Why the unconference is the new conference


They’re springing up all over the place these days – informal gatherings of like-minded people talking about the things they love to do. A mass of people who are trying things out or interested in trying new ideas. Mini “Flash Talks” or self-organised topic debates pepper a day that is all about the quality of the delegates rather than the quality of the speakers.

Although they are often outside of working hours, the good news is that they are also often either free or surprisingly economical to attend. They are run on a shoe-string budget and rely on the goodwill of sponsoring organisations – sound familiar? Just like my features on Gateshead Libraries and Lewisham People’s Day, unconferences rely on the new reciprocal or gift economy to work. You give back just by participating, so if you go along don’t expect to be able to just listen quietly and slink to the back of the room to eat sandwiches. Come prepared to talk, show and tell things you’ve been working on and exchange details with hundreds of other people.

The two big unconference organisers that library professionals needs to know about are Mashed Libraries and Library Camp. Both have big events coming up soon –

Pi and Mash on 9th August is about pushing the technological boundaries of library work and library collections. Mainly run with academic libraries in mind, it’s a great opportunity for public library staff to find out about the latest developments in academia and build contacts with academic libraries which may have access to tech you’ve only dreamt about and will certainly know a few people who can help develop your coding and tech offer.

Unfortunately, it’s already sold out but you can get on the waiting list here. It was offering bursaries to help hard pressed library staff attend, so even if you don’t have any kind of travel budget you might be able to go next year. Or how about setting up your own Mashed Library event? Anyone can hold one…

Library Camp has been running for a few years now – I had thought that all public library staff must be aware of it but it seems as though that’s not the case! It’s a self-organised unconference about all aspects of library services and includes school and academic librarians, volunteers and users as well as public library staff. The next event is on 13th September in Newcastle.

But if going off to an unofficial conference isn’t on your service’s budget or radar this year, how about an international online library conference? Library 2.014 is running on 8-9 October and will include library staff from all over the globe. You will be able to stream live talks, demos and presentations and participate in online chat forums alongside your library colleagues from around the world. You can even propose your own paper! It’s not world peace, but it’s a start…

(Image: Conference Time, Christian Senger)


Gateshead Libraries: An Explosion of Digital Creativity



At first glance, Gateshead’s public libraries look much like any other… but under the calm exterior lies an explosion of digital creativity.

Gateshead Libraries run loads of digital exploration, engagement and learning activities. As a result, they’ve had press coverage, built partnerships with Newcastle Makerspace and the local hi-tech economy and received grant support from the Carnegie Trust.

I spoke to Jacqui Thompson from Gateshead Libraries about her work to build their digital offer. Here’s what she had to say:

So, what are you up to?

I started working on developing our digital offer in 2012, with our first E-Day, and it has all grown from there.

We hold annual E-Days – events where people can experiment with new technology, such as Oculus Rift, 3D printers and programming Raspberry Pi. The next EDay is on the 27th September in Gateshead Central Library.

We work with the local branch of international game developer Ubisoft, and Vector 76 who work in Augmented Reality to run career days to help local young people understand how to get into hi-tech jobs. Local HE and FE institutions help out too, offering STEM sessions for young people.

Newcastle Makerspace provide us with invaluable expertise, provide access to kit and deliver workshops and technology making sessions for us.

We offer social media surgeries and coding sessions using Raspberry Pi – even raiding our Local Authority IT department for old monitors and keyboards to hook up to the home made computers. Ubisoft also run game programming workshops.

Soon we’ll be offering Coderdojo sessions, electronic circuits workshops and making HTML dynamic animations.

Who comes along?


(image: David Charlton)

These events all started because I was asked to bring more men and boys into the library and so I got the idea of gadgets.

I didn’t target our usual library audience, instead I went online and looked at the forums there were in the North East and what groups already existed.

I joined several forums and they have been brilliant for providing free marketing to developer communities. For example, Raspberry Pi have their own digital magazine, The Magpi and they featured our events.

We also approach local schools to see if they are interested in advertising our events to school children and have been invited down as far as Durham to speak to a school there.

We get around 100 people when we run gaming events with Ubisoft. Our first EDay brought in 131 people. Last year we were able to link in with Newcastle Science Festival and that brought in 350 people. Through running the events we’ve built up a mailing list of 200 people. A lot of men and boys come but women and girls are interested too.

What’s the strategy behind your service development?

We wanted to create partnerships with a focus on creativity and skill development to coincide with the introduction of programming into the curriculum. I also wanted to build on the growth of digital businesses in the North East.

I didn’t really have a budget for this work so I decided to survey what was out there already and build the service around existing groups and companies who were already working in the field. It only took one person to understand what I was trying to do and it all took off from there.

What are you most proud of?

Being the first public library to introduce EDay and all the activities which have stemmed from it. They have put Gateshead Libraries on the map and shown people what Libraries can offer.

And convincing people that Libraries are a place where wonderful things can happen.

What has worked really well?


(image: David Charlton)

The partnerships have been amazing – they have enabled me to run big events on a shoestring budget.

Vector 76 bring along their Oculus Rift. We’ve had great support and direction from Makerspace Newcastle, as well as loans of 3D printers and other technology. Ubisoft, Newcastle University and our other partners have all contributed their time and expertise to run coding and other workshops. Our ICT service have provided bits of old kit for us to play with as well.

It’s all done on a goodwill basis and because they understand what we’re trying to do. People now approach me to get involved, which makes things a lot easier.

What advice would you give other services who are just starting out on developing their digital offer?

Don’t be put off easily!

You need enthusiastic staff – someone who  is not afraid to approach people, can build relationships and keep up to date with what is going on in the field and in your region.

It is not essential to be a ‘techie’ but you need to do your research, have  an understanding of what’s going on and how it can be delivered and the freedom to do so.

Always have a plan B, as someone may let you down and remember to collect and record  evidence of what you are doing so you can present it to influencers and decision makers when you get the opportunity.

(Cover image: Gateshead Libraries)