Unconferences Benefit Special Libraries, Archives, and Museums

Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD

Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD

May 25, 2021

Unconferences are conferences without predefined topics. They are the perfect platform for sharing ideas, trends, and techniques in this world of “social distancing” and remote working. 

Unconferences are driven by the interests of participants rather than conference organizers. This informal form of conference is perfect for the online environment.

Unconferences break down silos, encourage the free exchange of ideas, and open conversations with diverse voices. They are the perfect opportunity for those new to the profession to discuss topics with veterans of the field.

Defining Unconferences

Unconferences offer opportunities to brainstorm on new or long-standing topics, particularly those that need a facelift or reinvigoration. Unconferences may be held in an online environment, but they aren’t online conferences. Unconferences by their unstructured nature rarely include formal papers unless there is a keynote address that raises concerns or issues within that aspect of the profession.

At Unconferences, participants select topics within the overarching theme. Exchanges are lively and productive, especially when the conversation turns to problem solving. They are the perfect venue for idea generation and technique sharing. Updated and enhanced video conferencing software makes breakout sessions easy. 

Focusing on an overall topic, e.g., subject headings and access points, Unconferences provide opportunities to explore updating terminology, new techniques, and “ah-ha” moments. All participants benefit as do researchers and even database and catalog developers through active and unrestricted discussion.

Unconferences Encourage Innovation

With so many subspecialties and interests uniting and dividing Libraries, Archives, Museums, and Special Collections (LAMS), Unconferences are the perfect venue for encouraging innovation, diving into narrow topics, or even dealing with large, overarching subject domain issues. 

Their very nature encourages innovation. Unconferences embrace:

  • Minimal rules,
  • No set speakers, 
  • Exchanging ideas, 
  • Flexibility,
  • Networking, and 
  • Exchanging and enhancing skill sets.

Unconferences are flourishing in the remote work environment. They are easy to set up, require minimal organization, and break down barriers. All they require is a topic and the desire to exchange ideas.

Unconferences Promote Change

Unconferences allow for new voices which promotes change within LAMS. These unstructured programs provide opportunities to discuss cutting-edge issues within LAMS—such as adopting new technologies, enhancing diversity, and addressing racism. 

Unconferences promote: 

  • An active exchange, increased awareness 
  • Participation by all; asking all to be active rather than passive members of the community 
  • New voices in the profession
  • Thinking outside the box

Selecting topics at the start of the Unconference provides opportunities for new professionals to ask questions, share ideas, and add their voices to discussions.

Unconferences Add Value to LAMs

Leaders and staff within Special Libraries, Archives, and Museums are often asked to justify their activities and indeed their value to their institutions. Unconferences provide an opportunity to share best practices, and to describe how an innovation added value and improved access to collections for staff, researchers, and online visitors.

Brainstorm during the Unconferences on topics that add value and visibility, including:

  • Avoiding pitfalls and disasters when introducing new products and services
  • Benefits and opportunities for moving activities onto online platforms
  • Improving internal and external reference services
  • Nurturing and mentoring new staff

Ultimately, Unconferences are the perfect opportunity to discuss questions that aren’t easy to answer, to solve problems, and to shape the future of LAMs.

Summing It Up

Unconferences are brainstorming sessions within a group of special librarians, archivists, and museum curators focusing on broad or narrow topics. These informal meetings democratize the profession and bring marginalized voices to the table.

Unconferences provide an opportunity to generate ideas for improvement in technique; implementation of new techniques and policies; or even adaptation of new technologies. They can be brainstorming activities, idea generators, and opportunities to think outside the box.

“Pop-up” or planned unconferences whether local, national, or international, in-person, or online, foster engagement within LAMS at all levels of the profession. 

For more information about Unconferences see:








how to: https://musefromnowhere.org/about/ 

Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD

Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD

Miriam B. Kahn, MLS, PhD provides education and consulting for libraries, archives, corporations, and individuals. See Miriam’s pieces for Lucidea covering library technology and important skills and strategies for special librarians and other LAM professionals, especially in this time of virtual service and content delivery. Also, refresh your knowledge of Lucidea’s flagship ILS, SydneyEnterprise, here.

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