"September 2012, [when] four graduate graduate students came together and decided to organize an unconference. They had learned that librarians improve society by providing a platform for community knowledge creation, and they decided to put the idea into practice. Meeting several times a month for six months, the students worked together to make the idea a reality, and the unconference was held on Tuesday, February 26 on the campus of Syracuse University. The students are Matthew Gunby, Sarah Bratt, Mia Breitkopf, and [me] Stephanie Prato” (Breitkopf).
What is an Unconference?
If you’ve never heard of an “unconference” you’re not alone. When the idea was presented to me in early September 2012, I was extremely hesitant. The concept stems from the idea that people find tremendous value from the informal conversations and networking that occur in-between the planned sessions at a traditional conference, and the unconference experience seeks maximize these opportunity by allowing people to engage and connect with one another around topic that interest them. Unconferences are participant driven events with no keynotes and no preplanned agenda; whoever shows up decides what to talk about, anyone attending may present, anyone attending may facilitate a discussion. This may misleadingly sound like the event doesn’t require a lot of planning. But as my teammates and I discovered, this is not the case.
What goes into planning an Unconference?
Choosing a Topic
One major hurdle for us was choosing a topic for the event. If you are inviting people to come contribute to a discussion (“Join the conversation” later became our tagline) then you have to offer them a topic for discussion. We knew we wanted to draw attendees from all sectors of the library community, including academic librarians, public librarians, school media specialists, and library science students, so the topic had to be broad enough to apply to all of members of our intended audience. Yet we couldn’t pick something so broad as to be a meaningless as a theme. Then there were topics like “the future of libraries,” which were interesting to us as students, but felt over done to professionals in the field. We navigated this issue by talking to librarians at Bird Library at Syracuse University, as well as public librarians in CLRC (Central NY Library Resources Council) to help us brainstorm topics. We learned that librarians are very interested in innovative uses of space. In fact, Executive Director at CLRC, Kate McCaffrey offered current students this piece of advice: “When I went to library school, I had no idea that as a library director I am as much a facilities manager as a librarian. If I could go back to school now, I would take more building management and architecture courses.” After much deliberation, Spaces + Places was born.
Logistics & Finding a Space Ironically, finding the right space for Spaces + Places was a huge challenge. This is an issue that librarians are very conscious of: your physical space often defines what you can and cannot do with your services. We needed a space big enough to accommodate a rather large group (ideally 50-75 people), with different size break-out rooms to allow for smaller, more intimate conversations as well. We needed to pick a date/time that was good for the majority of our target audience, and a physical location that wouldn’t limit access for some constituents. For example, one downside of SU’s campus is that parking limitations makes it more challenging for community librarians to attend, while an off campus location could be restrictive to students without cars. The cost of a given space was also an issue for us; we did not charge for registration, so we weren’t generating any income and many of the possible spaces were too expensive for out of pocket costs. As a solution, we pitched the idea to our LIS program director and the Dean of the iSchool and we were very fortunate to obtain sponsorship for our event. This allowed us to secure a space on campus. We attempted to mitigate the parking and access issue for community librarians by providing specific information about parking costs and availability on campus, including a map of the campus.
Creating a Framework
After choosing a theme and a physical location, we started to really focus on how the unconference would look. How many sessions should there be and how long? How many concurrent sessions should we offer? How long would it take to generate ideas? What did we, as planners, need to say to set the tone. Many of these questions were answered by our choice of venue. For example, we knew we could support a maximum of four concurrent sessions, since we had four rooms reserved. However, many of the answers we came up with were the product of great discussion and deliberation as we tried to imagine what the ideal experience would be for our participants. Ultimately we settled on three, forty-five minute sessions, with ten minute breaks in-between, and a forty-five minute final debrief at the end.
Although recruiting participants was the last step, it remains the most important. YOU are the most essential component of a successful unconference. We knew for participants to find value in the proceedings, we had to have a group of diverse, intelligent, and engaged students and professionals. This made publicity and marketing for the event crucial. We targeted our friends and mentors, inviting librarians from surrounding academic, public, school, and special libraries. We also invited current library and information management students, and folks in architecture, design, and museum studies. We sent announcements through the Syracuse University listserv, posted flyers around campus, spread the word through Facebook and Twitter and crafted personal emails explaining the event and inviting people to join the conversation. The word spread quickly and our RSVP list began to grow. Looking back I think it was definitely worth asking people to register to get a sense of our numbers, even if some people didn’t ultimately make it. Our space had a maximum capacity of 75 people, 62 people registered, and around 50 actually attended the event.
Perhaps our highest praise came from participant Barbara Stripling, President of ALA, who noted that
feedback from the whole group was overwhelmingly positive:
"I hope that we can facilitate future unconferences; it’s a powerful way to generate conversations about important issues."