The Unconference Experience: InfoCamp and THATCamp

Unconferences are quickly becoming an alternative to traditional academic conferences. The model is especially appealing because it actively promotes collaboration and discussion across interests and participants regardless of their position. Participants are engaged at every level, from proposing and running sessions to deciding the scheduling of the day. This fall I had the opportunity to attend two unconferences: InfoCamp (Information Camp), held here at the UW, and THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp): Digital Humanities and Libraries in Denver, Colorado.

InfoCamp is aimed at information professionals: librarians, user experience designers, information architects--anyone who works with or is interested in information on a large scale. Usually held over a weekend in October in Mary Gates Hall, InfoCamp began in Seattle in 2007, but has also developed conferences in Berkeley, California; Portland, Oregon; and Columbia, South Carolina. Many scholars in the humanities are familiar with the THATCamp model of unconference, and while InfoCamp is much the same structure, the sessions are often much more focused on the practical applications of technology to the realm of information science. Heavily promoted among students at the UW iSchool and among the tech-community in Seattle, InfoCamp gives participants the opportunity to hear from others in a wide variety of careers, working on many different projects. In my two years attending InfoCamp I have sat in on sessions which range from creating personas for user experience prototyping to a director of a rural library soliciting tips for the redesign of his building. Sessions from this past year include "You Say Tomato, I Say Aardvark: Taxonomy/Folksonomy Smackdown," "Confessions of a Marketing Consultant," and “Identifying Flaws in Navigation Structure.” It is also not uncommon to hear from start-ups and larger local businesses that they will be at InfoCamp and are interested in connecting with UW students for fieldwork opportunities and possible capstone projects.

While InfoCamp is focused more on professional career paths, scholars in the humanities have had their own success with unconferences: THATCamps. Developed by graduate students at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, the THATCamp franchise is quickly becoming a cornerstone of the digital humanities field. THATCamp has also made its way to the UW: the Simpson Center has co-sponsored two THATCamp Pacific Northwest (PNW) unconferences, the first in October 2010 on the Seattle campus and the other in November 2011 at UW Bothell’s Center for Serious Play.

One of the first pieces of advice I was ever given from a digital humanities scholar was “get thee to a THATCamp.” Scheduled as a pre-conference to the annual Digital Library Federation Forum, THATCamp: Digital Humanities and Libraries brought together librarians and digital humanists from across the country for a day of conversations about the relationships between digital humanities projects, scholars, and academic librarians. In the spirit of the unconference style, my proposed session on training in the digital humanities for graduate students was combined with another session on the same topic introduced by a staff member from the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Digital Humanities. In addition to my own session, I also attended “Collaborating with Faculty on Digital Humanities Projects,” “Scholar Librarians: Original Research from the Library,” and “Starting Up a Skunkworks in the Library” (“Skunkworks” are typically small, independent units of a research and development office, which often work on experimental design). At the end of the day, though tired, I found myself mentally energized by the ideas and avenues for collaboration that I had experienced during the conference.

During both InfoCamp and THATCamp participants actively engage each other not only when they are in the same physical space, but also through Twitter. I may not have been able to go to every session I wanted, but because of the hashtags set up by each unconference, I was able to read everyone’s notes about other sessions. These Tweets, and the collaborative Google Docs that usually appear after a session, are often archived on the conference websites, too. So even now I consult those archives for reference and inspiration.

Both InfoCamp and THATCamp are excellent experiences for professionals, scholars, and especially graduate students. With little overhead and a more relaxed atmosphere than traditional academic conferences, unconferences can easily be tacked on as a precursor to a larger event (as THATCamp: Digital Humanities and Libraries was an extension of the Digital Library Federation Forum), but they can also be incredibly effective as a singular event.

Written by Dana Bublitz, the Web Tech & Communications Graduate Staff Assistant at the Simpson Center. Dana is currently a first year Masters of Library and Information Science student at the UW iSchool, with interests in digital humanities and academic libraries.