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To Conference or to Un-Conference? That is the Question!

CPD, the VLE, the PKSB (and What it Means for Me)

In terms of professional development, we librarians have never had it so good. We have courses, conferences, paper and electronic journals, email discussion lists, and a plethora of other social media platforms, not to mention (of course), our own professional body’s Chartership programme, along with mentoring, revalidation, Fellowship, and underpinning it all, the CILIP Virtual Learning Environment and PKSB (Professional Knowledge and Skills Base).

Indeed, there’s so much happening that it would be impossible to fit it all in without either your work-life or your private life creaking at the seams. Some prioritisation is essential.

As a music librarian, I have two professional organisations – IAML (the International Association of Music Libraries, in which I’m more active in the UK and Ireland Branch) and CILIP. I also currently convene SALCTG, the Scottish Academic Libraries Cooperative Training Group. Does that sound like enough professional involvement? Believe me, you’ve only heard a half of it. Or should I say, 60 per cent?

I’m surprised I don’t sometimes wake up dizzily demanding to know who I am, because I’m also currently two-thirds through a three year part-time postdoctoral research secondment, which thrusts me (hardly unwillingly, I must confess) into a completely different conference circuit as well. That’s the reason I gave a paper about our research project, at the IAML (International Association of Music Libraries) conference in Antwerp this summer, and attended two separate musicology conferences in Newcastle one week in October – fitting in my three days’ library work between trips. A couple of weeks ago, I attended another conference, this time the ELIA cultural conference taking place in Glasgow. (ELIA stands for The European League of Institutes of the Arts; I was awarded one of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s free places.)  The week before that, however, I attended a different kind of conference at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library – Library Camp Glasgow 2.

To me, the very phrase ‘library camp’ makes me think of a Glastonbury-type music festival peopled by librarians in flowery dresses and wellingtons. Please don’t tell the organisers that! Wikipedia doesn’t even have an entry for “library camp”, although I now have enough information to draft at least a skeletal contribution (watch this space!), so maybe a bit of clarification won’t go amiss.[1]

In the beginning, there was an unconference – a professional gathering of XML developers in 1998. The emphasis was on informality. Wikipedia does provide an unverified entry on the Unconference, going on to explain that the format gained popularity after the 2003 unconference of Blogger.com.

Library camps and Teach Meets are both developments of the unconference idea. They have evolved with the advent of social media, which make it much easier to arrange informal meetings with a minimum of administration. This doesn’t mean there’s absolutely no formal planning, of course, because there has to be a suitable venue, a means of signing up for the event (even if it’s free), and some form of catering. Similarly, there is a need for a web presence, whether a wiki, blog or other forum, and then the event needs to be marketed by social media and/or electronic mailing lists.

Anyone can attend a library camp – they don’t have to be librarians – and although there are no timetabled presentations or keynote speakers, attendees can offer to read papers or make quick soapbox appearances. The planning is done on the day, by the organisers. A few freebies and prizes also add to the appeal of the event, of course.

The first library camps were in fact, in the USA – in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Darien, Connecticut, in 2006 – but the British camps began in Birmingham in 2011. The Glasgow one began last year in 2013, Library Camp Wales kicked off in Cardiff in April 2014, and there are now school library camps as well. It’s clearly a winning format! The informality is a great attraction, and it’s hoped that attendees returning for subsequent camps will be further emboldened to have their say about library topics which concern them, or ideas they’d like to run past a wider audience.

Library Camp Glasgow Karenmca
Library Camp badge 2013

So I spent a Saturday at the second Glasgow library camp. SALCTG, the training group that I Piano badge 2014currently convene – is subsidising the catering, which pleases me. I made my badge – how could I not make a badge when my entry last year was a tied prizewinner? And I did a presentation, too.

Although I’m a seasoned conference attendee, I can see the advantages of both the formal conference and the unconference approach. Whereas the formal academic conference is a good forum for formal academic discourse, perhaps resulting in published papers with all the paraphernalia of peer review, style sheets, abstracts and so on, it doesn’t really lend itself to the more egalitarian, relaxed kind of discussions that professional practitioners thrive on. Working librarians aren’t necessarily keen to write scholarly papers on library science, but this doesn’t mean we don’t have views and ideas to share.

The remark is often made that at formal conferences, some of the best discussions take place in the coffee-breaks. Therefore, if an unconference – such as a library camp – can make more space for coffee and chat, stripping away the formality that can be offputting to younger, less-experienced participants, then in theory, there should be benefits all round.

Mind you, I have to admit – quietly, but firmly – that by the end of November, I was “conferenced out”. I was hoping December would be a little quieter, in that regard at least, if only so I can finally update my PKSB! There’s certainly plenty to add.  However, with another encyclopedia article to author before I think about Christmas, that’s a rather faint hope!

[1] A library science postgraduate looking for an interesting dissertation topic could do worse than a study of the growth of library camps within the UK, particularly if they have a social sciences kind of background!