Simon Barron, E-resources Co-ordinator at Durham University Library has kindly provided us with a post on the recent LibraryCamp 2012, held in Birmingham

Attendees at LibraryCamp 2012

Image by Sasha Taylor

On Sunday 14th October 2012, I sat in the least commercial café that I could find around Birmingham New Street Station hunched over a cup of coffee and a panini feeling completely drained – physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted – and I wanted nothing more than to go home. Though I was so tired and drained that I could barely make the notes for this blog post, I’m not sure I’d have it any other way. Library Camp UK 2012 pushed me to the edge of exhaustion and it was by no means perfect but it was nonetheless one of the best library-related events in my recent memory.

Library Camps are unconference events in which a date and venue is decided upon, library folk congregate on that venue, and then semi-spontaneously set the agenda for the day’s proceedings. To date, there have been two national Library Camps and a number of smaller Library Camp-ettes in various locations across England (1). From :

Unconferences are events with a number of things in common:

* Free to attend
* No set, pre-defined agenda
* A strong focus on attendee participation
* Relentlessly positive, constructive and creative (via @bluelightcamp)

On the 13th October, I went to Library Camp UK 2012 held in Birmingham at the Signing Tree Conference Centre. This was the second national Library Camp in the UK and it attracted, according to one of the organisers, between 150 and 200 people. And their cakes.

Attendees chose sessions to attend from a spontaneously-generated matrix of 6 time-slots and 4 rooms. As with other Library Camps, the sessions presented a variety of topic areas unimaginable for any other event. I attended a mix of presentations and discussion workshops covering: what public libraries are for; open source software and cultural change; the philosophy of classification; ‘living libraries’ projects in Scandinavia; the use of volunteers in libraries; Open Access in academic libraries. The quality of the sessions and their content was somewhat hit-and-miss which is only to be expected at these kinds of events: to some extent it’s the attendees who drive the direction of a session. While there may not be cutting-edge research results or groundbreaking peer-reviewed ideas, it’s great to discuss these issues.

Because Library Camp is not an event of ideas but an event of people: it’s not the ideas you take away but the people with whom you discuss them. The moments that stand out in my memory all do so because of the people I was with. Liz Jolly challenging a fellow from Red Quadrant and delivering an impassioned defence of public services; Andrew Preater channelling Richard Stallman when talking about ‘free software’; a group of library knitters sitting outside and accusing Sarah Nicholas of stealing the sun; meeting a stranger and having recognition and connection flow into the vacuum between you both when you realise that you’ve been Twitter friends for ages; sharing pizza and wine with Travelodge buddies on the Friday evening before. A Library Camp isn’t a conference for learning serious new things and reporting back to one’s workplace (2): it’s an event for meeting people. Most importantly, for meeting people who care.

I’ve never been good at professional detachment: keeping a distance between ‘career’ and ‘life’, ‘colleagues’ and ‘friends’, ‘work’ and ‘fun’. Though my online identity may manifest the kind of postmodern, self-referential, world-wearily cynical irony that is fashionable among the overeducated and disaffected of my generation, the truth is that I care. I care deeply about libraries, about this profession, and about the men and women who work in it. And so I throw myself into work, I get emotionally involved with librarianship, I “stretch [my]self until [I] snap.” (3) For me, the boundary between the professional and the personal has always been blurred to the point of near non-existence.

The beauty of the Library Camp group of unconference events is that they are the profersonal’s conference – events almost spontaneously generated by people’s care for the profession. On a chilly Saturday in October in a venue on the outskirts of Birmingham, hundreds of library folk from all across the UK gathered to meet people, talk about libraries, and eat cake. Several people mentioned the typical surprised response of their colleagues to talk of attending Library Camp (4): “You’re going to a work event on a weekend?! And paying for everything yourself?!” The people who attended Library Camp were happy to do it. Because they care. They care about the profession; they care about discussing these issues; they care about their peers – and friends. For that weekend, I was surrounded by people who care so much and who take their profession personally. (5)

Library Camp UK 2012 wasn’t perfect. And I left Birmingham drained and bone-tired from my experiences. But in that café in Birmingham New Street, I felt… human. A Library Camp is a uniquely human event – emotionally involved, dependent on a community of people, ever-so-slightly mad – and nothing that human can ever be perfect. And that’s kind of beautiful.

