ACRL Preconference Unconference Report Back

Members of Radical Reference (i.e. Lia and me) organized a free unconference to precede the Association of College and Research Libraries biennial conference. About a dozen attendees met for four and a half hours and discussed critical pedagogy, what it means to be a radical librarian, and workplace issues and also conducted a 45-minute work session where we cleared the Radical Reference site of its unanswered questions.

We polled the room to see what people's experience was with unconferences/library camps (I was the only one who had been to one before), their expectations for the unconference, what if anything they didn't want to happen at the unconference or were afraid would happen, and how long everyone had been working as librarians (About 75% were in school or had less than 2 years MLS experience, and one attendee had more years as a librarian than the rest of us combined.).

If I recall correctly most people wanted essentially to connect with other like-minded folks. Recalling LibraryCampNYC, my goal was for us to have that kind of experience, where there were no stars, where everyone felt empowered to contribute, where the discussions would surprise me. My fear was that the group wouldn't end up owning the unconference, either that it just wouldn't gel, or that Lia and/or I wouldn't be able to get out of the way and let it happen. Most people didn't have much to offer in terms of "don't wants" or fears. They expressed an openness to the experience, whatever transpired. I still think it was a good idea to give people a chance to voice concerns, even if they didn't turn out to have them.

The scheduling part went fairly smoothly. We generated/collapsed the proposed topics into six areas. We had time for four and so sort of folded the two lowest vote getters into the rest of the topics, saying that the issue of management/power/youth could be a subtheme in all of the topics and would be addressed as needed. We identified one facilitator and one note taker for each session.

Note to self and others who like to organize uncons/camps, the intros and scheduling always take longer than you think. This session took nearly an hour and a half.

Please be aware that the following notes are based on the things that struck me as we were talking, not always based on what was said, but sometimes merely thoughts I had. They are not all encompassing. Each session had a designated note taker, so please follow the links to the "official" version of what happened. My notes are in bullet form, without much explanation, I'm afraid, because I have to finish this damned post and get to bed so I can be fresh for the next (un)Conference on my ACRL schedule.

Critical Pedagogy

  • We get insufficient training for teaching in library school.
  • Most of our teaching practice is a skills based model, most or all of session librarian talking, expert talking down
  • The challenge is to find more of a peer education/participation model, more research focused instruction
  • Working definition of critical pedagogy: education for social transformation, empowering learning
  • Prepping vs. not prepping searches for a BI--since you can't cover everything anyway, why not leave it to the group interaction what you hit?
  • Tom Eland's instruction model (for a required 2 credit course at a community college/vocational school) Information Liberation chapter), Captivate to demo skills--outside session. Btw, MCTC sounds like heaven, work environment wise.
  • At Pratt Institute (art school): students are instructed to draw the way they feel about information. E.g. How do you hear about a new band? How do you decide which something to choose?
  • Another participant asks students "What would you do if you wanted to unclog a sink? Find out what time a movie was playing?"
  • It's okay to let go of the "where the periodicals" are stuff to make room for critical thinking. That's the kind of stuff they'll ask about, because they'll have to.
  • We'd love to have a "best practices" immersion in critical pedagogy somewhere, some day.

Radical Reference/librarianship overview
I didn't take notes. Fortunately Megan did.

Radical Reference work session
As much as I enjoyed the conversations, I kind of think this was the most empowering aspect of the event. We broke into small groups and attacked the five unanswered questions on the Radical Reference website. People had to register with the site or revive long neglected user accounts, do research, upload answers, change the status on questions to answers, and notify patrons of their responses. It seems that members of Radical Reference, both new and old are often hesitant to dive in, whether due to shyness, lack of comfort with the technology, lack of impetus, or whatever. This exercise showed people that they could do it, and I hope gave them a greater sense of ownership over the project.

Workplace issues

  • Union vs. non-union, administrators blaming the union, especially paraprofessional staff.
  • When unmotivated workers try to use the union as an excuse to slack, administrators must keep in mind that it's the individual who is problematic, not the union.
  • Students view themselves as consumers
  • Why isn't Radical Reference more popular? This event in particular, not that we minded, but if someone else had organized it (e.g. the ALA Unconference developed by Meredith Farkas and Michelle Boule—nothing against them; they're awesome), would it have been better attended? Is the word "radical" off-putting? Or even the social justice theme?
  • Getting ideas kiboshed, bureaucracy killing them
  • Inverted thought on the better salaries issue--getting paid well brings its own problems, people motivated by money, rather than zeal
  • How to lead (as a supervisor, obligated to lead, in a somewhat indifferent environment)
  • Freedom Manifesto (Hodgkinson)

I left feeling energized and very pleased to have connected to both new and veteran members of the community. We also set up a Seattle local collective page, btw.

To my amusement, I discovered when we left that the Capitol Hill branch of the Seattle Public Library where we had the unconference, is located at the corner of Harvard and Republican.

Stay tuned for photos.


#1 Aliqae

Thanks, Jenna, for posting notes for those of us who couldn't be there!

#2 romel

I'm so bummed I missed the critical pedagogy session! That's what I'm all into. Thanks for posting because it's such a critical aspect of my teaching practice and great to hear other RR are too.


#3 caitlin quinn

Indeed, sad to have missed the conversations and exchanges. Thank you for your part in keeping the rest of us feeling connected!