchant for a sexy librarian, keep your eyes peeled. The dreamy bookworm you find might even be conversing in French or Spanish. That international contingent is a testament both to the appeal of visiting Charleston in November and to the conference itself.

“I think of the conference as a book,” Strauch says, joking about how overwhelming planning such a huge event can be. “If it was a manuscript, sometimes I think I’d just throw it away. But it’s fun, and it’s great to know what it means to people and it’s so exciting to see what’s happening in this industry of information and content.”

For more information, visit katina.info/conference and oreilly.com/minitoc-charleston.html.