Unconferences

Unconferences Panel (L-R) John Blyberg, Steve Lawson, Stephen Francoeur, Kathryn Greenhill

Unconferences Panel (L-R) John Blyberg, Steve Lawson, Stephen Francoeur, Kathryn Greenhill

We’re all here at CIL and it’s hardly necessary to say that it is a conference.  It has keynote addresses, speakers, exhibitors, a program, and a well designed infrastructure, all overseen by a very competent Conference Planning Department at ITI.  But what’s an “unconference”?  Does it have any of these features?  Are they necessary?  Evidently some people don’t think they are, and unconferences are a new type of event that is becoming popular.  (I have noticed some of these events beginning to appear on the conference calendars, and have included some of them on the  ITI Conference Calendar. ) 

Unconferences use open space technology and don’t have a pre-determined program.  Instead,  the start of the event, attendees decide what will  be discussed.  The book Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide by Harrison Owen has many guidelines for unconferences, such as:

  • Whoever comes are the right people. 
  • Whatever  happens is  the only thing that could have. 
  • Whenever it starts is the right time. 
  • The “Law of  Two Feet” applies:  “If any person finds him or herself where they are neither learning or contributing, they must use their two feet and go to a more productive place.”  Basically, unconferences are trying to capture what goes on in the hallways between sessions at a traditional conference.

Unconferences started in August 2005 in response to O’Reilly’s FOO Camps when someone who thought he was not invited arranged “an open welcoming yearly event for geeks to camp out with Wi-Fi and smash their brains together.” They go by a number of names: Barcamp, Podcamp,  Library Camp,  Libcamp, Bibcamp, Mashed Library, etc.  But many people think that it doesn’t really matter what they’re called.

Here  are some of the guidelines and experiences mentioned by the panel:

  • You can’t prepare for an unconference!  It’s more like hosting an open house.  You do need to let people know when and where it’s happening and arrange for a place to meet.  As planning proceeds,  the organizers should model what’s going to happen by telling people who inquire that they don’t know what’s not going to be discussed. 
  • Unconferences are not for one particular type of attendee.   They succeed best when some of the traditional conference amenities and procedures are incorporated. 
  • Should keynotes be included?  The advantage is that they get people focused but the danger is that they might stifle spontaneity. 
  • What about registration fees?  Do they prevent people from signing up?  What will  you do with the money?
  • You need to select a place and time.  Libraries have real estate which is an advantage when you are looking for a place to meet. 
  • Every day is a bad day for somebody, so you need to just go ahead and schedule it.  Of course, if a major industry conference is happening simultaneously, it may not be possible to get attendees.  But scheduling an unconference immediately before or after a major conference may be a good idea.
  • Wikis are an excellent unconference plaftorm, both to announce them and for people to add to them. It’s  important to seed the wiki first–blank wikis rarely succeed.
  • Think about amenities and giveaways for attendees.  It helps get them excited about the event.  Give them something useful like a notebook.
Typical giveaways from recent unconferences

Typical giveaways from recent unconferences

  • Give people a sense of what to expect.  Many people have never been to an unconference.  A list of possible discussion topics submitted in advance is useful, but be sure to allow ideas to be submitted at the start of the conference. 
  • The conference will run itself once it starts because people take ownership of topics they have submitted.  Most of the sessions take the form of round-table discussions rather than formal presentations.  Notes of  the proceedings can be put on the conference wiki.
  • If you feed them they will come, and if you give them liquor, they will come next  time!  Make sure that people have a quality time.  Have some structure to take care of problems that occur.  Have the kernel of a discussion ready to get the conference started in case no discussions start.  Sometimes good keynoters can be used for this purpose.

Unconferences won’t replace traditional ones, but they inject intellectual thought into the time between them and re-energize people.  You can get a lot of results from an unconference and build a continuing community as issues come  up.  They are an interesting phenomenon and one worth watching as they develop. 

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and CIL 2009 Blog Coordinator

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