Management and leadership, a radical approach? At Radical Library Camp

Radical library camp

I recently attended, and helped to organize, a library unconference in Bradford. This was the first Radical Library Camp or #radlibcamp on Twitter.

There was some discussion pre-conference about the nature of a self-identified ‘radical’ unconference. I think the nature of unconferencing is already radical compared to formal conferences but what I thought made Radical Library Camp different was open space technology applied in a context of different issues and with knowledge of various issues and concepts already present with the attendees (or campers). In practical terms this meant sessions could hit the ground running with relatively little need to explain what we are about, and meant we could immediately dig into the issues at hand.

To me Radical Library Camp definitely still felt like a Library Camp event and ran along similar lines. It all went off very well. The venue, Bradford Resource Centre, was particularly welcoming and hosted us perfectly so many thanks to them.

For the event I had decided to try to talk less and spend more time listening and thinking about others’ contributions. However I couldn’t resist pitching something as I had recently been thinking about management and leadership and whether there could ever be a workable ‘radical’ approach, so…

Management and leadership session

'Leadership and radicalism...' session, modified from a photopgraph by Ian Clark. License CC-BY-NC.
‘Leadership and radicalism…’ session, modified from a photograph by Ian Clark. License CC-BY-NC.

I had done some reading about this, mainly at the excellent Institute of Education library, but really I wanted to open the question to the group and see where discussion took us. To this end I posed some questions after a brief opener:

  1. Is there an approach to managing people in libraries that remains honest? And if you manage people how do you do it?
  2. Making the leap: if you move from a ‘clerical / technical’ role to a ‘management / professional’ role, what changes? Is this just about others’ perceptions?
  3. Is it possible to be ‘management’ without selling out? How do you handle this yourself?

I explained I had been thinking primarily about leadership, but that we could easily look at ‘radical’ in different contexts such as supervision, management, or leadership. I suggested looking more broadly to be inclusive, as often staff on lower grades have supervisory or management responsibility without perceiving themselves as ‘management’ but will face some of the same issues as senior managers.

Some brief definitions of the difference between these roles:

  • The supervisor’s job is directing and instructing
  • The manager’s job is to planning, organizing, and coordinating
  • The leader’s job is inspiring and and motivating

It seems much easier to pitch a radical approach to leadership than to management. It’s much easier to bring to mind approaches exemplified by leaders, for example in trade unions or politics, who take a bona fide ‘radical’ approach. The managing and supervising context is more difficult and on reflection I do not think we were able to develop answers much beyond a leadership context.

It can seem obvious or self-evident that libraries like other organizations need management to ensure they are efficiently organized and productive. Daniel Wren for example presents management as a quite natural thing that follows the evolution of human society:

As people’s conceptual ability has been refined through evolution, they have also refined their understanding of the art of arranging physical and human resource for guidance towards purposeful ends. We call this art management… (Wren, 1987 p. 11, italics in original)

From a very different angle Marx (1976 pp. 448-451) identifies managers and supervisors as ‘a special kind of wage labourer’ with a function made necessary by the need to maximize generation of surplus value and hence profit. Marx of course relates this function to class struggle and casts management as a function necessary to make wage labourers cooperate with each other under capital.

I also gave some context about new public management (NPM) from the contemporary public sector. NPM as a concept denotes broad government policies since the 1980s that aimed to make the public sector more efficient and effective, the idea being a market-oriented management style could be used to drive cost-efficiency for government. For the organization and workers this meant a shift from a bureaucratic approach based on state administration to a managerialist approach based on performance: from ‘state-regulated’ to ‘market-regulated’ (Ward, 2012 pp. 47-52).


Personally I took two major themes or points from the session: if there is a radical approach to management and leadership it is based on both fairness as a manager and authenticity as a leader.

Several in the group raised the idea of changing things from the inside as a manager – the idea is similar to entryism in politics and was called such by one of the campers. This deserves credit as leaders are likely best placed with opportunity, power, and freedom to act to make improvements, and certainly to lead by example. One possible trap here would be overemphasising the role of the individual and thinking it’s down to the ‘heroic leader’ doing everything themselves that drives improvements.

A general point made was that we should seek good practice in management and leadership even if this isn’t ‘radical’, indeed much of it won’t be so. Examples given were communicating well, listening even if you cannot act on everything you hear, and involving staff to get input on decision-making. One point raised in the session and beforehand by Sarah on Twitter was that good management practice isn’t linked to left or right-wing political opinions.