(1) Explanation of a semi-contentious point: For an event which attracts people who organise and classify for a living, the classification of a ‘Library Camp’ is a somewhat tangled matter. There have been ‘library camps’ in other places across the world (notably France, Australia, and the USA) but they appear to be of a different ‘brand’ and are not organised by the same group of people as ‘Library Camp’. But then again surely that doesn’t matter since the identity of the organisers of a ‘library camp’ is immaterial? For semantic purposes, my mental Venn diagram says that every ‘Library Camp’ is necessarily an unconference but not every unconference is necessarily a ‘Library Camp’ or even a ‘library camp’.

(2) More explanation: At least not necessarily. It may be so incidentally and/or tangentially.

(3) Reference: From the incredibly apt song ‘Love What You Do’ by The Divine Comedy.

(4) Other than “Does it actually involve camping?”

(5) Rejoinder to imagined criticism: I’m not saying that anyone who didn’t attend Library Camp doesn’t care because that would be an absurd statement. For one thing, there were only a limited number of tickets which were distributed in a – personal opinion – idiosyncratic way.

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13 comments on “Simon Barron on LibraryCamp 2012”

  1. John Kirriemuir

    Which I’d gone, but got hemmed in by deadlines (which ironically nearly failed to meet as distracted following the tweets of the event).

    Hoping library camp UK can successfully tread the difficult path of being an annual event, but remaining fresh, relevant and useful.

  2. Laura

    Completely agree with everything you’ve written here, Simon. This Library Camp was definitely more about meeting with likeminded folk and friends old and new than exchanging ideas. Allowing sponsorship by Red Quadrant in exchange for their hosting a session was either worrying naive or an embarrassing oversight by the organisers. RQ were unable to defend themselves or offer valid debate, which made them appear somewhat unprofessional. Their raffle – where the winner was given the chance for RQ to come into their workplace was extremely odd. Why would any staff member willingly welcome a change management company, notorious for aggression and causing redundancies unless it was absolutely necessary? Hopefully the organisers will have learned from this and realised that it was a completely inappropriate move in a climate where staff are fighting for their profession, institutions and to keep jobs.

    I noticed that during some sessions there was a great deal of, “we need [x]” “[y] has to change” but no positive suggestions as to how [x] and [y] could be achieved. I had been hoping for a merging of ideas and fighting spirits, but there was a definite feeling of negativity and worryingly, defeat. This of course is to be expected to a degree. So many people have lost their jobs, watched helplessly as their library services are outsourced, seen public libraries closed, or are simply swamped by fear that all of the above will happen to them. I’m not saying everyone felt this way, of course. It just happened to be a dominating factor at the sessions.

    The positives though – and I feel these far outweighed the negatives of the day. Catching up with friends from all over the country. Dining, chatting, laughing. Meeting with new folk; putting faces to names of Twitter users; bonding further with people only previously met in passing. So many friendly faces and the knowledge that we could simply strike up a conversation with anyone as we automatically had something in common, and that we would be welcome to do so. The amazing cake, and that no one baked the same thing. The joy at realising that the person we were chatting to were well known to us already online. The support that people gave to peers running sessions. The pride in our profession, in each other.

    I now feel that paid, planned conferences with set programmes are the places to go for academic discussion, contemplation of future trends and technologies, researched scenarios and potential solutions. Library Camp is perhaps more of a social event; more about the people than the sessions. Of course, I would have loved it to have been a bit more of an ideas exchange. I’m not saying this didn’t happen – it just wasn’t apparent in many of the sessions I attended. However, I think that the social element is a big part of what makes our profession so special. I am not aware of another field where this is so prevalent, thus any opportunity we have to come together and increase these bonds is to be encouraged. I am glad I went and feel these positives far outweigh the frustrations.

