Reflections on organizing the Pi and Mash conference #piandmash

Practical communications session in progress led by Meghan Jones. Photograph by Simon Barron, license CC-BY-SA.
Practical communications session in progress led by Meghan Jones. Photograph by Simon Barron, license CC-BY-SA.


Earlier in August I had the pleasure of helping organize and run a tech-focused library unconference, Pi and Mash, at Senate¬†House Library at the University of London. The other organizers were¬†Simon Barron of University of London, and Ka-Ming Pang of St Georges, University of London. They were both brilliant¬†to work with and brought enormous energy, fresh perspectives, and thoughtfulness and professionalism to organizing the day. This event was a long time in¬†gestation, from the initial¬†agreement back in January that we’d work together to the¬†day itself in early August.¬†I had previously hosted¬†Library Camp¬†London at Senate House in March 2013, and following that event I’d thought about running something tech-focused as a Mashed Library event. Ultimately for me Pi and Mash was that event, though full credit is to Ka-Ming for suggesting we do it, kicking¬†off the initial¬†discussion on Twitter to gauge interest, and starting to organize us.

As an organizer it’s always encouraging¬†to receive good feedback, and participants said some lovely things about Pi and Mash during and at the end of the day.

What I learned from organizing the event

The limits of ‘unconferencing’

Ahead of the event we wanted to provide¬†a programme with appeal to different levels of technical ability, and especially¬†beyond experienced systems workers. To do this¬†we reached out to professional contacts for session ideas and pitches¬†so we could launch with¬†a timetable already¬†partly populated.¬†This timetabling in itself introduced a contradiction to the event¬†that was never really resolved, and caused some issues: were we running a participant-driven unconference, or a regular¬†conference with a¬†top-down organization? I formed an¬†impression from feedback that on seeing our¬†speaker lineup, some participants felt intimidated about pitching due to not feeling technically knowledgeable enough. Additionally, we presented¬†an ‘almost full’¬†timetable¬†with space for¬†unconference-style pitching. While this helped generate buzz and¬†encouraged people to get a ticket so they could¬†come to those¬†sessions, it made it¬†easier to view the day as a traditional conference¬†that didn’t demand participants set¬†the agenda. A related point is I’ve¬†noticed unconference sessions, for example at Library Camp, becoming increased sophisticated¬†over time and¬†more pre-planned.¬†Sessions are often no longer discussions,¬†but make more use of technology such as online collaborative editing, use more formal methods in research and¬†analysis, and attempt to¬†engage people beyond the conference¬†for example by¬†tying in with¬†planned chats on Twitter. For me this increased sophistication deepens engagement, but can work against the more exciting aspects of unconference spontaneity such¬†as pitching an idea that is not fully-formed¬†on the day. We did get pitches ahead of time on our discussion and ideas document, but these were the only ones pitched¬†on the day so it felt a bit more like a call for¬†papers than pitching.

What this means for practical technical sessions

As noted¬†we wanted to ensure broad appeal to a range of¬†different technical abilities. We¬†especially wanted to¬†demonstrate practical aspects of library systems work that would give a flavour of what it is systems librarians and other systems workers do. To this end it was wonderful that¬†many¬†delegates saw the day as an opportunity to stretch themselves with professional development, and¬†expressed an interest in getting more involved with systems work in future. One of the facilitators observed to me on day there is a real difficulty in how to ‘bring people along with you’ if they are¬†at different levels at the start. This makes running¬†sessions that rely on pre-existing¬†technical knowledge that much more difficult.¬†One suggestion from feedback was¬†to provide pre-work or reading ahead of the day¬†for sessions that¬†would benefit from it. I have mixed feelings about this as despite having run such sessions like that at conferences, I feel participants should also easily be able to choose what¬†they will on the day, or¬†even move between sessions. For me, this¬†was most apparent for¬†the Linked Data and OntoWiki session, although I know there were issues in other sessions too. This combined with technical dependencies for participants, who needed to install software on their own computers¬†to get the best from the practical work.¬†In hindsight,¬†what we needed to provide¬†were laptop computers with the relevant software pre-installed and ready to use, so we could simply hand a machine with a ‘known good’ configuration to¬†everyone attending the session. This would have been challenging, but¬†perhaps¬†could¬†have been¬†feasible using loan laptops from Senate House Library stock and given enough time for preparation.

Safer spaces, and an apology

Ka-Ming provided the idea of very actively¬†promoting and encouraging women¬†facilitators and participants.¬†Essentially, we did not want to run yet another tech event dominated by men but rather one that better reflected how our¬†profession is populated.¬†It¬†was great to get positive feedback on this aspect, and suggestions from critical friends where¬†we erred.¬†One point I want to apologize for is our gender binarism in the¬†initial¬†ticket allocations to men and women. As organizers we¬†discussed this after it was pointed out, and learned from it. In future I¬†will do better, I¬†will approach gender more¬†carefully¬†to help avoid reinforcing¬†bias and discrimination. I am glad¬†we¬†implemented a safer spaces policy, repurposed with permission from¬†OK Caf√©.¬†As professionals we might¬†prefer to¬†believe policies shouldn’t be necessary, but¬†I argue they help create inclusive events in the first place.¬†Even if a policy doesn’t need to be acted on, it¬†provides a¬†context to set expectations and helps attendees develop confidence they will be supported in¬†resolving any¬†problems.¬†I now firmly believe safer spaces¬†policies or codes of practice are necessary for conferences.

