Programming Unconference Northeast 2013 Recap

I have to start this post with an admission: for every unconference I attend, it lowers my patience for most organized conferences. Whether it is a “panel” that is actually a vendor sales pitch or presenters who magically turn the interesting into the mundane, I just don’t have the tolerance anymore. I would not go so far as to declare it to be a complete waste of time, but it is certainly squandering my time. I’m not shy about getting up and leaving, and I can say that I’ve voted with my feet enough times to declare expertise in the subject.

In doing so, I’ve found more useful outlets in meeting and talking with my peers, the conference phenomena commonly known as “hallway conversations”. Chatting, socializing, and otherwise engaged conversations are how I learn best and so I seek out those kinds of settings to create up my own learning experience. This is probably why I gravitate towards unconferences, especially in helping to organize them. I leave wanting to do another with the conversations still fresh and the effort to get to that point pushed aside. I come from a long line of very social people, so this is now just a family tradition.

For me, the unconference was a good reminder that the community and the library are not worlds apart like they seem at times. Community groups, whether they are businesses, non-profits, social clubs or whatnot, are readily approachable by the library. It’s a matter of showing how their interests align with the library interests and providing space for that relationship to grow. The library walls, which can feel so confining at times, can be breached by the telephone and email in order to reach out. While making initial contact face-to-face has merit, those in short staffed situations can still make the first move.

Also within that first move of outreach is one to the community at large in trying to ascertain their interests and needs. It doesn’t take much effort with social media pathways and simply asking people who come to the library what they want. It is a matter of doing it.

The most interesting breakout group conversation to me revolved around the makerspace movement. I’m pivoting towards the belief that there has always been a makerspace sort of entity to the library (most notably in childrens’ storytime crafts). What we are seeing now is the next logical step in scaling the production upwards with 3D printers, digital media labs, and other technology. But, even without those items, the capability for craftsmanship is limited only by your creativity. Simply having the tools and materials to allow people to make things such as jewelry or art can be a rewarding programming experience. It’s about taking the lessons of a thrifty hobbyist to see what can be done with recycled materials, odds and ends from a junk drawer, or other seemingly unrelated items. Don’t let the term ‘makerspace’ fool you into thinking that you need some fancy technology in order to have one; opt for the original version that uses hands, tools, and materials. People want to create with their hands these days as they always have since the tactile experience is still highly desired.

For myself, the best reward was watching and hearing how people got involved in the many different conversations. There was one moment where someone’s face lit up at a realization (the suggestion of someone else) and began to dash down notes as fast as their pen would let them. That, to me, was a moment that will stick with me for a very long time and makes me smile just thinking about it. That really made my day and all the effort completely worth it.

As I finish up this post, I want to thank Erin Shea for agreeing to help me “unorganize” this. (We came up with that term; licensing fees for using it are still quite reasonable.) She did the grunt work that comes with setting up the website and arranging the venue (the always beautiful Darien Public Library) and the million other things that I as the remote person could not handle. She was a thrill to work with and I look forward to collaborating with her again in the future. I’d also like to thank Lisa Carlucci Thomas for doing our keynote; she is a wonderful and thoughtful speaker who really got the day going. My special thanks to Pat Sheary and the rest of the Darien staff for their help at the unconference on that day.

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