Digital scholarship blog

02 April 2014

Unconferencing; or a digital scholarship training experiment

The British Library's Digital Scholarship Training programme aims to provide library colleagues with the skills and knowledge to best exploit the digital transformations taking place around us, both in and outside the research community.

To close the third semester of this programme we in Digital Research decided to embark on something of an experiment: to transform our one-day 'What is Digital Scholarship?' course (one of the sixteen one-day courses we offer) into a staff-only unconference on Digital Scholarship and Working Innovatively with Digital Collections.

For those out of the unconference loop, an 'Unconference' brings together delegates under a particular theme but the schedule for the day is entirely created by the attendees. Anyone can propose a session beforehand or on the morning of the event. The day begins with all who have proposed sessions having an opportunity to briefly pitch their ideas. A vote is then cast (at our event three votes each cast as ticks/crosses/marks placed next to a session name on a flip-chart, so relatively anonymous!) and those with the highest votes form the final schedule for the day (as we couldn't guarantee that there would be room for every proposed session, we asked colleagues not to over prepare!) Pitchers then act as facilitators for their sessions. Not all participants are required to propose a session - most, in fact, come along for the ride!

2014-03-28 13.04.38

As digital scholarship and innovation is happening across the British Library, we wanted to give colleagues the opportunity to share their interests and skills with others. We suggested that sessions could be on anything related to digital scholarship and innovation with digital cultural heritage collections in the broadest sense, and to avoid the event amounting to little more than a series of talks we asked colleagues to fit their proposal into one of more of the following categories:

  • Talk ...such as, a presentation on a digital project.
  • Make  ...such as, a session where attendees collaboratively build or work on something like tagging or geo-referencing a collection.
  • Teach ...such as, a session where you show a group of people how to do something, such as how to update Wikipedia articles.
  • Play ...such as, a discussion aimed at generating fresh, creative ideas for innovating with our digital collections or services.

We then put together a skeleton schedule (Pitching and Voting session 10-11.15 - First sessions 11.30-12.30 - Break 12.30-13.30 - Second sessions 13.30-14.30 - Third sessions 14.45-15.45 - Wrap-up, discussion & reflection 16.00-16.30) and put out a call for contributions via various internal channels.

On the day, every proposed session passed a threshold of interest and we hosted ten sessions across three rooms. These ranged from a discussion of open licensing, an introduction to editing Wikipedia, a talk about Chinese social media (who knew our one million Flickr images are blocked by the Great Firewall of China?), and a workshop on creative reuses of Europeana content, to an update on our web archiving and associated access activities, an informal survey on how we might engage with local history communities, and a lively session around what access to our digital content should and could look like in an ideal world.

  2014-03-28 14.07.07

As should now be clear, having no schedule did not equate to little organisation, to anarchy. Rather, a carefully constructed framework needed to be built around the day to ensure everything ran smoothly. And as it turned out, the event was as creative, provocative, and fun as we had hoped, as well as being enormously productive. In particular, what emerged was clear feedback regarding how the Digital Research team can develop our future training provision in line with staff needs, including not only a sense that colleagues valued a varied and creative programme but also around how best to introduce colleagues to digital scholarship. As so the unconference will return, but likely as an external event embedded within our otherwise staff-only programme. A few eager twitterers have expressed an interest in this already, but if you'd like to collaborate with us on an unconference around 'Digital Scholarship and Working Innovatively with Digital Collections' (working title) sometime later in 2014 then get in touch via email ( or Twitter (@j_w_baker or @ndalyrose). We'd love to hear from you.

James Baker

Curator, Digital Research



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