Yesterday an enlightening thing happened in the comments on a blog post by Steve Lawson (a post which is positively ancient in blog years, by the way). Up until yesterday, I’d rather naively thought that even though the terms “unconference” and “library camp” are still in their toddlerhood, people generally had a common understanding of what those terms mean. In my head, this common definition went something like this: An informal, free or low cost, loosely structured gathering at which people share knowledge with each other. I would hear “unconference” and have an image of people gathering at the beginning of the day to figure out what they wanted to learn that day and which of them could lead sessions on those agreed-on topics.
Now I see that people may not, in fact, have a common understanding of the term “unconference.” The comments on Steve’s post point to at least three different interpretations: Unconferences are loosely structured conferences, Unconferences are grassroots gatherings, and Unconferences are a genre rather than a format. Here’s what I mean…
- Unconferences as loosely structured conferences
If you think of a conference, you know that there are all kinds of logistics that go into pulling one of those things off, most of which depend to a large degree on how many people you want to attend. Everything from spaces to staffing to the number of speakers to the relative rock-start status of your speakers to the rigidity of the schedule has to be geared toward attracting and handling your target audience. If you plan for 100 people and only 40 show up, that’s a huge waste of capital. Bring this mindset to an unconference and you end up with less worry about rock-star speakers (though a few recent unconferences have had Big Names give keynote addresses), but most of the same issues remain your primary concern. The major thing that changes, then, is that the unconference organizers spend little to no time planning out sessions topics, leaving that up to the attendees.
- Unconferences as grassroots gatherings
Other people, while still having to deal with logistics, consciously force those logistics into the background of the event. They still need space and people, obviously, but if they plan for 100 and 40 show up, those 40 might not even notice that you had enough room for more than twice their number. Those 40 would gather, decide what they want to learn and which of them can facilitate that learning, and then learn it, usually for free (with the space and other necessities paid for by donors or sponsors).
- Unconferences as a genre rather than a format
Still others (myself included) think of unconferences as a genre of gathering which may or may not include a keynote address, may or may not charge a small fee, and may or may not have an over-arching theme. This genre places the emphasis on attendee-driven content, but other than that, it no more dictates the size or cost or logistical complexity than does the parent term “conference.” As Steve says, an unconference “can be whatever the attendees decide it is” (citation).
Luckily, the solution to all the muddled assumptions is transparency. So if I see an unconference coming up, and I see that it will charge me a small fee and what that fee will go towards, I can make my own decisions about the value of that unconference in my life. If I see that it will be of the loosely-structured-conference variety, and I’m ok with that, that’s great. If I see that it’ll be a completely unstructured day of serendipitous learning with other librarians, and I’m ok with that, that’s great too. After all, not all conferences are like ALA Annual, so why must all unconferences be as diametrically opposed to Annual as possible?