Unconference: Take Two

Posted Friday, January 24, 2014 - 16:29
Idea board at the Networking Uncommons of the 2014 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia

My first ALA Midwinter began the same way my first Annual began: in a dimly lit conference room for an 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. John Pappas of Upper Darby (Pa.) Free Public Library, and Audrey Barbakoff of Kitsap Regional Library in Bremerton, Washington, moderated this Philadelphia unconference.

The room suggested the five topics below before splitting into smaller groups to discuss.

  • Big picture digital skills;
  • Open access;
  • Embedded librarianship;
  • Makerspaces;
  • Student retention.

As one would expect, conversation veered from the original topic, but here are some takeaways shared by each group.

I sat at the digital skills table. We tried to imagine what skill set a perfect digital librarian would have. He or she needs to be copyright-law savvy and an expert negotiator who can troubleshoot day-to-day technology issues, maintain an engaging social media presence, and select resources by projecting future needs and assessing ongoing usage data. Oh, and also market all the cool stuff. Oh, and s/he may or may not need to know how to code; our table was split about this requirement.

The open access table discussed the role of librarians in teaching people to be information skeptics, and the conversation turned self-reflective. While there’s a tendency to siphon users through commercial products, there are some drawbacks. For example, recommending that a patron search just Elsevier publications can be limiting; someone likened that sending a researcher to the library’s “Elsevier-only room.” Librarians wouldn’t do that physically, but that’s often what we do online.

Two tips from the embedded librarianship group revolved around the simple idea of “just ask.” Ask a professor if you can list some library resources on their syllabus. Ask a vendor if you can have access to a database for one class during one semester. If you tell them your needs and ask them to make you an offer, chances are they’ll be receptive.

For libraries worried about expertise in a makerspace, it was suggested to pair librarians with specific technology. Business cards placed by the equipment would let users know who to contact for help. Another nugget that came from this group: libraries can sign up to serve federal lunches during the summer.

The student retention group wondered if the emergence of first year experience librarian jobs would eventually extend to include sophomore year librarians, junior year librarians, and other more specialized populations. For day-to-day retention, consider creating a punch card for library visits or resource usage (Like a buy-12-sandwiches-get-the-13th-free card).

Unconferences can seem like gripe sessions. A lot of the talk has this subtext:

“Here are all the problems I’m dealing with.”

“Yes, I have those problems too, plus these.”

“It’s tough.”

“Yes, it is.”

But, I’ve found them to be a worthwhile way to start my conferences. Little tips do emerge, some very impactful. Also, it’s an easy way to meet people you’ll be seeing over the next few days. 

T. J. SZAFRANSKI is the virtual services librarian at Lake Villa (Ill.) District Library. He tumbles @ANotionDeepInside where he shares some library thoughts and a lot of Bruce Springsteen thoughts.


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