Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

I Am an Unconference, and So Are You

I’ve been wanting to write about the subject of "unconferences" for a while, but until recently I couldn’t figure out why they annoyed me. If something doesn’t annoy me, it rarely makes it into the blog. After all, I’m not going to write an entire post about things that don’t annoy me – such as martinis, coffee breaks, and foot massages, to name a few of the things I like most about my job. (And as always, thanks to Chip, the best personal assistant ever!)

Still, some people think this topic is actually worthy of discussion, as if the concept of an "unconference" were something that required sophisticated analytical skills to figure out.

At first I thought, gee, this is just another stupid attempt by some librarians to draw attention to themselves by describing something old with a fresh neologism. It turns out I was right, and that’s enough to get annoyed about. Are there librarians out there who really think they’re doing something new? Do they really think the latest trend isn’t just a repackaging of some previous trend, and so on ad nauseum? I guess there must be librarians that stupid, but I don’t talk to them much, and I don’t want to. Do we really need yet another unnecessary new word to pretend we’re hip?

"Unconference" is just a stupid word, and to use it in a serious way is to invite discussion and ridicule. Strictly speaking, anything that isn’t a conference is an "unconference." My shoe is an "unconference," and quite an attractive "unconference" it is, too. What’s the point of using a word like this, except to draw attention to yourself as some sort of trendsetter? Is there anything going on at any of these so-called "unconferences" that hasn’t been going on for decades? Trendsetters manque call these things "unconferences." The rest of the world just call them "meetings," and doesn’t attempt to be pretentious.

Some people have tried to distinguish them. It’s like a conference, but we haven’t invited any speakers! Hmm. These used to just be called "meetings," too, but now I’m thinking that a meeting where speakers are invited should now be called an unmeeting. Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the things that would be the most attractive about these meetings, er, "unconferences." Invited speakers tend to be boring and insubstantial. They peddle the same five talking points they’ve used at the previous ten conferences, making the same lame jokes in the same places. The talking points were never particularly clever or interesting, and are almost always the sort of thing anyone with even a reasonable amount of intelligence could come up with given the topic. I should know, I’ve given enough of these talks. So any conference without speakers is a boon as far as I’m concerned. But I still don’t see how this is different from a meeting.

Still, they keep trying, these librarians desperate to seem different and new. It’s like a conference, except we just give people a topic and let them discuss it! Woo hoo! How is this different from a meeting with an agenda? It’s like a conference, except it’s free! You know, like a meeting.

It’s like a conference, except anyone can come and participate! Here we’re getting closer, it seems. Anyone can come to any conference if they pay, but they can’t always participate. If people participate, then that’s completely different. Then an "unconference" is something radically different from anything we’ve ever seen before and deserves a trendy new name. Different from everything, of course, except meetings.

One blogger I read really emphasized the participatory nature of these meetings. The more participatory the better! This doesn’t make them any different from meetings, but it does have a whiff of sixties-era hippiedom about it, and that’s a heady whiff indeed. The trendy librarians might think they’re doing something fresh and new, when really they’re just trying to replicate the political meetings of a bygone era, where hairy, unwashed people sat around without direction arguing about politics and smoking dope. Those were the days! It just makes one want to scream, "Take a bath, ‘unconference’ attendees!"

If we all just participate, then that’s what really matters. Then we can all learn from one another! Not that most of us have anything to teach, but the learning isn’t as important as everyone feeling like they’re a part of things. Anything that emphasizes participation as the criterion for effectiveness is designed more like a consciousness-raising pep talk than anything else, and I’m not sure what could be more annoying than one of those.

Of course, it’s still a participatory, consciousness-raising pep talk in the form of a meeting.



  1. I think I’m more a non-conference than an unconference, unless the point is that the word is gibberish.

  2. Librarian of the Future says:

    I think I’m the undead, but my shoe is more of an uncola.

  3. Oh yeah? Well, I think the AL is forging the unconference of her profession in the smithy of her soul.

  4. jomfritz says:

    The purpose of a meeting is to make decisions. The purpose of an unconference is just to talk…

  5. Hopefully, the librarians that attend unconferences will come back to find out that their job has been outsourced and they are now ex-librarians, or should we say Borders Associates.

  6. the.effing.librarian says:

    I don’t like meetings because I don’t like meeting anyone. But conferences allow me to just wander around and take pens. So an unconference just means conference, but “no free pens.” But maybe they let you download badges that I can put on my blog. Cool. But I like the lurkability of a conference. Will the unconference allow me to lurk? Maybe you’d like unconferences better if they were called “skulkferences”?

  7. the.effing.librarian says:

    wanted to add: I can take pens at meetings, but then people chase me shouting, “that’s my pen!” but I run fast, so my collection has really grown.

  8. Conference or unconference, if they don’t have totebags, they can count me out.

  9. Skipbear says:

    The idea has me very Uncomfortable.

  10. Dr. Pepper says:

    ROFL. I’ve found the term unconference pretty lame. I like the idea of a BarCamp (unconference at a bar), but I hate that name too.

    How about let’s all meet at the pub and talk about things…like “Cheers” !

  11. anonymous says:

    LOL. The upcoming library “unconference” was bothering me, as I wasn’t sure what they were trying to accomplish. I’m pretty sure MPOW will only pay for “conferences” and not “unconferences,” anyway. But now I know :)

    @Librarian of the Future: if you made an undead library conference, I would so totally go…

  12. decent-looking straight guy says:

    The meetings with the most substantive results and meaningful discussion are always the informal get-togethers over dinner and drinks regardless of whether people call the overall event conference, unconference, skulkerence or whatever. Find intelligent people, ask them questions about important topics that effect the preservation and provision of access to information, add your ideas, debate any dissensions in a civil and collegial manner, and come to a conclusion. Sheesh.