    • Richard Veevers

      And I’m obviously going to have to take up your challenge there Laura!
      I’m sluggishly, dragging myself through a blog posting about the day. Which I hope should offer a robust defence against the points you raised against myself and the other organisers.
      And again I ask the big question: Will you be back?

      • Laura

        The overall negatives weren’t a reflection on the organisation skills, so please don’t take it as such. It was an excellent venue, the food was good and everything ran smoothly. I maintain that sponsorship from RQ was inappropriate, and this was a general feeling from attendees. There were however no points raised against you and the other organisers beyond the involvement of RQ. (I am not however quite sure as to exactly what challenge I proposed?!)

        I found Library Camp at Brunel to be very different – more ideas rather than grumbles. Of course, I couldn’t attend every session at Birmingham so there may have been some which offered more positive suggestions for progress. Interestingly, I didn’t see you at any of the sessions which I attended, so perhaps your experiences were very different.

        Will I be back? I cannot answer that question at the moment and remain open-minded. However, as I mentioned above, the Brunel camp was different and I came away with ideas and positive steps that people were looking to take – and have taken since. I think as a result I would be more inclined to attend the smaller, local events, and hope that these continue to spring up.

  3. Rosie Hare

    I wholeheartedly agree with Laura’s comment and with Simon’s sentiment in the blog post. I’ve spent the past week feeling a bit unsure about what I got from Library Camp and whether I got what I ‘should have’ from it, but after thinking about it I definitely feel that the chance to meet new people and get to know others I already knew better was definitely the highlight of the weekend.

    I was disappointed by the attempt by Red Quadrant to push their sessions onto the day but I feel that the unpreparedness and seeming lack of knowledge of the profession and library services by their representative almost served to reinforce the solidarity of the attendees of Library Camp and make Red Quadrant look a bit foolish. However, at the time I felt a bit negative after that first session I attended and I felt that at times throughout the day I struggled to get my positivity back.

    But I don’t want to end this comment on a negative note and I really must echo what Laura said about the positive aspects far outweighing the negatives. I will definitely attend future Library Camps and this time be more prepared to make the most of making connections with others and enjoy the company of other like-minded people. Perhaps if we use Library Camps to this end and we become a strong, collective force we will then have the power to really change things within our workplace and in the wider profession.

    I live in hope!

  4. Richard Veevers

    Hi Simon,
    Once again, as after LibCampNW and LibCampLS I feel like a hypocrite. After the comments left by attendees about how much the day had meant to them, I felt/feel guilty for taking such a personal pride. The little I had done, bore scant resemblance to the praise heaped on the day. Sue and Carolin sourced the venues for the free events and Twitter found the Signing Tree. The sponsorship money, mostly, found us.
    In other words, thanks for the positives and being frank enough with your concerns to elicit a reaction, without causing offence.
    I’ll call you out on the accusation that the conference isn’t one of ideas. Quite frankly I think it is, *if I were a lesser person I’d insert a sticking out tongue emoticon here* Maybe I don’t go to enough conferences but I thought the sessions on 3D printing or on applying for Arts Council grants were both serious and new. I confess I did tend to migrate from session to session which, with my rose tinted glasses on, may have contributed to my overall impression of the day.
    I certainly recognised the re-enthusing aspects of your post, where through the power of good conversation and cake you can feel…..Human, again. My big question to you now is: Will you be back?

    • Laura

      Richard, you should never feel guilty for taking personal pride. That’s a very odd thing to say. You SHOULD be proud. The day ran smoothly, but you have to be prepared that people will have positive and negative things to say. I’ve organised huge events myself so understand the difficulties as well as the thrills. You are right to take pride in your achievement – the only only things people were upset about were Red Quadrant’s sponsorship and inability to defend themselves or promote valid debate, and the general mood. You also need to remember that people couldn’t attend every session. so will have different experiences.

