Formats for continuing education
Librarian Communication in Flux

BibCamp 2011
BibCamp 2011 | Photo (detail): © Thomas Hapke

By 2010 at the latest, librarians had developed a huge appetite for new formats: both in the area of continuing education and, more generally, for professional events. There is an increasingly urgent need nowadays for librarians to get together in informal settings to generate ideas – irrespective of their seniority levels or the libraries to which they belong. On the Web, blogs are beginning to give wings to professional discourse.

The BibCamp “librarians’ unconference” was staged for the first time in 2008. The term “unconference” says it all: there are no audiences at the BibCamps, only participants. What is more, the programme is not fixed in advance – instead, a colourful mix of library practitioners come from all over Germany (and increasingly from other countries too) to discuss and exchange views on subjects that are currently important to them.

At the start of the BibCamp anyone can suggest a topic for discussions – if a handful of people can be found who are interested in the topic, the proposal leads to a session. Just like at traditional conferences, many large and smaller sessions generally take place in parallel. The results are documented either during or after the sessions in blogs, on Twitter or in the form of a joint Wiki.

From well-kept secret to widely acknowledged form of continuing education

While the first BibCamp that took place in Berlin and Potsdam in 2008 was still something of a well-kept secret, the third German-language BibCamp 2010 in Hanover received so many applications that the organizers had to reject all but 150 prospective participants: the venue simply could not accommodate any more people. In a bid to ensure they remain open to participants still undergoing training, the BibCamps are often held at universities of applied science. Thanks also to sponsoring and, above all, the hard work of volunteers at the local level, this allows conference fees to be avoided. Most people who attend a BibCamp are impressed and keen to take part again.

The audience had changed noticeably again at the fourth BibCamp 2011 in Hamburg: no longer was the event dominated by young, technophile librarians almost exclusively from academic libraries. Most of the participants were able, with the blessing of their library directors, to attend the event during work time – their participation was acknowledged as being continuing education.

New formats for knowledge generation

Those behind the BibCamps have been taken by surprise by the way the events have developed. The intentionally relaxed, informal event format was never meant to compete with the established range of continuing education offered by professional associations, universities and library federations. By 2010 at the latest, however, librarians had developed a huge appetite for new formats: both in the area of continuing education and, more generally, for professional events.

In 2011, for example, the Virtual Specialist Libraries (Vifa) staged a VifaCamp, while the first “information science BarCamp” FreiTag 2011 was successfully launched at the Humboldt University in Berlin and parts of the Informare mutated in 2011 to become Informare!Camp, to name but three striking recent developments. These days hardly a single conference of librarians takes place at which computer games and eBook readers are not presented at busy exhibition stands or where there isn’t a rapid succession of short lectures with enthusiastic discussion sessions which are subsequently posted on YouTube. In this context, the organization Zukunftswerkstatt e.V. (i.e. Future Workshop) – the initiator and operator of these exhibition stands – merits particular mention.

The official librarian conference programme is now doing its best to catch up: from the successful Inetbib Conference 2010 at the ETH Zurich it has adopted the concept of “lightning talks” where speakers are urged to spend just five minutes focusing on aspects of real importance. Sufficient scope is provided for joint discussions after each of these lectures – in some cases the debates acquire a dynamism that is reminiscent of the conducive learning atmosphere of a BibCamp session.

Bringing disorder into professional learning

What is the reason for this appetite? Probably the most important educational aspect the highly enthusiastic BibCamp participants experience is the anarchy of the learning process itself. Many are surprised to find that learning can function without predefined contents and roles, that one’s own curiosity can be a sufficient driving force, and that an exchange amongst motivated practitioners can serve as its basis. Communities of practice – in which librarians get together in informal settings to generate ideas, irrespective of their seniority levels or the libraries to which they belong – have for many years hardly been pursued at all within the business and communication cultures of libraries, despite the fact that they are urgently needed.

The half-life of knowledge acquired during vocational education and at university has become dramatically reduced. At the same time, a generation of young professionals is now entering the information sector for whom informal learning – both with and about new technologies – is the rule. Added to this open attitude to technology, and at least as important, is an absolute taking for granted of the communality of learning.

Blogs open up space

It is noticeable that many enthusiastic BibCamp participants are themselves authors of their own blogs which have the power to give wings to written professional discourse by liberating it from traditional print era dependencies such as editorial and business policies, subscription fees and the like. Blogs open up space for rapidly communicated observations and direct feedback from the community, for the development of individual strong opinions, and – last but not least – for practical experiences and experiments with Web media which in many respects have become indispensable for information professionals.