Sunday, March 9, 2008

How an "Unconference" Works

Is it spring yet?

So I attended central New York's first library "unconference" this past Tuesday. It was part of a two-day Library Camp, with Tuesday being a day-long discussion of The Future of Libraries and the Wednesday focusing on Collection Development. 

This is how Tuesday's event went: there were 4 "tracks" -- leadership, technology, policy, and service. During each hour of the event, you could pick from four simultaneous discussions going on, one from each track. (16 discussions in all). Discussions were loosely moderated by one designated individual, one person took notes, and one staff person was there to supervise. At the end of the day, everyone joined together in one room to hear summaries of each of the discussions. 

Overall it was a neat experience. I won't go into detail here about the topics discussed, but I did want to comment a bit about the format & make suggestions for anyone thinking about organizing or attending an unconference: 

1) The first and perhaps most important thing to keep in mind is that attendees must come prepared to participate. Those who had the most to say had clearly been thinking about the topics ahead of time. 

2) In addition to being intellectually prepared, it is essential to be ready to pay attention to what other people have to say, to the benefit of the whole discussion. When attending a regular conference it's easy to tune in and out, and no-one's the wiser, but at an unconference you really have to focus and engage or you'll quickly be on the outside of the discussion. 

3) Personal experiences that may seem irrelevant or meaningless (or even embarrassing) to an individual may be interesting or illuminating to the group. The kind of honest, off-the-cuff reflections on experiences can save others hours of labor and thought. The informality of an unconference is ideal for this kind of sharing.

4) Some people didn't say much, and I wondered if they were naturally quieter and wanted longer to reflect than the format allowed. On the other hand, those less afraid to speak up contributed more -- even if it was not relevant to the discussion.  

5) No-one was anonymous. I know the name and institution of the person who was sleeping in two of the discussions I attended. On the bright side, because I got to listen to others I felt I got to know people more than I would have at a regular conference, which was great. 

6) The last (wrap-up) session of the unconference is tricky -- you want to bring everyone together and summarize everything, but people have been energetically contributing all day & don't want to suddenly revert to sitting in a lecture hall. Also, there's the risk of summarizing without concluding anything or calling for action. 

Well, that's all I've got for right now. 

The organizers did a great job, & I'm really proud to have taken part in the experiment. I hope this type of thing continues!

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