  5. Sarah Wolfenden


    Wish I’d been there to see Liz! I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt that there seemed to be a lack of ‘so what next’ – I must admit this did annoy me a bit as did some of the attitudes towards students and managers (but this might have been the impact of getting up at 4am and just eating cake). It was lovely to meet everyone again even though there was barely time it seems to really catch up.

    Something to share – I have a sneaking suspicion that my colleague might have won the Red Quadrant raffle!

  6. Richard Veevers

    Apologies, possibly “challenge” was the wrong word. I was attempting to make light of your observation “Allowing sponsorship by Red Quadrant in exchange for their hosting a session was either worrying naive or an embarrassing oversight by the organisers.” To wit, I will produce a retort in my hideously delayed blog (it was originally titled “The day after, the day after”).

  7. Penny

    It’s also worth remembering that not all the organisers agreed with the RQ sponsorship and that we did have internal debates about it and how it might affect LC and attendees. It did not go unchallenged inside and outside the committee before the event.

  8. Sue Lawson

    It is really interesting how people can experience the same event differently! For me it definately was about learning. I discovered and Pirate Pad and found out more about City Camp Coventry I’ve contributed some ideas to @andywalsh999’s non-digital library hack day and was informed of Cilip improvements and website updates. I was even talked into joining CILIP. I learnt about social media surgeries, found my local group and signed up to help at the next one. I discovered public speaking isn’t so scary and pitched a joint session with @Sasha_Taylor, for the first time ever. I also stole all @calire’s ideas and learnt loads about how Plymouth Libraries engage with residents via social media. In the access to archives session I collected a dozen or so new ideas and later read about @L_OS_cymru’s work writh Vufind, directly related to a project at my work. I attended a discussion around who should be running libraries and talked about better ways to engage with customers and non-customers.

    The unconference format relies on the attendees to be active participants and to bring something to the table. It’s a shame you don’t think you’ll attend again as they’re getting more and more popular – even CILIP plan to hold one as part of the Umbrella conference in 2013. If attendees don’t bother to pitch a session, don’t speak and don’t use the law of two feet, then they are missing the point of an unconference. Perhaps next time if we ask attendees to submit potential contributions at the sign up stage we can try ensure more active participation.

    I don’t accept we were naive nor hapless to have accepted RQ’s sponsorship and involvement. I think we were very practical and I’m very grateful to all the sponsors for helping us raise the £2800 the event cost to put on. I don’t think RQ dream of library privatisation – but even if they did – I’d still be happy to engage with them and talk about it. To ban, ignore, or excommunicate seems like a sort of stealthy censorship to me. We also invited Ed Vaizey and Dan Jarvis, but neither could come due to prior commitments. Who’d have thought it?!

    The RQ bashing bandwagon has been debated a lot already on various blogs and Twitter but in case you didn’t know, this is how they got involved in the first place Of course we all know there are too many library redundancies and closures but isn’t that because of a Tory government, lack of strong national leadership for pubic libraries, Google, cheaper books, some crappy libraries, more competition etc. etc.? Sadly I can’t see there ever being a time when public libraries aren’t under threat. That’s why I was looking forward to the session proposed by Ben Taylor on creating a new library advocacy campaign/manifesto. I’ve been reading recently about the the dangers of the deficit model of advocacy, something RD Lankes refers to in the recent Oxford style debate ‘Libraries are Obsolete’ 18no2.pdf. But as you say, the session didn’t live up to the hype and I think that was our fault as we scheduled the session too early. I don’t agree that RQ ‘pushed’ their sessions onto the day – everyone who comes is welcome to pitch a session and other sponsors pitched. next time perhaps we could have a session voting system?