Being the organizer

The way in which participants interact, learn, and spark ideas¬†off each other¬†is something you try to positively influence¬†as¬†a¬†conference organizer, but¬†ultimately¬†much¬†of ‘the magic’ is out of your control. It helped that we provided a space¬†that participants found friendly and inclusive, with¬†longer session times than normal conferences. This allowed for discursive¬†conversations and digging into the technical ‘long weeds’ as participants wished. This was an important aspect for my own development, as I identified I¬†need to¬†move beyond running events successfully (without say, some disaster befalling us), to thinking more deeply about the value gained by delegates for¬†their own development and understanding ways in which we can support and facilitate this. Overall I would strongly recommend (un)conferencing organizing¬†as a means of professional development.

Thoughts on practical aspects

Middlesex South Reading Room at Senate House Library. Photograph by Andrew Preater, license CC-BY.
Middlesex South Reading Room at Senate House Library. Photograph by Andrew Preater, license CC-BY.

Following¬†Library Camp London I’d reflected on what made the day a¬†success, practically, and we implemented much of this for Pi and Mash.¬†This is¬†summarized here:¬†Practical suggestions for running your own Library Camp. Some things that remain true:

  • Especially true for a¬†technical¬†event, your wireless absolutely needs to be working.
  • Individual bottles¬†are better than glasses for carrying water around the¬†library.
  • If you’re relying¬†on someone¬†for preparation such as moving furniture, survey the space ahead of time and¬†prepare with the expectation¬†your¬†instructions will be followed to the letter.
  • One thing¬†that was again a problem was noise, as we were¬†using large rooms with two sessions in them noise carried.¬†This was a limit inherent in the¬†spaces available to¬†us, which were¬†provided free of charge¬†by Senate House Library. However we¬†would definitely have been better to¬†provide smaller separate¬†rooms, or found a way to screen off larger spaces to dampen noise.

We organized Pi and Mash almost exclusively online, which saved a lot of travelling time even with all of us being London-based. We used:

  • Google Hangouts to provide audio and video for meetings.
  • Google Docs / Drive for collaborative editing and sharing of meeting notes and¬†actions lists.
  •¬†for¬†our website plus TablePress for tables. This was low cost as we could use existing web¬†hosting and we all had¬†practical¬†experience with the software.
  • Gmail for email. Specifically¬†the trick was to push the¬†‘info@’ domain address to my own Gmail using POP3 and set¬†it up to allow responding from that¬†address. This¬†made for quick and efficient replies to¬†questions.
  • Eventbrite for ticketing and emails to delegates. I still favour Eventbrite¬†despite its¬†quirks. Checkin is a breeze and mailouts are simple, and the quirks are at least quirks I’m very familiar with.
  • Twitter – of course, the place for professional engagement in¬†libraryland.
  • Qualtrics for¬†our post-conference survey (Imperial College London¬†has a subscription).

We made some choices about what not to do with social media and other tools:

  • We considered use of Lanyrd for session slides and materials, but it¬†seemed a more useful tool for larger, more formal conferences where you would¬†want to draw together lots of different media types, session¬†recordings, and so on.
  • Wiki. Ultimately we decided not to set up a wiki for¬†Pi and Mash as¬†we felt the limited amount of collaborative editing needed ahead of the event could¬†be handed using a Google Doc.¬†This is the model¬†uklibchat¬†use successfully, but from¬†feedback some¬†delegates reasonably expected a wiki¬†to be available.
  • Unfortunately¬†it wasn’t possible to¬†live-stream any presentations.¬†There was demand for this ahead of the event, but it was too difficult to¬†achieve technically and with limited staff resource. I have done this for events by using Google Hangouts on Air which can provides a slick, professional solution at low cost using¬†consumer webcams and microphones.

In hindsight, in thinking about our approaches to communication I found¬†Ned Potter’s description of¬†communication channels as¬†white noise, peripheral vision, or¬†line of sight from a recent conference presentation very helpful.

The main area for improvement I would focus on for future events are reaching those who do not routinely professionally engage with social media:

  • Mailing lists are still widely-used by library workers and I noticed¬†rushes of interest when we mentioned Pi and Mash on mailing lists like lis-link.
  • Targeted personal communication is very effective at helping¬†publicize the event by¬†word-of-mouth. For¬†example: encouraging library and information science¬†lecturers to promote¬†the event to students; and to our colleagues to¬†encourage¬†team members to attend the event for professional development.

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