Authenticity and fairness

Liz raised authenticity in leadership as a vital characteristic. This is about being authentic yourself as a leader, and also how you implement an authentic approach in your context as a manager. Goffee and Jones describe how leaders translate this into behaviour to demonstrate authenticity:

  • A consistency between words and deeds – the leader practises what she preaches
  • Presentation of a consistent ‘real self’, despite the need to play different roles to different audiences
  • A sense of the leader being comfortable with her origins

These bullets are a paraphrased summary from Goffee and Jones (2006 pp. 16-17).

It doesn’t follow that the authentic leader is one everyone always agrees with or who is universally liked by staff, and the point was reinforced in discussion that it’s not possible to please everyone all the time.

Liz also raised the issue of being fair and being seen to be fair as a manager in treatment of staff as important. This means for example dealing with issues in a way that gives fair treatment to all and not playing favourites. To make one distinction here I would emphasize a difference between fairness and justice. The outcome of a situation may not be considered subjectively fair by everyone concerned, but from a management point of view it had better be just.

For me there was an outstanding question about personal responsibility and ensuring our personal values and professional ethics are congruent with our work and the values of the organizations we work for. One tweet commenting on the session discussion in this spirit from Dave:

One point raised from the audience here was this is a very difficult proposition for those in a situation of precarious labour. An example given was you may find you have no real choice but to work in an organization that doesn’t match your own ideals or professional ethics because there are no other jobs to move to. Points of principle rub up against real-world responsibilities like paying the rent or mortgage.

Stepping back from this very immediate example, more broadly from the point of view of managers and staff there is an issue here about the limits on what we can do personally to affect change. For example perhaps we dislike hierarchy, but we work in organizations that represent classic Weberian bureaucracies which rely on hierarchy to get things done. There is a balance here between going too far and selling out and being ineffective due to failing to engage with the cultural norms of the organization.

Reflecting on this further I think the key issue in authentic leadership is knowing where and how much to compromise to create progress without undermining our personal morals and professional ethics.


Goffee, R. and Jones, G. (2006) Why should anyone be led by you? Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.
Marx, K. (1976) Capital: a critique of political economy. Volume 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Ward, S.C. (2012) Neoliberalism and the global restructuring of knowledge and education. London: Routledge.
Weber, M. (1947) The theory of social and economic organization. New York, NY: Free Press.
Wren, D.A. (1987) The evolution of management thought. 3rd edn. New York, NY: John Wiley.

Practical suggestions for running your own Library Camp

Library Camp London board following pitching.
Library Camp London board following pitching.
Library Camp London board following pitching.

So you want to run your own Library Camp unconference?

This is meant as practical advice in contrast to my reflective post.

I realized doing this was feasible when I attended a “Run your own Library Camp” session at Library Camp UK 2012 (blog post summarizing this from Carolin). With experience it’s fair to say the organizers of that session were modest, and underplayed how much work went into their events. It is quite some work – but less than organizing the equivalent size traditional conference would be. Here are my thoughts grouped into general themes.


Alongside several other great ideas, Anne encouraged me to reserve places at Library Camp London for students. This meant they had the best possible chance of attending as they could be certain of a ticket and arrange travel more cheaply in advance. I expected better uptake if this came from lecturers themselves, so I circulated an advert for the unconference to colleagues at UCL, City University, London Met, and Brighton. I was able to sell out the student tickets in a day.

I wanted to ensure Library Camp London was emphatically cross-sector in outlook. I made contact with our local public library authority, London Borough of Camden, to ask about co-hosting. I had several reasons for doing this:

  • To widen participation and facilitate discussion and sharing between those from academic, public, special libraries, and non-library backgrounds.
  • At previous regional camps I’d noticed a tendency for attendees to be weighted towards the sector of the hosting institution.
  • To demonstrate how the University of London is engaging our colleagues beyond academic libraries. (We’re doing it; we need to demonstrate it too!)

I also contacted colleagues at special libraries to advertise the unconference internally, and spoke at a Camden Libraries Network meeting held at the Weiner Library to promote the event.

Encouraging contributions

Unconferences subvert the traditional conference approach as they are participant-driven and lack top-down organization. It was essential to maintain this spirit at Library Camp London.

