Unconference: Changing the World One Place at a Time

Posted Friday, June 28, 2013 - 17:53
“Everyone has something to share. Everyone has something to learn. We can all change the world.” —Unconference program description.
ALA Annual Conference attendee Hope Standifer makes a point during the Unconference

Unconference is a participant-guided experience that aims to reinvent the informal, unstructured conversations that colleagues have at conferences. Instead of being talked at, the attendees decide on topics to discuss, and talk with one another. The #ala2013 Unconference began when the moderators, Ayanna Gaines, associate librarian at Ventura (Calif.) College, and Matthew Ciszek, head librarian at Penn State Shenango, asked the crowd for topic suggestions. By the scientific and fool-proof method of hand-raising, we narrowed 18 topic nominations down to four:

  1. The changing roles of libraries;
  2. New metrics;
  3. Collaboration and resource sharing between libraries;
  4. Enhancing customer service.

Then we talked—first with those at our table, then in a larger conversation led by the moderators. Much of the latter focused on the challenges faced by libraries. Is the digital divide widening? Can you quantify qualitative data? How do you ensure that collaboration is beneficial for both parties? And so on.

While challenges make for good discussions, it takes solutions to “change the world.” Luckily, one Unconference participant shared what she had done in her sphere of influence. When discussing ways to enhance customer service, someone wondered how to provide teens and adults “toys to play with” without investing the time and money to create a makerspace. Shannon Gibson, librarian at Hicks Memorial Library of Evangeline Booth College in Atlanta, shared what she did:

She put out jigsaw puzzles for patrons to use.

Not only did the puzzles give students a welcome diversion after hours of studying, but working on them created a relaxed environment and sparked interaction. While students worked on the puzzle, they’d ask her reference questions. (“Hey, Shannon, where can I find that commentary on St. Luke?”)

Can jigsaw puzzles change the world? Depends how you define “world.” They did for Shannon.

T. J. SZAFRANSKI is virtual services reference librarian at the Lake Villa (Ill.) District Library.