    I also disagree with you on the the raffle prize – I thought it was good! 3 free places worth £147 on a ‘library safari’ workshop The name is a bit naff, but I’d be more than happy to go on the course. There’s obviously tonnes of stuff libraries can learn from retail, museums, galleries and other organisations and cultural groups. I find it very interesting and think others would too – at librarycamp 2011 there were two or three separate ‘learning from retail’ session proposals, leading to one popular merged session facilitated by @Joeyanne, @annelmartin and Ben Taylor (brief notes here

    To me Librarycamps are about making libraries better for the communities that use (and don’t use) them. Plus they open up opportunities for discussion for all levels of library staff and anyone else with an interest. You mention that you would prefer to attend traditional conferences in the future and you’re lucky to have that choice, many public library staff never get the opportunity to attend conferences. For me the most important thing about library camps is that they enable everyone to get involved in discussions about the future of libraries.

  9. Ben Taylor - RedQuadrant

    Hi all

    I wanted to comment here because I think that some comments about RedQuadrant and our involvement in LibraryCamp are inaccurate, and unfortunately not correcting them does seem to allow things to become ‘received wisdom’ which is then quoted as fact in the future.

    First, we weren’t ‘allowed sponsorship in exchange for hosting a session’, we were asked to be sponsors, like last year, and were happy to do so. We sponsor LibraryCamp because we think it, like libraries, is a brilliant thing, in order to encourage good and effective debate and network, and to raise our profile in the library world.

    As with last year, the individuals attending from RedQuadrant proposed sessions we thought would be of interest (just like all other attendees who wanted to) – and in fact they turned out to be quite popular. I wanted one on the topic of what I feel is the sterile terms of the usual library debate, Wendy suggested one on marketing, which is her specialist subject, and Sarah proposed ‘who pays the piper – who’s in charge and who should be of public libraries’, which due to her being unable to attend, I also ran. Later in the day I proposed what I thought would be a fascinating session on 3D printing and ‘making’ in libraries after a conversation with Jen from Birmingham, and though I unfortunately missed it, I hear that was quite good too! So I think it is unfair to suggest that we were ‘push[ing] our sessions onto the day’.

    I didn’t completely realise that Liz Jolly was challenging me (or what about), but I thought her statement on the public values of libraries was very inspiring. And as for my ‘inability to defend myself’, again, it wasn’t really clear that I was being attacked, or why. It does seem that some people have got the idea we are propagandists for the privatisation of libraries, probably because of Alan Wylie’s blog post, which didn’t have any specific accusations so I didn’t comment there (but did engage in discussion on twitter). If only this had come out more explicitly in the session, I could have explained better (as I tried to do) what we do and what we’ve done. As I’ve said elsewhere, we haven’t in fact ever recommended privatising a library service. But ‘what’s the tension between RedQuadrant’s work in public libraries and their public status’ (which I was asked) is quite a ‘when did you last beat your wife’ kind of question – as far as I’m concerned, there’s no tension at all, in fact we help by spreading good practice, opening up new ideas, and helping services to be clearer about what they want to do, and more effective and efficient in doing it.

    Laura, I’m really concerned by your statement that we are “a change management company, notorious for aggression and causing redundancies”. I don’t think that is true, and if you have any evidence of any RedQuadrant person being ‘aggressive’, I’d really appreciate you letting me know so that I can do something about it. I may be wrong, but I think that a number of people commenting are from the university sector, where we haven’t really done any library work yet, so perhaps there are some misconceptions about what has been done in the public library sector?

    As it is, I was left after the event with feelings very similar to those Simon describes, unsure what had really happened or why. Last year I was truly enthused and inspired at LibraryCamp, this year I got some great ideas and had some great conversations but was also more worried about what people are thinking and focusing on. Perhaps that’s the inevitable result of a really tough year in the sector. I share your concern about the current situation that public libraries face, which is why I suggested the debate and why I’m still involved in the sector. I’m not aware though that ‘so many people have… watched helplessly as their library services are outsourced’. A lot of people are talking about it and exploring it, but very, very few public library service have done so thus far, as far as I know. Saying so, and equating outsourcing with closures and job losses, will only contribute to the ‘swamping by fear’ which is understandable but not helping anyone. We need clear-headed debates about what can be done rather than polarising assumptions, and I’m really sorry if my involvement hindered this rather than, as I had hoped, helped.

    Best wishes

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