Saturday, August 30, 2014

Recapping the 2014 Midwest Youth Services Unconference

On August 20, youth services staff in Missouri and the surrounding areas convened for the 2014 Midwest Youth Services Unconference, the first of its kind in the region. I shared a bit of info about the unconference model in my post announcing this endeavor, so check that out if you'd like a brief synopsis of the unconference idea. Today, I want to recap the actual event.

First, though, let me share why I wanted to put all the time and work into offering an unconference. I firmly believe that every person who does youth services work in any capacity has expertise that they can share with their colleagues. We all have LOTS that we can learn from one another. So often, I've seen youth services practitioners who don't get to go to conferences or lead trainings feeling like their work isn't particular important, or that they don't have anything useful that they can share. I find that viewpoint incredibly sad, not only because I categorically disagree but because our current landscape of professional development can contribute to those feelings of "just": "I'm just a storytime leader" or "I'm just part time" or "I'm just doing something similar to what I read on a blog." Don't sell yourself short; there are no "justs" about this work. If you do it in any capacity, you have experience and knowledge to share that can benefit the entire profession. And, from what I've seen, unconferences empower all staff--at every level--to recognize their expertise and start sharing it confidently. That's powerful.

Let's talk the 2014 Midwest Youth Services Unconference!

We had 61 library workers who attended the event in total; that number included library school students, part-time reference assistants, librarians, a few branch managers, and a handful of folks in other positions. There was a range of experience and subject area expertise present at the unconference, the ideal combination (if you ask me) to promote quality sharing and peer learning.

The unconference day included plenty of breaks, a.k.a. opportunities for networking and further informal learning. These breaks provided buffers between sessions: time to explore the beautiful Spencer Road Branch Library in which the unconference took place, and moments to collect thoughts and make new friends. For the full schedule breakdown, check out this link.

Attendees voted for session topics from
this list of suggestions, compiled via the
shared idea document all registrants
Attendees voted on 10 session topics to take place over the course of 4 time slots; that meant that full-day attendees were able to sit in on 4 different sessions of their choosing. Each session had a volunteer facilitator, who kept conversation moving, as well as a recorder who captured all of the learning shared in each session. For a more detailed description of these roles, including a few strategies for facilitating, check out this doc.

Because all session learning was captured, I am pleased to say that anyone--ANYONE!--can access the session notes for these most excellent topics:
You can find more captured learning by checking out the Storify of the unconference hashtag, #stchlibuncon. Also, please note that these were the session topics offered because these were the topics that attendees indicated they most wanted to participate in, first via a shared document to suggest session topics and then through voting on the morning of the unconference. Every unconference will offer different sessions, because every unconference will have a different pool of attendees. The idea is that sessions will be relevant to attendees because they choose what topics are most important to their work.

This is what unconference sessions look like.

We capped off the day with door prizes and sharing a link to the attendee survey, which is currently indicating that the majority of participants found the unconference peer-learning style beneficial. Many folks are stating that they left the unconference that ideas they could put to use in their work the very next day. And, much to my happiness, a significant number of attendees have indicated on their surveys that this was the first conference-style professional development they've ever attended. Considering that broad range of impact, the planning that goes into an unconference is well worth it.

Let me share a few logistical pieces:

Why, yes, the unconference rooms were
named after places in youth literature.

  • We chose the date and location of the unconference about 9 months in advance. That allowed us to book all necessary meeting rooms at the host library.
  • I built a website for the unconference, which was populated with basic info as well as FAQs once folks starting asking questions.
  • We started promoting the unconference 3 months out, then at one-month intervals until the day of. Most folks indicated that they found out about the unconference through listservs, so make those babies work for you!
  • We firmed up lunch options about 3 weeks before the event. We offered 3 options: BYO, self-led off-site, or catered lunch (which attendees selected and paid for at the check-in table on the morning of the event).
  • We tried to facilitate carpooling for registrants who were interested, but not many were. Unless the unconference would be taking place in a relatively remote location, I'd probably skip this option next time around.
  • I organized registration through a Google form I created. I checked the form's responses every few days and then emailed new registrants to confirm that they were signed up and to share some basic info.
  • Everyone who registered for the event got access to a shared document where folks could indicate the sessions they were interested in attending as well as if they'd be comfortable facilitating sessions on any topics.
  • On the day of the event, I didn't actually attend sessions; instead, I handled all of the operations and bounced from room to room as time allowed. My day included the following: a) finalizing room setup and room signs about an hour before the event; b) checking folks in (with the help of excellent colleagues who handed out name tags, collected door prize slips, and took lunch orders); c) answering directional questions; d) serving as MC; e) facilitating voting on session topics and setting the day's schedule (with help from Green Bean Teen Queen); f) reminding facilitators and recorders of their duties; g) uploading session notes to the unconference website after each session; h) getting catered lunches organized after they were delivered on site (with assistance from colleagues who kept us in tea, coffee, soda, and snacks all day); and i) pulling names for door prizes. It was a busy day, but I met so many wonderful people.

And now for the part where I say "Thanks!"

Thanks to (L to R) Angie, Erin, and Melanie, my
wonderful (now former) colleagues, who were integral
in getting the unconference to function on the day!
A BIG thank you to everyone who helped the 2014 Midwest Youth Services Unconference come to fruition. In particular, I want to give shout outs to the following folks:
  • Angie, Erin, and Melanie, my wonderful coworkers from the Corporate Parkway Branch Library, for making sure everything ran smoothly and that I didn't go bananas from overstimulation on the day of the unconference.
  • Maggie, Jan, Marla, Matt, and Beth in Children's Resources & Marketing at St. Charles City-County Library District for helping will all manner of logistical arrangements (and the all-important snacks).
  • Maggie Melson and Karen Guccione-Englert at St. Charles City-County Library District for being sounding boards as well as offering encouragement (and on-site storage) throughout the whole unconference process.
  • Sarah Bean Thompson and her cohort from Springfield-Greene County Library District for volunteering throughout, even when I didn't realize I needed volunteer help.
  • Anne Clark for sharing insider info about how she and her co-hosts ran the MI KidLib unconference. If you're interested in seeing the basics of how they ran their unconference, check out Anne's post at so tomorrow
The 2014 Midwest Youth Services Unconference wouldn't have worked nearly so well without you.

And if you've got questions for me, please ask away! You can contact me at amy.e.koester(at)

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