About two weeks ago I attended an amazing unconference called the Northeast Metadata Specialists Unconference (http://www.blogs.lib.uconn.edu/nemsu). As the name suggests, the focus of this event was to bring together metadata specialists from around the New England area. As an unconference, the event was meant to be an opportunity for people to work together, network, get help with specific questions and generally learn from one another. The benefit for attendees was free registration. Attendees were however responsible for parking, lunch and travel costs. The benefits for organizers was an easy set up of a WordPress site, a Google form for registrations, and getting some awesome colleagues in the area to help out by speaking and reserving a work space in the library. It was a great day where I learned much and got to solve some very concrete problems. The general consensus was to have a repeat of the experience!
The number of unconferences are increasing. NEMSU is one example in New England. Others in this area include Northeast Fedora User Group Unconference, Islandora Camp (regional – NYC), THATCamp New England, Code4Lib regional, or the symposium. Generally these unconferences last a day or perhaps 2 days for something like THATCamp. Registration is typically free. Attendance varies between 30-150 people from around the region. The events begin with a keynote speaker and from that lecture style begins the unstructured events such as lightning talks, sometimes called dork shorts, impromptu seminars, working groups, discussion groups, hands on sessions, or learn a skill session (or sessions on talking, making, playing or teaching). From this description, it is obvious that the format is informal. What attendees bring to the table and their level of engagement determines what they get out of their experience. It is clear from the increase in such events and unconference type sessions at regular conferences (lightning talks) that informal working days are popular.
Does this mean that the conference has seen its day? By conference, I’m thinking in particular of the large conferences such as ALA Annual, ACRL or the Charleston Conference. Typically attendees move from one presentation to another to listen to new ideas, techniques, or theories. I have to say that I enjoy the large conferences. I have to admit however that I reach a saturation point around day 3. Despite that, I continue to frequent large conferences. I would say that conferences continue to play a key role in learning and networking.
It is necessary to be able to go to a venue where you can ask very specific questions about your job or research project. This type of venue might only involve people in a certain area of librarianship. Like NEMSU, it is possible to use all the acronyms and shorthand of the business knowing the people in the room speak your language and get your quirky metadata jokes! This doesn’t discount the conference. It is equally important to attend conferences where you hear big ideas, finished and polished projects, and see new techniques. It is especially important to remove yourself from your quirky colleagues. Once you try to explain or hear about your field from someone outside of that field, then you begin to make strides. Why? It comes down to a change in perspective. I learn this every week in my workshops with curators on metadata. I try to think of aspects that might be difficult for some of the curators I work with in terms of getting content into our digital repository. Sometimes I’m right. Mostly they surprise with new ways of seeing metadata. It is a great and humbling exercise. That is why the conference remains a needed excursion for librarians. It is a place to encounter both the familiar and unfamiliar and learn. So, one should not exclude the other. In fact, the unconference and conference complement each other. Each has a different focus and goal.
So let’s conference and unconference!