However, I knew I could build interest by doing some groundwork. In practical terms this meant encouraging library folk to attend and pitch (this is easier over a drink), and talking to people I thought would have something interesting to contribute. Even those who could not make it in the end provided useful ideas, suggestions, and helped promote the event but talking to others. Additionally, I felt asking others to facilitate who hadn’t done so before was actively encouraging their development. Sometimes people just need a little nudge.

I was pleased we could provide a setting and importantly the technology needed to enable a live uklibchat on the day. I love the idea of a live uklibchat at an unconference but to be successful it is very technology-dependent so that aspect had to work perfectly – this means preparation.


We had fairly complex requirements for ticketing and a waiting list and Eventbrite met these. It’s free and works.

The only thing I missed is a way of emailing the waiting list as you can with ticket-holders. What I did was export the waiting list to CSV and use that as the basis for a mail-merge.

On the day we needed effective ticketing as the library was open as usual. We used the Eventbrite Entry Manager app for Android to check-in on the gate. This was speedy and efficient with two or three of us present all the time. Eventbrite allows delegating limited access to your account to another user, so they can just do check-ins for an event without having access to the rest of your account.

I left a printed delegate list at our membership desk for latecomers, along with an example printed ticket.


It’s sensible to over-sell tickets for a free event, the question is by how much. I found out other Library Camps have had drop-out rates between 10-25% but that has been highly dependant on things like transport problems on the day. We thought our central London location would lead to fewer drop-outs so I spent some time working out the limits of what we could do with our space. 150 library campers would have been too many but 120-130 would have been OK, I reasoned. I assumed a drop-out rate of about 10-15%.

We had 139 delegates on Eventbrite and checked-in 111 on the day. If I ignore those who cancelled after the point I could reallocate their tickets but did still cancel, it was 16% drop-out.

It was helpful to do several mailouts using Eventbrite ahead of the event to remind people who could no longer attend to release their tickets. Email is effective at this; asking on Twitter doesn’t seem to be. Richard had warned me about it, but I was still surprised how many people cancelled one day before the event. I was ready to go with a mail-merge for last minute ticket requests using my Eventbrite waiting list.

Unsure of final numbers, I found it very useful to have a ‘spare’ session location. I had planned three sessions in one room and two in another, but knew we could fit three sessions in both rooms if needed. We had pitches to fill those three spaces in both rooms for two of the morning sessions, so having an extra space pre-arranged was helpful.

Staffing and assistance

Having staff from Senate House Library available on the day made a huge difference to the smooth running of the event. In particular, my colleague Esme Stephens made strong contributions to several sessions alongside being a whirlwind of activity helping with the practical organization. If you can find one, have an Esme helping you.

Offers of help from others were appreciated, but unless it’s people involved from early on I’d recommend only accepting offers where you have a specific and defined job in mind. What I needed on the day were people to respond immediately to requests and take action. This would be very disruptive and somewhat unfair for someone expecting to attend the conference who had innocently offered to lend a hand.


Details matter a great deal – they all add up to the overall experience of your venue and event. If you miss something it will be talked about in public and you’ll be apologizing for it.

  • Wifi / wireless absolutely needs to be working.
  • Make sure signs – including things like direction arrows – are printed correctly and ready to go before the event.
  • Make sure each session has flipchart paper and more than one pen.
  • Water bottles are better than glasses of water for carrying around a library. I accidentally ordered only fizzy water rather than a mix of fizzy and still which was an oversight.
  • We moved a lot of tables around for the event which uncovered carpet that needed a clean. Our cleaners were in there hoovering before I’d even asked.


I thought the choice of two big rooms was a positive one given experience from other unconference events that big rooms allow freer movement between sessions than small ones. People are uncomfortable getting up in front of everyone to leave a small room through a door/ Unfortunately it meant loud sessions disrupted quieter ones. The speed networking event and rhymetime sessions were quite loud – these were were both excellent sessions and brilliantly facilitated, but louder than the sessions next to them:

Ideally I would have provided separate space for especially quite or noisy sessions to be more contained. I was limited by the spaces actually available in the library though. I had initially planned to use different rooms including smaller spaces, but that would have made for a much smaller event.

What I learned from organizing an unconference

Jodie, Rosie, David, and CĂ©line during the rhymetime session.
Jodie, Rosie, David, and CĂ©line 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.