Conferences and Events: Unconferences and Library Camps

Photo: 'The Camp' by Kiril Rusev CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Photo: ‘The Camp’ by Kiril Rusev CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Non-traditional conferences are on the rise – with unstructured or semistructured events such as Unconferences and Library Camps  continuing to be on the rise.

We shared a post about Unconferences late last year:

When we asked our country coordinators for a submission on library conferences and events, our UK coordinator June Hughes responded with a post about library camps – what are also known as unconferences. June hasn’t yet been to an unconference, but is clearly attracted to the idea based on the description she provided to us:

Everyone is familiar with attending training or conferences where the most worthwhile and rewarding interaction has been during the break, when a group of people interested in the same thing  find themselves chatting over coffee and sharing their experiences. These informal exchanges of good ideas and best practice are where arguably the ‘real’ learning takes place.

Library camps are the formalisation, if you like, of this most informal sort of conference. There is no agenda, no speakers and no planned activities. Attendees suggest subjects for discussion and can dip in or out of any of the conversations as they wish. Library camps are not a new idea, having developed from the principles and practices of ‘Open Space Technology’ but they are becoming increasingly popular, certainly in the UK, as librarians take  on more and more responsibility for their own development.

I have not yet attended a library camp and therefore I am not in a position to comment on them from direct experience. A little part of me takes comfort from a clear agenda and structure for training and discussion with the reassurance of knowing the subject matter is going to be relevant to me,  so to just turn up and see what happens seems a slightly scary prospect. Colleagues who have attended have found them to be a useful forum to exchange knowledge and develop ideas, rooted very much in practical application rather than theoretical musings, so, encouraged by their positive reports, I shall step out of my comfort zone and embrace the spontaneity of a library camp.

I was interested to read of June’s nervousness and excitement at the idea of attending an unconference, as I’ve attended several and find them to mostly be fantastic. The theory behind an unconference is that it’s a conference without the formal program – the first ‘session’ usually comprises the attendees deciding amongst themselves what they’d like to talk about, and who has information or expertise to share. It’s very egalitarian, and tends to involve more back-and-forth, more discussion, than traditional conferences (where you have a speaker and a group of listeners).

Unconferences work well when seniority and  hierarchy is not sought – where people want to discuss and share knowledge rather than impart it from the position of being an expert. They are well suited to those seeking serendipitous learning – and those who can be patient with the variety of communication styles that inevitably arise!

Unconferences are, however, chaotic, and messy, and can suffer from a lack of leadership. Convening an unconference takes exceptional facilitation skills, in order to productively bring out the ideas of everyone present. It’s also difficult to hide in the background of an unconference – in most cases everyone is encouraged to participate in the discussion.

In practice, the most successful unconferences that I’ve attended worked on a hybrid model, with a small number of predetermined topics or guest speakers acting as the ‘skeleton’ of the event, surrounded by time for discussions determined on the day.

Several unconferences worth mentioning are:

If you’re interested in running a library camp/unconference in your area, there’s a great primer from Public Libraries Online.

Some questions you could discuss with your partner are:

  • Have you ever been to a library camp or unconference? Where and when was it?
  • What do you think would work well at an unconference?
  • What do you think would be difficult about an unconference?
  • How can we introduce the good things about unconferences into more traditional events and conferences?


Posted in Discussion topics, Round 2015B and tagged , , .


  1. I helped to coordinate a library camp – unconference here in Adelaide, South Australia. It was very informative and fun to organize

  2. Pingback: Abstract to audience: a guide to conference presentations and CDG AGM 2015 | LAI CDG Career Development Group of the Library Association of Ireland

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