  13. Conferences, un or not are dead and should not be promoted. We are killing our earth to jet back and forth across the country to talk about cataloging buggy whips.

  14. spongebob librarypants says:

    Buggy whips? Really? Must be an Amish library.

  15. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    I attended ALA annual once … 25 years ago. Been there done that what a waste of time and money. I’d rather work, thanks!

  16. Dances With Books says:

    Actually, if they did just sit around talking librarian stuff AND smoking some pot, I might, just might, consider showing up. Of course, the debonair thing to do is to have a few cocktails while discussing significant and relevant issues in the professional field of librarianship.

    Hey, this language thing does work. Change a few words, and you get things like unconferences. As for meetings, hate them. Usually a bunch of people in a room, with an agenda or not (meetings back in the day at Bootstrap Metro U. were notorious for lasting 3 to 4 hours without an agenda), who pretty much decide nothing. As someone points out here, often you get stuff done over some cocktails at the bar anyways.

    Why can’t these hipster clowns just stop their pretentiousness and admit they simply are sitting in a room yakking and shooting the breeze?

  17. Unconferences are just what they call conferences where you don’t have to submit talk proposals a year and a half before the event. In other words, conferences that one might actually learn something new at.

  18. Still sounds like a meeting to me.

  19. Conferences = Unthink
    Uncoferences = Unusual unopportunity for uncertain undumbarses to unload ungibberish

  20. Conferences = Unthink
    Uncoferences = Unusual unopportunity for uncertain undumbarses to unload ungibberish

  21. Jonathan says:

    You write this post as if librarians developed the concept of unconferences, which originated in the geeky technology sector about a decade ago.

    Perhaps what makes you so annoyed is the ”

  22. Jonathan says:

    Gawd, this commenting system is the WORST.

    This got cut off…

    Perhaps what makes you so annoyed is the “geekification” of librarians.

  23. Jonathan says:

    Now there’s something to be annoyed about. This website’s commenting system.

  24. Conference Avoiding Librarian says:

    Wow, Walt Crawford (Walt at Random) doesn’t share the AL love. His latest post points to this post to prove that he isn’t AL. Apparently since moving to LJ, AL has become ”

  25. Conference Avoiding Librarian says:

    This is a lame commenting system. Apparently since moving to LJ, AL has become ”Intellectually lazy trollbait.” Also, our problem is that we are not reading and participating in the Library Leadership Network to which he provides a link describing how an un-conference works.

  26. Why so sour? says:

    AL continues to elicit disgust from the peanut gallery, or so it seems. Steve Lawson thinks Wayne Bivens-Tatum should be ashamed of himself for writing about the AL. FOOLISH! and Walt thinks this blog is intellectually lazy trollbait. YAWN! Is this the best critique these people can put forth? DRIVEL! Maybe we as a profession should unconference about the AL’s insidious effect on the ultra-serious set of librarian bloggers and how to help them overcome their neurotic obsession with the AL.

  27. Conference Avoiding Librarian says:

    Why so sour – neurotic obsession is right. It would be funny if it wasn’t pathetic. After reading the wiki article on putting on an un-conference I have to agree with AL. I would be embarrassed to ask my institution for release time to attend one, much less funding. But then, apparently, we are part of, if not entirely, the problem for not embracing the LLN.

  28. Just Another Anonabrarian says:

    AL: I love it when you mock the emperor’s new clothes, but this post is lamer than Dubya on January 19. Unconferences are useful because they’re the antithesis of the expensive, ennui-laden monstrosities that turn new librarians off of ALA. Joining ALA used to be a no-brainer for new librarians, but these days? Not so much. The paleolithic conference structure is part of the reason for that. Put that in your martini and drink it!

  29. More of the elite jabbering.

    They are the only ones going to conferences, un or not. The rest of us are just plain working to keep our doors open.

  30. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    Its an unconference because its unimportant.

  31. An unconference is unnatural

  32. Maybe everybody should stop unconferencing and get back to work? :D

  33. Would you mind if I put you on a unconference call?

  34. K.G. Schneider says:

    I go out of my way to avoid AL and LJ except as absolutely necessary for my job, but this post came to me third-hand.

    I am pleased to see that William Blake was wrong: in the end, the devil really isn’t all that interesting. If you live in a toxic vortex of negativism, eventually you run out of things to say.

    You don’t need to be oblivious to the challenges and problems in librarianship to be able to have a balanced view. But AL is just as unbalanced as the folks out there being uncritical fangirls and fanboys of the latest trends.

    It’s true it’s hard to explain to some administrators why unconferences (or unconference-style activities) can be as much or more useful than traditional “sage on a stage” presentations. Perhaps AL is in fact one of these administrators, chortling as he/she stamps “DENIED” on a conference request. What a card.

    But let’s take an analogy from church experience. One thing I know is that engagement in church (temple/mosque) activities is more spiritually satisfying than simply asking to be fed. The same is true of unconference activities. (The same is true of teaching, come to think of it.) Encouraging librarians to really dig deep and engage with the topics of the day — and help define them! — is crucial for their development and therefore, for the profession at large.

    Anyway… AL, you disgusted me from the get-go, and now you’re simply boring. Which perks me up immeasurably, because you aren’t here because you’re speaking truth to power, you’re here for LJ’s publisher’s revenue stream. I shall go light a candle that you will soon need to go spend more time with your family and reassess your priorities, as they say.

  35. What a boring retort.

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