Unconference? – Pres4Lib – A Review

June 15, 2009 at 4:07 pm 1 comment

Ok, I will admit it—when I heard the term ‘unconference’ I groaned. When I read the definition, I groaned even louder. I mean really, how could you not groan when the words “jam-session” are used to describe a conference. I assumed it was just another Boomer driven conceit—an excuse to navel gaze instead of doing real work. I wasn’t much more interested in attending camp. Yet, when I heard about the Pres4Lib unconference, I wanted to go.

Why? Because the topic—a camp for library speakers or trainers is of great interest to me. Plus it was being organized by fellow LibraryGarden bloggers—Pete Bromberg, Janie Hermann and Amy Kerns (along with John LeMasney) and would take place at Princeton Public Library, MPOW. Still despite my faith in my friends and fellow-bloggers, I was a bit dubious—could something without structure really hold my interest for an entire day?

My concerns were unfounded—Pres4Lib was easily one of the best training days I have participated in since becoming a librarian. The topic was relevant to my job—I teach and give presentations. The speakers were experienced, informative, and entertaining. Best of all, the lightening talk format insured that no speech would run so long that it could become dull or even mildly painful. The break-out sessions, in the birds-of-a-feather format, were a bit more hit-or-miss, but still quite good. All in all, I met a number of interesting people, learned a great deal, and had a good time in the process.

What made Pres4Lib work in a format that I am still not convinced would work most of the time? For starters, this was not a completely unstructured conference. By using a wiki and the free on-line survey tool Zoomerang (one of the best take-aways from the conference), when the camp began an agenda was already set. While it could change—that’s a primary rule of an unconference—the basic outline for the day was set. This was a good move—participants told of the first hour at other such events being spent hashing out the day. Wow, dull, dull, dull—for me, my ego doesn’t need to drive things and my patience wears thin watching others vie for dominance.

The other critical factor—the participants. This was a diverse group with only one thing in common—the train and they speak-in-public. That diversity meant the message was not the generic this is how to present. Participants are the conference, so if you have a group that lacks skills and experience, or without much personality, I could see an unconference being a really tedious event. Finally, the day ended with a Battle Decks session that was funny and goofy and the perfect way to end a long day at a conference focused on presentation skills.

For me the highlights of the day were Pete Bromberg’s lightening talk and John LeMasney’s birds-of-a-feather session on Creative Commons. Both really made the best use of the ‘unconference’ format.

Pete was funny, informative, and engaging. His tips and advice were really spot-on—both quantity and quality were higher than I anticipated. It was an amazing ten-minute show–Pete really raised the bar for PowerPoint presentations. He is in his own league. Check out the video.

John did not have a scripted presentation for his session. In fact, it was not ‘his’ session. His job was simply to get things started and generally keep an eye on things if they needed a nudge. He was perfect—his knowledge of the topic allowed for immediate Q&A. More importantly, he kept things rolling as the topic strayed from where to find CC items to how to use them, how to attribute them, and how to share your own work. The one hour session flew by and I found several tools I will start using immediately—FireFox, Zemanta, and PhotoExpress. All my breakout sessions were good, but none had as much information that was immediately beneficial to me.

While I remain skeptical that all unconferences would be as worthwhile, I will consider attending another one. I know what to look for—how well organized is the unorganized event and who is attending. Thank-you to the organizers and the participants. It was a day I will not soon forget. But be warned—next time I encounter Battle Decks, I will be a participant!
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Entry filed under: ALA, Conferences, Fun, Presentations, Unconferences. Tags: , , , .

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1 Comment

  • 1. stevenb  |  June 16, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    I second Pete's lightning talk as a highlight of the day. It was a fun event and I too connected with some existing colleagues and met new ones.I'm not so sure about battle decks though. While mildly entertaining (though it appeared painful for some of the participants) it was not that productive – and I know the point is to have some time to unwind. The time might have been better spent with another round of BOAF session.


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