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Unconferences: Unique and Unbound

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Back in the early 1970’s when I was just a wee lad, I was smitten with television commercials for a certain product billed as the “uncola.” Of course, calling it the “uncola” was excellent marketing and a great product differentiation hook. When you’re trying to market to people (1970’s teenagers) who are generally free-thinking, inquisitive and apt to rebel against authoritative structures, calling it the “un-whatever” builds in a huge amount of street cred from the start.

So why do I mention this? Because lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about “unconferences.”

unconference by user jdlasica on Flickr.
The schedule board at the 2007 Personal Democracy Forum unconference by user jdlasica on Flickr.

Like the “uncola,” unconferences are still conferences. Conferences are great for bringing together like-minded participants for discussions and networking around shared interests, but conferences on a grand scale can require significant advance planning, expense and other barriers to participation.

The somewhat anarchic shape and structure of the unconference subverts some of the more staid aspects of traditional conferences. Unconferences are designed from the outset to be spontaneous, participant-driven and democratically directed. First of all, they’re fun! Secondly, they offer an informal environment for people to share exploratory work and to test ideas.

The ur-unconference is the 2003 FooCamp, a (now) annual invitation-only conference hosted by Tim O’Reilly (though the concepts behind unconferences go further back to the “Open Space” approaches of the early 1980’s).

The name FooCamp derives from a playful allusion to the programmer slang term foobar, as well as a concomitant acronym for “Friends of O’Reilly.”

BarCamps arose shortly thereafter as an open-to-the-public alternative to the FooCamps, and the model slowly began to spread beyond its original audience of bleeding-edge technologists/developers/entrepreneurs to encompass many domains of knowledge.

While “unconference” is a useful term for describing the total variety of structurally similar events, in practice many gatherings follow on from FooCamp and utilize the *Camp naming convention (WhereCamp, CrisisCamp, CloudCamp and many others). The *Camp model has begun to infiltrate the library, archive and museum universe through the efforts of free-thinking, inquisitive, insurgent librarians, archivists and museum professionals who are tapped into other *Camp networks or who have seen them in action.

thatcamp logoThere are a number of *Camps where librarians, archivists and museum professionals have played significant roles. The first ThatCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) was held in 2008 at the Center For History and New Media at George Mason University. ThatCamps concentrate on digital humanities issues: the intersection of computing and humanities scholarship, where an expanded scholarly focus goes beyond texts and papers and into multimedia, metadata and dynamic environments (including digital stewardship issues).

CurateCamp started in 2010, sharing members with the Open Repositories and Code4Lib communities, while focusing more tightly on digital curation issues.

Other examples of library, archive and museum unconferences include the “One Big Library Unconference”; the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities API Workshop; and the International Linked Open Data in Libraries Archives and Museums Summit (LODLAM).

Gadget breakfast at THATCamp LAC by user quinn.anya on Flickr.
Gadget breakfast at THATCamp LAC by user quinn.anya on Flickr.

Unconferences are a great opportunity for the library, archives and museum communities to tap into the networks of programmers, developers and hackers who can bring skills to bear on community issues that may not be fully recognized or resourced.

It also enables the library, archive and museum communities to address core issues of digital preservation and stewardship by leveraging the motivations and energies surrounding new technology development.

Did I mention that they’re also fun?

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