Blogger Kiera Parrott

Hosting an Unconference in a Few Easy Steps

photo courtesy of Darien Library.
KidLibCamp 2012. (Photo courtesy of Darien Library.)

Since 2009, my library has organized and hosted a one-day unconference for youth services librarians called KidLibCamp. Our very first unconference was organized by Linda Braun (YALSA Past President) in collaboration with then-Head of Children’s Services, Gretchen Caserotti. The event was an immediate success and we’ve been hosting the one-day professional development camp every year since. Next month will mark the 5th annual KidLibCamp and while it is mostly attended by librarians in the CT-NY region, we’ve received inquires from librarians from around the country wanting to know more about unconferences and how to set up one of their own.

The Basics:

Have you ever been at ALA or another big conference and you find yourself in deep discussion with another librarian while waiting for an event to begin, or while walking around the exhibits, or (most likely in my case) in line for the ladies room? Sometimes these impromptu conversations can be the most interesting and valuable takeaways when a group of smart, passionate librarians get together under the same roof. Such is the dynamic underlying an unconference.

An unconference, as opposed to a regular conference, is participant-driven. Unlike a traditional conference in which speakers, panelists, and experts present on a given topic and the participants listen in the audience, the participants at an unconference are the experts. The bulk of the day is composed of break-out sessions in which small groups of participants discuss a topic. The topics are nominated and voted upon by- you guessed it- the participants themselves. Each group has a facilitator and a notetaker. At the end of the day, everyone reconvenes for a big group share.

Step 1: Find A Space

Depending on how large you would like your unconference to be, you will need at least one large room. If your library has a main programming space, this is usually the ideal location. Since your participants will be breaking up into group discussions, think about acoustics. You may be able to keep the action in one location, depending on the size of your group and the room itself. If you have study areas in your library that will accommodate small but lively discussions, look into reserving those spaces as well.

Step 2: Figure Out the Schedule

Our KidLibCamp is an all-day affair from 9am to 4pm. That allows us to have a coffee mingle at 9am, a keynote speaker at 9:30am (a nice addition but not necessary to host an unconference,) two break-out sessions before lunch, lunch, an afternoon break-out session, and a big share at the end of the day. If this is your first unconference, you may want to start small. Think about hosting a half-day event and inviting local librarians. That also eliminates the problem of what to do about lunch.

Step 3: Assemble a Team

Despite the fact that an unconference is participant-driven and in some ways “runs itself” once the discussions get going, it is by no means a one-librarian job. The bulk of the work is in the pre-planning and coordination before the actual event. You will need an MC. Someone to organize the day, setup registration and communicate with the participants before the big day, and oversee the flow during the unconference. You will also want a few people to assist in the voting process, to step up when facilitators or notetakers are needed, and to document the day with photographs and/or video. If you have staff on site begin making them a part of the planning process early on. You can also reach out to neighbor librarians to see if a partnership may work.

Step 4: Get the Word Out

Do not simply let people know about the event (although details on the exact day, time, and location are important first steps!) but give them a landing page for registration and information. We set up a free wordpress site for KidLibCamp last year (previous to that we had used wikispaces.) On the site there is information about the event, a link to a registration form, directions, contact information, and links to past events. For registration, a great (and free) option is Google forms. This will give the participants a clean form to submit and you will be able to export the sign-ups into your Google Drive or to an Excel spreadsheet. Be sure to include a field for email address as that will be the main means of communicating with participants prior to the big day.

Step 5: Ask For and Organize Topic Ideas 

A key component of an unconference are the topics discussed during the break-out sessions. The final topics are culled from a long list and then voted upon by the participants. Begin early. Give a few examples to get the creative juices flowing. Consider making the document open and public. For KidLibCamp, we use an open Google document and ask participants to write in their names and topic ideas prior to the day. You can view our evolving list. About a day before the event, begin organizing the various topics and combining the like-suggestions. Consider that you will, at most, have about 12 break-out sessions in a full-day. Having 95 topic ideas to vote upon is overwhelming. You may want to shoot to narrow down the final list to between 20-30 topics. When the big day arrives and your participants are all gathered, display the final list and begin voting. The most popular topics should be scheduled at different times throughout the day.

Step 6: Document, Document, Document! Share, Share, Share! 

In addition to the notetakers and facilitators describing the various group discussions during the end-of-day Big Share, ask that anyone who took notes or photos add those to a shareable online environment. We’ve used blogs, wikispaces, forums, and Google docs. Play around and decide what works for you. The important part is to have the materials be easily accessible after the event ends.  For participants who are not comfortable with blogging or using a wiki, you can always have them email their notes/photos to you to be uploaded.

Have you hosted an unconference or other professional development event? Thinking about it but have questions? Chime in with questions and/or advice below.


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