Problem StatementLike all large public library systems, Brooklyn Public Library is challenged with maintaining strong communication with staff in many departments and locations across the city. In 2007 BPL hired a large number of new staff, full of enthusiasm and new ideas. Library management wanted to establish a strong relationship with these new employees, hear their ideas, and help them adapt to the urban public library environment.
A team of librarians proposed a different kind of staff training: an unconference. In May of 2008 they hosted the BPL ThinkTank, BPL’s first unconference-style event, to give staff the opportunity to explore ideas and concerns freely in an open and informal environment. The value of an unconference is in the collective knowledge of the attendees rather than a presentation by a guest speaker. Every person who attends shares their ideas and experience. Unconferences have been held by all kinds of organizations on all kinds of topics, usually focusing on technology issues. BPL ThinkTank invited newly hired BPL librarians to share ideas and concerns about librarianship and our organization, and we encouraged them to help each other find solutions to the challenges they face.
Seventy-five librarians attended the event. In the weeks prior, attendees suggested discussion topics on a wiki. The list of topics was finalized by the attendees on the day of the event and assigned to a schedule for the day. Participants chose three discussion groups to attend and at a wrap-up session at the end of the day they reported on what they learned and what questions and issues were raised. Their notes were posted on the event wiki to serve as a record of what was discussed and also so that attendees could continue their discussions online.
We received overwhelmingly positive responses from participants. One commented that the unconference was “a fun, relaxed atmosphere [that] truly fosters creativity” and another said “it was fabulous - beginning to end - professional, fun, thought-provoking and useful.” Many said they picked up practical ideas that could be implemented immediately in their work.
A staff unconference was also a cost-effective way to receive staff input and identify issues and concerns. Library management hosted three follow-up sessions with participants and invited senior managers in various departments to answer questions and discuss policies and solutions. This provided an opportunity for learning and sharing of ideas among BPL staff on a system-wide level and resolved some of the disconnect that exists in such a large system.
Unconference principles now complement staff development and cross-training. BPL integrates unconference concepts into regular staff trainings, offering breakout discussion groups and idea-sharing. These opportunities improve communication among staff and between staff and management, keeping staff engaged and boosting staff morale.