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…