Guest blogger: Taking the THATCamp spirit to Austin?

Many people on Twitter were recently following along with the activities at the latest THATCamp, and are excited about the prospect of participating in something similar in Austin in conjunction with SAA. I asked Lisa Grimm, Assistant Archivist at the Drexel University College of Medicine, to serve as a guest blogger to explain what THATCamp is all about and why more archivists might want to attend:

Last week I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend THATCamp 2009 – the second-annual unconference for digital humanities practitioners. (I leave the term for the attendees deliberately vaguely defined, for they included a very useful cross-section of people – other archivists, librarians, historians, literature scholars and programmers). It was an incredibly thorough, thought-provoking yet streamlined experience and it offers some useful models I hope we can begin to emulate at SAA this year in Austin.

For those who have never attended an unconference, a brief description of the logistics is in order. In the case of THATCamp, prospective campers applied early in the year (attendance was capped at 100) and after acceptance, we were each given a WordPress account for the unconference blog so that we could suggest session ideas and exchange information before arriving. Short bios of each camper were included, and many (if not most) of us began to follow one another on Twitter during the planning stages (but more on that aspect later). At the start of Day One (in addition to a lovely free breakfast), a sheet with possible sessions was provided and everyone added their name to those they would like to attend. The scheduling gods (the stalwart staff of the Center for History and New Media) then put together a program and almost immediately posted it online – by the time everyone had gathered for a welcome/logistics talk, everything was prepared. (It is worth adding the scheduling piece seemed to have been completed in something approaching 15 minutes). As with a conventional conference, there were the usual conflicts of interesting sessions running concurrently (I was leading a session on crowdsourcing, and thus had to miss out on a digital storytelling session that sounded fantastic) – but Twitter was a great tool for catching up on what happened in other sessions.

It’s hard to overstate how useful Twitter was for a conference of this nature – in addition to its ability to help connect attendees prior to the conference (I used it to find rides, dinner suggestions and travel tips), once things were underway, it was not just a back-channel – it was a key component driving the conference. The big screens that greeted us for the first session (pictured) displayed all recent messages employing the #thatcamp hashtag, and there was a good-natured rush to have one’s words on display. (While it probably goes without saying, it’s probably worth adding that just about everyone had a laptop or netbook with them at every session – it would be difficult to imagine a conference now that wasn’t wireless). Once sessions were underway Twitter was of great utility for sharing links within those sessions as well as for providing a glimpse into what was happening in others. Discussions provoked in the larger group settings continued both verbally and online – if someone missed an opportunity to raise a good point in person, they could easily do so on Twitter and thus continue the discussion with the group.

Other digital tools were used (and, occasionally, created) while THATCamp was underway – all the Twitter activity was being archived, photos were uploaded to flickr, wikis were set up and beta version of web sites created. It was particularly heartening to see the enthusiasm with which people set up some of these tools and sites on the fly – there were no apologies for their very beta nature, but rather a prevailing proactive spirit.

That spirit has continued post-THATCamp, with a suggestion for regional THATCamps being acted upon in a number of cities. For the archival community, there will likely be an opportunity to attend a mini-THATCamp in Austin during SAA. If you are interested, please go vote on what times might work for you – and you need not be registered for SAA to get involved. All local digital humanities folks (or those who happen to be in the area) are welcome to contribute to the discussion.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I took away from THATCamp (beyond the notion that there are a lot of very cool, smart people out there doing very cool, smart projects) was that a conference does not need to be quite as monolithic as those usually on offer at SAA. Without doubt, the much smaller size of THATCamp gives it an agility it would be hard to duplicate on the SAA scale, but the current process for SAA session proposals and speaking opportunities seems particularly anachronistic – if proposals are due nearly a year before the conference, especially for any technology-related sessions, that’s something on the order of six killer apps come and gone. In the short term, it would be useful if a few ‘free’ sessions were built into the SAA conference schedule to allow for more impromptu discussions and presentations – why not make them a genuine part of the agenda, rather than relegating some of the more innovative ideas and experiments to an unofficial barroom chat? (And as much as I like a good barroom chat, it’s not necessarily the best forum for getting wider recognition of new directions).

In the longer term, I would like to see the archival profession taking the initiative to set up more unconference-like settings – many of us realize that there are issues and ideas that never make it to a forum like SAA’s annual conference, but the profession as a whole could still benefit from them. If an environment that could nurture and promote those ideas doesn’t exist in any official form yet, what’s stopping us from creating our own?

A weird place like Austin might be just the right spot to kick that off…

Thanks, Lisa!

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6 thoughts on “Guest blogger: Taking the THATCamp spirit to Austin?”

  1. Great post, Lisa! Regionals could also look at this as a model. Their scale would be a better fit. And I like the idea that SAA could set aside sessions (or even a day) for a free thatcamp experience. Thanks Kate for finding and promoting this gem.

  2. I went to a regional library camp/unconference that was very well attended. The state library commission hosted it and the agenda was set in the morning with a few popular “sessions” repeated in the afternoon- but with different participants. Web 2.0 was a big topic people wanted to discuss and the familiarity with it by the librarians in attendance was all over the board. Because so many people brought laptops it was easy to show people examples of things they had done which really pleased those who were looking to start projects.

    I’d certainly like to see it offered for archivists.

  3. I also attended THATCamp and agree completely with Lisa’s excellent post. Though not a twitterer, I really saw first-hand the value of using social networking to enhance the unconference experience. I agree with “t” that professional associations need to be more creative and experimental with formats and get away from the often deadly yet standard three-papers-and-a-comment format that dominates many academic conferences. From having been on the SAA program committee in the past, I know that it is difficult to build this type of thing into the formal program, but this strikes me as an excellent model for regional associations — perhaps the Saturday morning sessions at MARAC for example? I also will be interested to see whether THATCamp successfully builds a community that extends beyond the actual unconference. Several of the sessions that I attended — those that involve incorporating technology into graduate education and archiving social networking sites for example — seemed to stimulate conversations and projects that could generate longer term activities. I guess I wonder whether the “unconference” structure will allow this to happen and whether interested communities will continue work beyond THATCamp itself. All in all, a terrific experience and CHNM once again shows why it is the leader in history and humanities computing.

  4. I love the idea of taking THATCamp to Austin. I hadn’t heard of it until the unconference started and many of the people who I follow on twitter started using the THATCamp hashtag. Just like following any conference’s hashtags from afar, you can learn a lot from the participants who update frequently and become part of the conversation without attending the conference. This leads me to think that since the economy is down, and maybe not as many people as usual will be able to attend SAA, would it be possible to open up the potential THATCamp sessions to folks who will be staying behind to staff the repositories? It seems like opening up a live blog, wiki, or videocasting (or all three) the sessions would be simple enough. I obviously wish I could make it to Austin this year, but can’t. Since I can’t make it I would love to be able to be part of the conversation, and I’m sure others would, too.

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