What I learned from organizing an unconference

Jodie, Rosie, David, and Céline during the rhymetime session.
Jodie, Rosie, David, and Céline during the rhymetime session.


Late last year in Somers Town Coffee House, Euston, I pitched the idea of running an unconference at Senate House to a group of librarians. They not only wanted to see it happen, but several of them including Gary offered to help right away. The idea itself wasn’t new as my colleague Les mooted running an event at Senate House after Library Camp Brunel

I’d imagined using the traditional, historic reading rooms of Senate House Library as a venue for hosting a fresh, modern conference – a combination of the traditional and the contemporary. I feel this is exactly what we managed to deliver.

Our location and size meant I thought I could make the unconference a bit bigger than regional library camps tend to be. We had 111 library campers including people from beyond library land, a very broad mix of sessions, and a delicious savoury lunch – although some subversives brought cake along too.

The highlights of the day for me were:

  • The rhymetime session run by Linsey and Jodie in our Middlesex South reading room had a transgressive feel and took most of us well out of our comfort zones. Informative, funny, and so different from anything I have seen at a conference before.
  • Sara‘s agreement to bring The Intinerant Poetry Library made for a really special part of the event for me. I was already a ‘Valued Patron of the Library’ and having a radical library like TIPL operate inside my own library has been a dream for some time.
  • Getting out of my comfort zone with hosting and organizing and event rather than just speaking or facilitating was very rewarding. I was scared at the thought of addressing 100+ library campers before pitching, but having done this once I know I can do it again and it will get easier and more natural.
  • Importantly for me, being able to make a contribution to other’s development by providing an event based on Open Space principles that allowed discussion to develop in an engaging and non-hierarchical way.
  • Lastly, I discovered Liz and Katharine both have truely awesome shushing ability.

Comments like these made my day:

Elly said:

Library camp was not only invigorating, but also liberating. All too often we get fixated on the idea of CPD in order to develop within our current role, essentially to get “better” at our current job. However, Library camp being free, and on a Saturday, meant that the day was solely for me as a professional.

The few days before the unconference were non-stop and the Saturday running the conference was intense. I promised myself I would not host anything this exhausing again too soon.

How come? We’d been removing desktop computers from our reading rooms gradually as we phase in Everyware mobile device lending, but the last PCs weren’t removed until Friday morning. On the Friday I was whizzing around Bloomsbury on a Boris bike looking for last-minute supplies – plastic knives and forks, Sharpie pens, labels, and paper napkins – as well as dealing with a slew of cancellations, getting furniture moved around by our portering team, and printing the signs and leaflets for delegates. Anything and everything that anyone else did to help was enormously appreciated.

On the Saturday morning I had an enormous feeling of relief when everyone started rolling in as expected, and made their way smoothly from cloakroom to lunch table to tea and coffee. During a lull Richard explained, “You’ve done it”, meaning the hardest part of organizing was over. He was right about this.

What next?

Following Library Camp London I’ve reflected on some of the limitations of an unconference for a generalist library audience. If you’re a specialist and want to present on something quite specialist, you may only be able to scratch the surface of what’s possible in discussion. Of course it is wonderful and encouraging that people come to learn and ask questions – indeed, that’s what I asked for during pitching at the beginning of the day. It was really interesting that a discussion notionally on Open Source library systems progressed onto talking about the value of children learning programming and the impact of Raspberry Pi, for one!

Having said that, I’ve realized there would be space for a library unconference in London with a technical or system focus. This could be hosted as a Mashed Library event, perhaps at Senate House later in the year. I am already thinking about Open Source Software / “openness” as a general theme. I feel I have broken my promise already…

Again, my thanks to all who contributed and made Library Camp London successful.

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3 thoughts on “What I learned from organizing an unconference

  1. You did a great job organising it Andrew and I’m already looking forward to the Mashed Library event.

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